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Time out: Debra Sandler left her company to raise her child. Like many female professionals, she discovered that returning to the job market is hard work.

AT 37, DEBRA SANDLER HAD GROWN to believe that she had her career under control. After all, she was a 13-year corporate veteran who had earned several promotions. As vice president of marketing for PepsiCo Inc.'s Tricon Restaurants International's (now YUM! Brands) Caribbean and Latin America division, she oversaw a huge staff, controlled a multimillion-dollar budget, and spent 80% of her time traveling. "I used to joke that I lived on American Airlines in seat No. 2J," she recalls.

Then, in 1997, two events happened that would forever alter her professional and personal life.

News broke that her division would be spun off into a separate company. At the same time, Sandler learned she was pregnant, putting an end to the executive's busy travel schedule. "I had to ask myself, 'Well, what do you really want to do?'" she recalls. "I [had planned everything] in my career, but these two things weren't [considered]."

The self-professed workaholic decided to take a break from the corporate grind and focus on her family. But it wasn't an easy decision. "I was saying goodbye to a company that I loved, that I had grown up in," she recalls. For the first time in her adult life, Sandier, who had meticulously plotted her career, could not immediately figure out her next step.

Sandler is not alone: Each year, legions of female executives grapple with the decision of whether to put their careers on hold for reasons ranging from health concerns and family obligations to job dissatisfaction. But before you make that choice, you have to be clear on why you've decided to take a break and then develop a plan for keeping your career on track.

WHAT IT MEANS TO STEP OUT

A June 2005 study, Back In The Game, Returning to Business After a Hiatus: Experiences and Recommendations for Women, Employers, and Universities by Monica McGrath, Marla Driscoll, and Mary Gross, reviewed this phenomenon. Sponsored by the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, the study surveyed both women and men to get an in-depth look at how female professionals with advanced degrees and high-ranking positions handle "stepping out" or "off-ramping"--an executive's decision to voluntarily leave the workforce for a period of time and for a specific reason. Some survey respondents chose to step out to "care for children and enhance the quality of their lives." Others left because they were either unfulfilled in their jobs or didn't find them worth sacrificing their personal lives. "They concluded: 'If I can't add value the way I thought I could at work, I clearly could add value at home,'" explains McGrath, the lead author of the study and an adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business.

Stepping out, however, can provide many women with a purpose-driven break. Sandler's hiatus allowed her to focus on her daughter as well as enjoy downtime activities such as spa visits and playing tennis. The break gave her the chance, she says, to "stop and think about what was really important." The Wharton study revealed that a number of respondents also used their time to reflect on the direction of their career. Survey results and follow-up interviews revealed a key finding: Generally, women who stepped out held happy and optimistic attitudes at the time of their departures. However, a majority of respondents found the workforce re-entry process to be frustrating, especially when interacting with recruiters and potential employers. Says McGrath, "A lot of the women in this study told us that recruiters would ask them all kinds of questions that really had them perplexed. Because they had taken this break, they were assumed to have not only lost their ambition but lost competence in some way."

REJOINING THE CORPORATE FOLD

After her 18-month hiatus, Sandler thought about returning to corporate America. She didn't want to be removed from the working world for more than two to two-and-a-half years and, figuring it would take a few months to find a job, she began her search early, "just to see what would be out there."

To her surprise, she experienced much of the same scrutiny as respondents to the Wharton study. She recalls: "I sort of thought, 'Gosh, I [haven't] been out that long and already people are asking, 'Well can you do this, can you do that?' It's in my resume. Yes, I can do these things. And so initially I was discouraged from what I was finding in the reception from recruiters and headhunters."

Hiring professionals interviewed for the survey said their assumptions were based on a belief that women who were serious about their careers would not have left their jobs in the first place. There is no data to support that analysis, suggests McGrath. "There is more data out there that shows that once [women] are back they are more engaged than before." Those poised for career re-entry return to work when aptly motivated and eager to reestablish their professional commitments. The study suggests that employers who invest in workforce returnees reap huge benefits such as stronger corporate allegiance and a lower employee turnover rate.

