Sharon M. Cirillo
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As a single working mother, I have experienced the ups and downs of juggling a career and a family. Although I took a “learn as I go” approach, there were things I wish I had prepared for before I went back to work after being home for several years. Going back into the workforce requires some preparation ahead of time to make your transition as smooth and productive as possible, especially when it comes to these six things no one tells you about returning to the workforce.

1. Job descriptions don't always accurately portray the level to which you need to know specific programs. 

I learned this the hard way when I took a job that required "basic” Excel skills, only to find what was considered "basic" to someone else was entirely different than my definition. Before going back to work, get trained in as much technology, especially MS Office applications and social media, as you can. Times have changed, technology is moving at the speed of sound and you must stay relevant for the duration of your career. Courses are available online via YouTube, Lynda.com and local colleges. 

2. Networking is important to finding your footing. 

The years between jobs offered the perfect time to build up my network via online sites and networking groups, except for one small problem: I didn't realize the importance of networking. Your network is critical to your success and time should be set aside daily to work on establishing it. Spending 20 minutes a day on LinkedIn in a meaningful, intentional way can start to broaden your reach and create a safety net of people who support you. There are also local groups that meet early in the day, so you can network before tackling your other duties. You better believe that if someone commits to being there before work, they are serious about connecting. You should be too.

3. You need a network of emergency caretakers. 

Another area I gave too little thought was support at home for my kids. Children may not apply to everyone, but if you have anyone relying on you, read on. There were sick days, snow days, delayed openings, half days, missed busses, coordination of practices and even the unforeseeable flat tire or an accident that I wasn't prepared for. 

You should have two or three (preferably stay-at-home, local individuals) that you can connect with and rely on. Make sure that you always give more than you take. I invited them for dinner or lunch on weekends, offered to drive double duty on Saturday nights (giving them a night off), took the late-night pick-ups more often and sent flowers, gift cards or baked cookies. Finding a way to contribute meaningfully into the lives of some local parents before you head back to work ensures whoever relies on you at home has coverage in the event of an emergency or delay.

It also lets your boss and coworkers know that you respect your hours and responsibilities enough to make proper plans for these unexpected occurrences. Not everyone understands or appreciates the spontaneous use of PTO, and it can be a real career-killer if you continuously use it.

4. You set the tone. 

Learning the right way to negotiate and understand your worth sets the tone for the entire interview process and beyond. Even a $5,000 increase in your negotiated annual salary can compound and translate to meaningful savings over time, which is why the company making the offer doesn’t want to give it to you!

Career coaches can also help with updating your resume and mock interview sessions. There are free resources available online that can help you lead with your best foot forward. You may even benefit from updating your style or refreshing some wardrobe items.  A coach can help to address all of these areas quickly while bolstering your confidence. You are worth the investment. 

5. It's never too late to contribute to savings. 

If your new employer is offering a match, not contributing to your 401(k) plan is like throwing away free money. Pay yourself first and you will find ways to do without other, less important things. It's a discipline I wish I had instituted much earlier in the game.

6. Mentors and sponsors are out there. 

Like networking, I never understood the importance of mentors or sponsors until it was almost too late. Mentorship is a valuable, enriching relationship that organically develops over time. Keeping your eyes open for a person who is where you want to be in the future and who naturally takes an interest in you is essential. Offering to help and assist them in any way you can is what will create a bond between you. Always make sure that you contribute meaningfully, are mindful of your mentor’s time and demonstrate the desire to pay mentorship forward to someone else.

A sponsor differs somewhat in that it’s less of a development role and more of an “I’m in your corner and have your back” relationship. He or she will throw your name in the hat when promotions open up inside your company, or make strategic introductions to key people within your organization. They notice your hard work, demonstrated excellence and go out of their way to push you along your career path.

If you find yourself in a job where there is zero opportunity to find a mentor or sponsor, I encourage you to think about this vital part of career development. In my experience, without this type of internal support, it is not an easy climb up the rungs of your current companies’ ladder. 

Preparing to transition back to work can seem like an overwhelming time, but it doesn’t have to be. Put the resources and mindset you need to thrive in place well before you sign an offer letter. Your career will thank you!

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