I’ve lost count of how many interviews I’ve done over my lifetime – I started doing the stats on the back of that metaphorical envelope, and it was well into the thousands before I decided it was ‘a lot’ – a career predominantly in HR will do that.
Overall those interviews, I’ve met some amazing people. Some I’ve recruited. Some weren’t right for the role or organisation I was in, but I remained super impressed by their achievements, careers and lives to that date.
What distinguished the best from the rest? – Achievements, attitudes, values, appetite for challenge, potential, interesting experiences, success in more than one country or continent, cross-functional experience across two or more fields, an ability to lead or build a great team, great results, ….a whole host of things, each unique to the set of interviews, the person in front of you and the context we shared. At no point ever did ‘career gap’ prove to a differentiating factor, except where the career gap made the person all the more interesting to be talking to.
So, why do we take career gaps and what do they add to us?
Travel is the usually the first one. It comes from an insatiable curiosity to see the world, to have new experiences, to meet new and interesting people. We learn difference, and how to talk to people who aren’t exactly like us. We learn that our world is not the only one on this planet.
The second big one many of us share is children. Time away from the full-on career to hold a new baby, hear their first words, mash their first apple, and maybe even catch their first steps. Care for them as best as we possibly can, as they make their way to toddlerhood. It gives us a dimension of selflessness – As parents, they matter a million times more than we do. We learn to roll with someone else’s needs – There’s no setting a ‘timed agenda’ for a six-month-old. We learn the generosity it takes to make ‘family’ work, whatever shape that family might be.
Thirdly, only a few of us share. It’s about caring full time for a special child. One that needs more full-time attention. It means that at least one or both members of a partnership have to down the career tools, (or at least ease back a little) and learn to be gazillion percent more patient and giving than we ever thought humanly possible.
Fourthly, and again, it’s a little rarer, we take a career gap to care for a partner or parent or sibling or friend who needs us. Right now. No planning. And we learn to care and ‘be there’ without needing to ‘be’ somewhere else. Again, it’s a new level of generosity and love we find deep inside us.
Then, we might travel again. Fed up with the grind of a job or career that has become either unfulfilling or just plain ‘unfun’, or a boss that has made work miserable, we choose adventure. We take our savings and climb mountains, raft rivers, photograph sharks, or drink coffee in a Bolivian café. We learn awareness and mindfulness, not from a ‘session’ or a book, but from being out in the middle of an ocean sailing trip and just having the personal bandwidth to think and ‘be’.
We might get hit by circumstances. A downturn in a company, that we’d all fought valiantly to save from its own demise and failed. We take our ‘cheque’ and start again. Or we take our cheque and go and work in a not-for-profit in Thailand and make a difference to five hundred children in an orphanage we helped build, either by laying bricks or by riding our bike on a sponsored long distance ride. We learn that we’re not the centre of the universe and that our great privilege should be shared. That our great dramas are really just pimples on life’s highway.
We might come up with an idea that we can’t see anywhere else. We quit the traditional career to do a ‘start-up’ and we learn energy, and entrepreneurship, and selling good ideas. We might learn ‘humility with success’ or even ‘resilience when faced with failure’. Both are tough but great lessons.
We might decide we need to learn more and quit one career to train in a new one that better aligns with who we’ve become as life marched on since University or school. We’re different people than we were at eighteen and have something very different to offer. We learn to grow.
We might get ill, and need to fight our way to healthy, with all our attention focused on wellbeing just to make it to older. We learn a perspective about life and health that is unteachable.
We might fall in love, and for the first time ever, discover love is really really important and that whatever size the bank account, it can’t be bought. We know that emotion and that irrationality next time we see it in a person on our team. We’ll know to let them go on sabbatical, and explore, knowing they’ll settle again, and hopefully, it will back with the boss who understood their lives.
All of these breaks in careers, are actually just life momentarily taking precedence over career. They all add something really cool to who we are, what we know, and what we can do.
Twenty years ago, I sat in a lecture with Tom Peters in Melbourne. He talked about the sadness of a tombstone that says ‘I Made Budget’. We all laughed. He made fun of the oddest of HR people who see their mission in life as applying their superior investigative skills to track down ‘the career break’ in an otherwise perfect resume. He joked that their tombstone would say ‘I Found Career Breaks’. We all laughed again.
Now, I know from all those interviews that a career break is really valuable.
I dread the perfect resume or the perception of the perfect life. The linear career – step 1, step 2, step 3, step 4…… I wonder what will happen when step 5 goes badly, or doesn’t appear on schedule, or a when someone else on our team needs a little extra understanding, or when some highly talented person on their team needs to fulfil a travel bug for six months, or when someone gets ill, or when they need to dig deep and find resilience when things are tough. Frankly, these ‘career break free’ resumes make me a little nervous (are they real?) and a little sad (have they really lived yet?)
And I also know from experience, that interviews are most interesting when we can also talk about the ‘career breaks’ – What did you do, what did you learn, what did you experience that we could all learn from, how is your baby going now, how was it to spend time with your sister when she really needed it, how do start-ups work, what difference will it make to you as a leader of other people. A million questions that create connection, relevance and trust from that very first interview.
When people say “How do I cover a career break? I say “Why on earth would you do that! It makes you human and being human is never a bad thing.
Rhonda has spent her career on the people stuff, working with some of the biggest and best companies all around the world, but she has always thought – “we could do this better. We could make work (and leadership) better for all of us – more inclusive, more real, and more ‘human’.
She fundamentally believes that inclusion, good leadership and treating each other as equals, is not only foundational for good people practices in organisations but equally of more equitable and prosperous economies and communities. In short, if we include as many people as possible in work, then we start to build the sort of community and society we all want to live in.
Rhonda is also co-founder of mwah, a Community, a Toolkit, a Think Tank, and a Boutique Consultancy, all aimed at Making Work Absolutely Human. A knowledge base and a community of all the real stuff you need to lead and work with people, today and in the future.