With guidance from a career coach, Sandler used a number of self-assessment tools to explore her career and personal interests. "My feeling was if I was going to go back to work, it had to be something that added value to me and my life or why bother," she explains. Sandler wanted to work only for companies "known for excellence," such as her previous employer, PepsiCo. Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical, health, and beauty aids giant, was among the first on her list to show interest. After a five-month search, she joined the company as vice president of worldwide marketing for the J&J unit McNeil Specialty Products Co. in May 1999. Today, as worldwide president for McNeil Nutritionals L.L.C., Sandler is back in gear, credited with overseeing the marketing and launch of America's No. I artificial sweetener, Splenda.

The 46-year-old executive has no regrets. The time spent reprioritizing her life and nurturing her 9-year-old daughter, Kiah, was a life-enhancing experience. "In some respects," she says, "I would tell you it was a difficult decision, and in other respects I would tell you it was scary how easy it was." BE

37% of highly qualified women voluntarily leave their careers for a period of time.

SOURCE: HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW AND THE CENTER FOR WORK-LIFE POLICY

74% of these women succeed in rejoining the workforce; only 40% return to full-time jobs.

SOURCE: HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW AND THE CENTER FOR WORK-LIFE POLICY.

64% of the 1,500 surveyed said they would rather "seek better work/life balances" than aspire to the executive ranks.

SOURCE: THELADDERS.COM'S 2006 EXECUTIVE CAREER GOALS SURVEY

How to Leave [And Re-Enter] Corporate America

"You have to plan your exit and reentry," says executive Debra Sandier. "Then you can enjoy that space in between." Sandier learned that any number of circumstances can force a woman to re-evaluate her professional standing, a move that may result in her leaving a job. But the manner in which the departure is handled will affect future opportunities. "What [often] happens is [employees] simply quit and then it's kind of like you shut the door behind you," says Monica McGrath of the Wharton School of Business, "and then it's harder to start over again." She stresses that planning an exit/return strategy should be part of your career discussion.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE

Talk with your employer. PepsiCo. was supportive of Sandler's departure. "They did [try] to find other positions for me but as I balanced family priorities and locations and opportunities, we just couldn't find something that was good for both of us," she says. Candid conversations with your employer are crucial before finalizing hard decisions. McGrath recalls a female executive who negotiated a contract that allowed her to work on projects for nine consecutive years, enabling her to raise four children. "By the time she was ready to come back, her employer offered her a full-time position and later sent her to graduate school."

Develop a financial plan. "I took a look at my resources and said, 'OK, how long can I stay without working? When would it be a good time to get back to work?'" Sandier recalls. Although she stayed out for 18 months, the exec was financially prepared for two years of unemployment.

DURING YOUR LEAVE

Stay current Sandier maintains that staying abreast of industry trends is a must. "It was amazing, even in the short period that I was out, how quickly things can change," she says. Being out of a position does not mean you have to be out of the loop. McGrath suggests attending conferences and seeking training and education as well as keeping in touch with leagues. Says McGrath, "[Now] you are also building skills for when you're ready to come back."

Keep in touch Let industry contacts, colleagues, sponsors, supporters, and friends know that you're taking a time-out. Staying in touch, says Sandier--no matter how informal-keeps your network active, an approach that helped her learn about the job opening at Johnson & Johnson. "I sent them all an e-mail saying, 'Hey, I'm starting to look again, can you help me?'"

Use your time wisely. It is easy to get involved in the issues or events that caused you to leave, but do make time for continued professional development. "It's so easy to think that when you go back [to work] the world will care about all the fundraising and volunteer work [you've done]," McGrath warns. "And they [do] care, but not that much."

AFTER THE BREAK

Be able to talk about it. You must have a strategy for how you will talk about your hiatus with potential employers. Why did you leave? How have you grown professionally? How can that growth be leveraged in this work environment? Overall, the stepping out process should be beneficial in that you gained a different, more valuable perspective on your profession.
COPYRIGHT 2007 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:WOMEN OF POWER (PART 2 OF A SERIES)
Author:Robinson, Tennille M.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:1663
Previous Article:Staying in the game: a number of challenges can derail a woman's career. The best strategists know how to manage them all.
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