All too often, women I work with are blind to their strengths. As women, we are prone to comparing ourselves to other people. This can be especially dangerous for women who have taken a career break. They look at friends and family who have stayed in the workforce and worry about how they compare. While they may have full confidence in themselves as a mother, a caregiver and the one who keeps the wheels on the bus (or minivan) going, they lack confidence in their ability to translate their experience back into a professional environment.
Even women who have done incredible things outside the home feel inadequate. I remember talking to a woman who had left her full time career when her husband was offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in China. What was supposed to be a five-year commitment turned into 15 years, and then her children were grown and she was facing a move back to the U.S. On the one hand she was incredibly excited about this new chapter and ready to re-invent herself as a professional woman. On the other hand, she was terrified and unsure of how to make it happen. Even though she had done a myriad of things that demonstrated a transferable skillset – living in a foreign country (adaptability and cultural competence), starting her own photography business (initiative, creativity, business acumen), and overseeing huge events for her children’s international school (event management, project management, time management, budget management, volunteer management) – she was convinced she was a professional dinosaur with an extinct set of professional capabilities.
To help her regain her confidence we started with a simple exercise. I encouraged her to reach out to ten close friends or fellow volunteers and ask them the following question: what would you consider my key strengths to be? I will never forget the message I got from her a few days later. The responses she got had brought her to tears. Her friends had showered her with praise and their feedback helped her to see herself in a new light. It was a turning point. From there, we were able to review the responses, synthesize the feedback and start to craft a value proposition that she could embrace and believe in.
In addition to the exercise above, I also encourage women returning to work to identify and engage with women who are working in the areas they’d like to explore re-entering. Talking with people who are doing the things you want to do will help you envision what professional life will look. Seeing women doing amazing things in your field will remind you can get there too. It will also help you articulate the skills you already have and those you may need to improve. Once you understand what you need to be successful, you can evaluate opportunities and then invest in additional training. Perhaps you’re feeling a bit rusty in Excel and won’t feel confident applying for an analyst position until you’ve taken the time to re-learn pivot tables. Or you find that the idea of networking and giving your elevator pitch to an employer is terrifying. Then joining Toast Master’s might be a good investment of your time so you feel more confident articulating your value. Whatever it is, define your goals, commit to them and track your progress. Celebrate your accomplishments as you go, and slowly but surely your confidence will improve.