What is your current career situation?

I’m currently at the University of Chicago, and I’m a senior advisor to the provost of the University of Chicago. He brought me in about a year and a half ago to work with him on people, talent, organizational structure, and change. I’ve been a private consultant to him, but he’s also made me available to the deans for all of the different schools. It’s been very interesting because every school has a completely different culture. My youngest one has gone to college, and I am now ready to launch my next act.
My career has been about helping organizations move through change. I’ve usually had a role like chief administrative officer, where HR and administrative functions and purchasing, etc. report to me. I’ve both cleaned up those departments and also have been part of the strategic leadership team looking at the entire organization figuring out how to improve it.

What was your experience with taking a break from work to have kids and then re-entering the workforce?

I very purposely waited a long time to have kids. My husband was getting tenure at the University of Chicago, and I also really wanted to build up my career credibility. I knew I wanted to have kids at some point, but I also was very focused on my career. Once I moved to Chicago, I had three really big jobs that were great professional experiences but also really built my network and built a lot of credibility for me. By the time I had my first son, I was 36, and so I had a very established reputation. Then I stopped working for a while and people were shocked because they thought I was going to get back after 6 weeks.
For me, my life progression hasn’t just been about my career progression, it’s been more about my personal development progression, so from a personal development standpoint, it was actually more of a challenge not to go back to work. I stopped working and about a year later, I started doing part-time consulting, and I was able to do that because I had so many professional relationships already established. You can never tell somebody when to have kids. It’s such a personal decision, but I think it does make it easier if you have an established reputation, especially if you don’t want to go back to work full-time. If you want to take some time off or work part-time, I think it’s much easier if you have these credits in the bank and a professional reputation.
That’s my number one piece of advice to women: if you can build up your professional credibility first, then you have more flexibility. If people know your work, they will craft things for you; they know that you’re valuable and that your 10, 20, or 30 hours is much more valuable than someone else’s 50. Also, if you don’t already have that reputation, if you want to create flexibility, you can’t walk into a company or an organization and just say, I want to work 20 hours a week. You can’t do that. But if you go in and work full-time first and establish your credibility, then you can name your ticket afterward. It is all about establishing your credibility first.
I also think that if it’s possible to build up your reputation and have your children in the same city, it’s much easier. I knew a ton of women who had big careers then they moved to a new city and they didn’t have a network, and they were really lost. Now if they’ve been at some sort of national company you can still sort of maintain that network, but I think it’s much, much harder.

Other than just consistently doing great work, what are the ways that women can build up their reputation and credibility?

You have to be successful. You have to be very clearly successful with very demonstrated results. With all the jobs I’d had pre-kids, there were very clear concrete results of what I and my team had done. With the case of the Chicago Park District, there were four business school cases written about what we did. It was pretty public what we had done and our success, so it was both concrete results but I also worked with a lot of people who knew me. If people work with you and think you’re good then you have a reputation too.
I also think outside of just the immediate jobs that you do, tending to your network as a living breathing organism is something that you have to do. I have always tended to my network, even when I was working, before I had my kids. And, after I had children, I continued to have lunch with my professional friends and connections. Because your time is valuable, however, you need to be selective about who you stay in touch with. Young grad students will say, “Well how do you build a network, and do you keep in touch with everybody?” No, you don’t keep in touch with everybody. You figure out who you think is a really interesting person, who you think is worth keeping in touch with; you just use your own judgement about it.
After I had kids, whether I was working full-time, part-time, or not at all, I still tended that same network. I might have been home in my sweatpants, but when I had lunch with people I still dressed professionally and I put my suit on. I think people still thought I was working even when I wasn’t because I very intentionally [tended to my network]. If you keep tending your network and you keep reminding people who you are, even if you’re not working, you’re still staying fresh out there.

In addition to continuing to nurture your network and trying to build your credibility and reputation before…

…and try not to move cities.

…Are there any other recommendations you have of women facing the prospect of coming back to work and making that easier for them?

I think it’s all predicated on, you’re good and people know it. If you’re good and people know it and you have credibility, I think you can name your ticket a lot more than women think they can. I have one friend who was at a big bank and she said, “I really don’t want to be here anymore but can I take the leap?” And I said, “You can take the leap, you can do it. You are so established, so well regarded, you absolutely can leave there and put together a portfolio of things and you will be fine.” And she just needed someone to tell her that. Well, she’s now an adjunct business school professor, she’s now on boards, she now has this very fun portfolio of things, and she just needed the confidence even though she was a very senior accomplished woman. I think sometimes women stay in more rigid corporate or law first jobs where the companies don’t give you flexibility because women afraid to take the leap, but I think if you’re skilled you can and you should package it the way you want to package it.

So, advocating for yourself more.

Yes, and really boldly. Confidently.

I think people still experience a difficulty with companies taking a chance on women who have taken breaks, so what can companies do to make that easier or make themselves more accessible to women after a break from the workforce?

That’s going to be up to the culture of that company, and I know because I’m actually talking to a lot of companies now, and if a more conservative company or less imaginative company is less willing to do that (set women who stay home for a while up for success), then you don’t want to go there. I think these things are all related and the company that is going to say, “Wow, that’s super cool that you were an investment banker (or lawyer or this or that) and you have these concrete results, and then you just spent 10 years with your kids. We think that’s great.” That’s the company you want to work for.
But you also have to go in and present yourself in a powerful attractive way that doesn’t apologize. I always say to people, I spent lots of time on and off with my kids because I didn’t outsource the most important thing to me. Part of what I do in an organization is set priorities and determine what are the most important things to focus on. Well, I knew what that was in my life.

And it’s all about what options are available to you.

Yes, it is. You want to set yourself up in the right way. Then when you go back out it might take longer, but when people look for their jobs they should look for culture fit anyway.

What do you think about companies moving toward the trend of remote working or flexible work hours + how that affects women who are returning to work?

Well, I think that’s great because companies should measure your output. Number of hours does not equal output, some people are highly productive. I’m a highly productive person. I will crank out more in 10 hours than most people will crank out in 30. I do think it’s important though, I think it’s great to have the flexibility. Companies too have to find that right balance where people are still in the office doing some face-to-face because relationships are really face-to-face. I think you can do the remote stuff when you have built up a foundation together.

Going back to work after a break can feel daunting, but if there’s anything Carol advocates, it’s leaning on your track record and your support system. If you’re still feeling the uncertainty, we’d love to chat about the best path for your re-entry. Fill out our contact form below and someone will be in touch!

Nora Philbin

Nora is a co-founder of Happy Spectacular, which she still can't really believe, and she's on a lifelong quest for the world's best cheeseburger (applicants accepted).