Category Archives: Career

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.

Back to the 50s: the “Best Decade”?

Two decades ago, when I was 36, I took over a major-market newspaper column called “Women in Business” at the then-thriving Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

The women part interested me. The maneuverings and machinations of business? Less so, which is why I gravitated toward interviews about how women in the 1990s were navigating the careers they thought they wanted with the maternal and domestic roles they were raised to have.

These women, I wrote then, were a “breakthrough generation.”

My favorite article, then and now (when I’m living it rather than researching it), was called “The Best Decade: Women in their Fifties.” It was published in December 1994, six weeks before I gave birth to my second baby.

Women from ages 49 to 58 told me of the freedom their mothers’ generation had bequeathed them. None mentioned contraception or the women’s movement directly, but they knew they owed a debt to the birth control pill, to the trailblazing careerists who were the “first” in their professions (lawyers, physicians, stockbrokers, business executives) and to the Mad Men-era mothers who raised these women with the bittersweet admonition to “do more” than they themselves had done.

An editor eventually helped me evolve the “Women in Business” column to “On Balance: Issues That Affect Work and Home.” That allowed men to join the conversation, too. As I launch an updated version of that column — with a new title, in a different medium and from the path, farther on, of 20 more years of experience — I want to review the wisdom those women in their “best decade” shared with my younger self.

Help me measure what holds true today:

  • “Women of my age or younger have a sense of possibility that is really greater than our mothers had,” said a woman of 57, an entrepreneur who returned to college to earn a master’s in theology.
  • “Midlife is a period of reflection. That is not a new concept, and it’s true for men and women,” said a business executive, 51. “What may be different for women, and women in business, is that the issues they’re looking at aren’t necessarily what midlife women traditionally were looking at.”

  • “The public perception is that this is a negative time of life,” said the founder of what was then called the MidLife Women’s Network in Minneapolis. “But a whole group of women is saying, ‘I don’t buy that.'”

Women told me they wanted to develop the creativity and space for contemplation that, by necessity, they’d set aside to pursue careers:

“The midlife issue is how to get more time for oneself,” said one executive. “We want to cook on Sundays. We want to have a conversation with a friend. We want to read a book. We want to take long walks. We want to be not so much career people.”

Integration was a common word among these women — the generation that had worn a uniform of blue suits, had resisted any urge to personalize their offices with pictures of family and children, had taken up golf in order to meet men on their own turf.

“I used to wear two hats,” said a Target executive. “One was my professional self,” she explained, drawing a small box in the air. “The other was the personal side: more fun, more relaxed. It was a protection, I think. It was how I fit in a man’s world. Now, who you see is what you get.”

Many women acknowledged the price they’d paid for their fast-paced careers — a topic that my blog, “The Middle Stages,” will continue to explore. “Whenever you make choices,” one explained, “it is at the exclusion of something else.”

Middle age is the chance to fill that void, to take the risks that seemed impossible at a younger age. As I look back on my earlier article about women enjoying “The Best Decade” of their 50s, I am struck by their ease and comfort with themselves. They refused to become “invisible,” to be sidelined by society. Having operated in a masculine world, they were learning to embrace the feminine virtues and pastimes they’d once shunned as old-fashioned or irrelevant.

“If I think about who I am — the athlete, the broker, the person who likes to knit or cook — all parts are equally valuable. They all deserve attention,” said an investment broker about to turn 50. “Looking back when I’m 100 years old, the only thing I’m going to have regrets about are the things I didn’t do.”

Lesson learned: A “sense of  possibility” is essential at middle age. Embrace aging, don’t mourn it. And see how much more expansive life can become.