Stepping away from your career at one point or another to focus on family is fairly common. According to Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book Lean In, 43 percent of professional women take a break at some point to raise their kids. So, what do you do and where do you turn for advice when you want to get back to work?

For help, Harvard Business School Online consulted its own career expert, Harvard Business School Senior Fellow and Faculty Advisor to Career and Professional Development Tim Butler. Author of Getting Unstuck: How Dead Ends Become New Paths, Butler led two programs at HBS specifically designed to help women return to work. Here, he provides practical tips to help reboot your career after a sustained absence.


Tackle the Vision First

The most common mistake people make when considering reentering the workforce, according to Butler, is skipping ahead to the tactics. Before you get into the details, create a resume, and apply for a specific job, Butler cautions, you should take four steps back and first work on your vision.

“Don’t build your house on sand,” Butler says. “Before you even begin to think about specific industries, companies, and jobs, there is a much more fundamental question: What are the qualities or characteristics of the work that you want to be doing at this particular time in your life?”

In his book and through his work with students, Butler leads a series of writing exercises to identify an individual’s essential criteria, or key ingredients, you want in your next role. Through the exercises, job seekers write and refine seven to 12 simple sentences about what’s essential for their work and life.

Examples of career criteria include hours, length of commute, whether or not you want to manage people, and opportunities for career advancement. Butler says it’s unlikely any job will meet all your criteria, but mapping them out can lead you to a role that will work for your life as it is today. 

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Remember What You Have to Offer

Loss of confidence is one of the biggest hurdles for women returning to work after an extended absence. According to Butler, even women who take less than two years away from their career often exhibit an exaggerated loss of confidence. Before putting yourself out there, make sure you’re feeling positive about who you are and what you bring to a job. One thing that can help is identifying your signature skills.

“Equally important, if not more than the technical skills required for a job, are your signature skills that may make you the best person for the job,” Butler says. “Ask yourself what have you always been known to do very well and make those signature skills the centerpiece in marketing yourself for your next job.”

You may be a person who gets along well with others and can work with just about anybody. Or perhaps you keep your cool even when others around you, and the situation itself, is heating up. Take time to articulate, for yourself and your interviewers, what your signature skills are and particular examples of how they have made you effective in your previous business experience.

Related: How to Land Your Dream Job in 9 Steps

Do Not Journey Alone

Any job search and, in particular, a search to reenter the workforce, cannot be done alone. Moral support is essential for what can be a long and emotional journey. Butler advises creating a committee of experienced professionals who can serve as your board of advisors. Meet with them regularly, either individually or as a group, to help you brainstorm and define your vision, or develop your wish list of possible employers. They can be your cheering squad along the way, help you prepare for interviews, and possibly even serve as references.

As you get into the tactics of your search, move beyond your inner circle and mobilize your larger network. A survey by the Adler Group reports that 85 percent of jobs are now secured through networking. For those re-entering the workforce, your network is even more crucial.

As you pursue specific jobs, identify people you know who can put you in touch with key contacts at your wish list companies. Request to meet for coffee, tell them what you’re looking for, and ask for their ideas and introductions. According to Butler, most jobs now come from second- and third-tier connections, so those introductions are likely your key to a new job.

Related: To Have a Friend Is to Be a Friend: 3 Steps for Networking


For those returning to work after a break, the search can be daunting. By approaching your reboot with these tips in mind, you’ll be back to work in no time, in the right role for the second chapter of your career.

Are you interested in learning more about how to accelerate your career? Explore our other articles on career development to start preparing for your next move. 

Michele Reynolds

About the Author

Michele Reynolds handles brand marketing and PR for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to HBS Online, she led communications for TripAdvisor and Gazelle and has been widely quoted in national media outlets, including CBS News, Reuters, and The New York Times. Michele earned her bachelor’s degree from St. Bonaventure University. Outside work, she spends time with her teenage daughter, plays tennis, and visits her enormous extended family.