Flexibility, Focus Ease Strain of Midlife Career Shifts

Sarah Berger, 47, insists she wasn’t afraid when she got downsized from her director-level job in early September — even though she is single and solely responsible for her mortgage and other household expenses. Even though it’s her second career transition in four years.

Even though — as is often said of women on the other side of 40 — she isn’t getting any younger.

“It doesn’t pay to panic,” Berger explains. And here’s where age and experience served her: “I was feeling confident about what I’d achieved. I felt I had something to offer.

“As soon as I got laid off, literally driving home, I already was putting together my list of people to call,” she says.

Berger began with the women in her book club. “These are professional, well-connected women who believe in lifting up others. So I knew that if I called on them, they would use their network to help me.”

A fund-raising professional, she landed an even better position in mid-October — six weeks to the day after her layoff.

“The networking for me was key,” says Berger, the new director of resource development and communications at Neighborhood House, a nonprofit with a 117-year tradition of serving immigrants, refugees and low-income populations in the Twin Cities.

LinkedIn cartoon

Purposeful connections

This so-called “hidden job market” — in which a matrix of personal and professional connections opens doors — accounts for up to 80 percent of new hires, according to Forbes magazine.

That’s why Cathy McLane, 52, began rebuilding her network a year ago when she decided to ease herself out of a role as marketing and communications director at a prestigious private school in suburban Minneapolis. McLane had been there 14 years and recognizes now that she “had clearly stayed too long.”

She was out of practice in the discipline of connecting with professional peers — and out of step with the digital ways networking is now conducted. “I didn’t realize how deep I’d gotten in my little rut, my happy rut,” she says.

McLane activated her social media presence, which now includes 379 connections on LinkedIn and 578 followers on Twitter, with a handle — @CathyConnects — that describes where she wants her career to grow.

And, because no Tweet beats a face-to-face meeting, she started calling on people in similar roles at health care organizations and in higher education (including me, during my years at St. Catherine University). “People warned me that the level of job I want will come through knowing someone who knows the hiring manager,” McLane explains.

She was businesslike, professional and prepared in her informational interviews. And, without fail, she observed three practices:

  • Ask your business contact who else you should meet.
  • Write a timely and specific “thank you” note.
  • Purposefully stay in touch. “Part of networking should be giving back,” McLane says. “You want to add value. So if I find a good article or blog or website, I send that out.”

‘The age thing’

Six months after leaving her job, McLane has yet to land an equivalent career position. She’s got a long-term contract doing project management and internal communications for Cargill, which she hopes will become the “seed client” of the business she is launching: Cathy Connects LLC.

The glass ceiling she hit during her job search is less about gender than age. “People don’t always want 20 years of experience,” McLane says, because it calls up all sorts of speculations and suspicions:

  • Will you demand a higher salary?
  • Will you be digitally savvy?
  • Can you keep pace with the speed of change in today’s workforce?
  • Will you stay in a position for which you’re clearly “over-qualified”?

Consultant Sue Plaster, a former communications and HR executive who herself was laid off at age 50, says the economy and “the age thing” hit middle-aged men and women equally hard, though women likely pay a higher price for looking older. “The self-confidence aspects of the job search are really challenging,” she says.

And so, three pieces of advice for people in a midlife career transition — from three women who have been there:

  • Plaster: “Invest in a professional headshot for LinkedIn that portrays you in a favorable way — not a glamour shot but no selfies either.”
  • McLane: “Take space, not time,” she says, quoting Karen Himle, the recently named vice president of corporate communications at Thrivent Financial. Rather than mindlessly filling up your calendar, “slow down and take space to reorient: What’s important? What makes you happy?”
  • Berger: “I did not say no to a coffee date, ever. My goal was to make one contact a day. Those professional networks are really important.”

Lesson learned: “I have yet to meet one person who’s transitioned who hasn’t landed in a good place. It’s how you approach life, your attitude,” concludes Cathy McLane.

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