Back to work with confidence

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In her previous career, Beth Noymer Levine worked in a high-powered, high-pressure job as an executive vice-president in charge of corporate communications at a large US bank. She oversaw staff dispersed across nine US states and travelled frequently.

When she had her first child in 1992, she left it all behind. “I don’t regret the decision, but I was never comfortable with it,” says the Bostonian, adding that she “always tried to keep her hand in” in the corporate world.

Two years ago, Ms Noymer Levine, now the mother of three children, aged 15, 12, and seven, decided she was ready to work again. She founded a company – SmartMouth Communications, based in Salt Lake City, Utah – that focused on media training for high-level executives.

“I wanted to create my own work-life balance; I needed a solution that fit my life,” she says. But it wasn’t easy to get back in the saddle. “As I was starting out, I felt a little out of the loop. I didn’t know the new buzzwords or the latest trends.”

Determined to do something about it, she enrolled in Back in Business, an executive education programme run by the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. The 11-day programme, which was held at Dartmouth’s campus in Hanover, New Hampshire, and in New York City, was a mini-MBA, intended to refresh the management skills of those who have taken time out of their careers and are hoping to re-enter the professional market.

“I wanted to update my skills, but also to open my eyes, ears and mind as to how I should go about growing my business,” she says. “One of the other things I was looking for was camaraderie: I wanted to connect with like-minded, smart women.”

For Ms Noymer Levine, the programme was an unqualified success. “The bottom line for me is that, even a year ago, I would have told you that my best, most exciting career years were behind me, but now, without question, I know that my best years are ahead of me,” she says.

She is not the only participant who felt that way. Indeed, Back in Business had such a strong response that Tuck is offering it again this autumn.

Tuck’s programme and others like it are at the forefront of a wider work-life trend sweeping the corporate sector. Companies are seeking creative ways to hold on to their senior managers and prevent the growing brain drain sparked by the retirement of the baby boomers, while professionals who have put careers on hold for family reasons are increasingly looking for ways to get back in the game.

The programme is both an academic refresher that covers business basics such as finance, marketing, information technology and supply-chain management and a primer on career-rebuilding skills to help ease the re-entry process.

Constance Helfat, one of the executive directors of the programme, says the participants were introduced to new concepts and ideas that have sprung up in the business world since they left.

“They were surprised at some of the things that have changed,” she says. “For instance, they didn’t know that strategy now has quantitative aspects and that people use spreadsheets to analyse them. They hadn’t heard of concepts like ‘value creation’ – which means what people are willing to pay for a product and its cost. It’s a term you wouldn’t necessarily get from reading the business press, but has a specific economic meaning.”

The programme also aims to help participants learn how to approach recruiters and network with potential employers and clients. It includes units on résumé writing and job interviewing. One of the most valuable lessons it teaches participants is how to redirect their career paths and talk confidently about their experiences, according to Anant Sundaram, faculty director at Tuck Executive Education.

“We help them think about what they’ve done outside the formal workforce, aside from raising children,” says Prof Sundaram. “Things like working with volunteer groups, church governance committees, PTOs [parent-teacher organisations] – these are important ways they’ve exercised their leadership skills.”

But perhaps the most important thing participants take away is increased confidence, says Prof Helfat. “It was extremely helpful for them to be with other highly motivated, highly educated people who are in a similar situation. The tenor of the programme is showing them that they can do this.”

Ms Noymer Levine says the confidence she gained was her “least expected but most powerful takeaway”. “We were all a bunch of ‘type A’ overachievers with killer résumés; none of us lacked confidence going in,” she says. “But [this programme] was very empowering and stripped away any of the insecurities and fears we might have had. It gave us the tools to present ourselves confidently.”

Most of the participants in Tuck’s programme left the workforce to raise children, while others stopped working for different reasons, such as a family emergency or the opportunity to start a new business venture. Among the 41 participants, 35 were women. The average age of participants was 46, and they mainly hailed from Boston, Washington, DC, and the New York City area. About half had finance backgrounds; about 70 per cent were MBAs and the rest had MBA-equivalent experience.

Many who went through the programme are settling into new careers. About half have returned to the workforce at Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Others have changed career paths or started their own businesses.

While the majority of participants are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about what they got from the programme, Prof Sundaram says he is somewhat disappointed that more of them are not where they want to be in their careers a year later.

“The true success of this programme has to be measured by how many people feel, after a reasonable amount of time after the programme, they are at the place in their careers that they want to be. That number is about 55 per cent,” according to a recent survey by the school.

Prof Sundaram had hoped the figure would be closer to 70 per cent. The lesson is that for people re-entering the workforce and for companies eager to bring back those who’ve left, it is “an arduous process, with many hurdles”. “We discovered that changing the corporate conversation takes time,” he says.

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