‘The Career You Never Planned For’ May Lead to Your Dream Job — Here’s How

Lisen Stromberg, COO of 3% Movement and author of "Work Pause Thrive"

Lisen Stromberg, COO of 3% Movement and author of "Work Pause Thrive." Photo courtesy of Lisen Stromberg

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April 15, 2024 at 8:18PM UTC

Like many women, Lisen Stromberg did all that she could to prepare herself for success in the workforce. She went to college, got an MBA, forged strong connections and pursued a career in marketing

“I checked all the boxes,” Stromberg explained during a webinar hosted by Fairygodboss Co-founder and President Romy Newman. “But after the birth of my first child, I went back into the work world and honestly was astonished to find myself not on the same trajectory as I had been on,” she said.

Her boss at the time had a stay-at-home spouse. “He kept asking me, ‘Don’t you want to be home with your son?’” Stromberg recalled. Despite challenges and biases, she resolved to continue chasing the career path she’d set out on. It wasn’t until she was on bedrest while pregnant with her second child that she was forced to pause her career and reflect on what was going on both at work and at home. 

Post-maternity leave, Stromberg approached her boss in the hopes of agreeing on a new kind of schedule that would help her better manage her family and work priorities. “Their response was, ‘Be all in, or be gone,’” she said. So she quit her job — with no safety net — and made it her mission to find out how women were navigating their growing careers alongside growing families. 

Ultimately, Stromberg — who’s now Partner and COO of the 3% Movement, which works to change the ratio of women in leadership in advertising — interviewed nearly 200 women and published “Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career.” The book reveals how how trailblazing women have disrupted the traditional career paradigm to achieve their personal and professional goals and how forward-thinking companies are capitalizing on their talents.

Here are some of her key takeaways for career-minded women who are starting — or thinking about starting — families, and for mindful employers who want to offer their employees more support. 

1. Pausing your career is not career suicide. 

When Stromberg began studying women’s career paths, she surveyed 1,500 women and found that while only 11 percent of respondents thought they would pause their career after having kids, 72 percent either completely left or shifted to some kind of part-time work, at least temporarily.  

Newman recalled that when she had her first kid, “I think I spent about a year thinking to myself, ‘If I step off the treadmill, I will never be able to get back on. If I don’t work my butt off through these really hard years, I won’t ever have the career I wanted to have.’ If there’s one message I want to tell our audience, it’s ‘Yes, it’s OK.’ Almost every woman is doing this in some form.”

2. There’s not one right way to approach pausing your career. 

In her book, Stromberg refers to a few different models of successful career pausing, based on the experiences of women she interviewed:

  • The Cruiser, referring to women who stayed at the same company but scaled back temporarily, and then re-engaged full time when the time was right

  • The Boomeranger, referring to women who completely left the workforce and then managed to get back into their careers after a break

  • The Pivoter, referring to women who completely left the workforce and then ended up changing careers when they re-entered the workforce

3. “You may not get the career your planned for, but you might get the career you never planned for.”

As Stromberg put it, careers are not predictable — but getting thrown off your anticipated track can often be a blessing in disguise. For Newman, that’s certainly the case; had she not paused her corporate career in digital ad sales after having kids, she’d likely never have co-founded Fairygodboss — which has turned out to be her dream company.

4. Millennials are changing what the traditional workplace narrative looks like – and this means companies need to support both men and women as they become parents. 

In decades past, traditional gender roles and paths largely dictated what workplace dynamics looked like and what was plausible for women and men. But as millennials become parents, those dynamics have begun shifting. “Sixty-four million millennials will become parents within the next decade,” explained Stromberg. “The millennials are the best-educated generation we’ve ever had. If you’re a workplace that isn’t figuring out how to navigate parenting for your employees, you’re going to be screwed.” 

Stromberg added that her research has revealed that the majority of men – 67 percent — are planning to pause or scale back their careers. “It’s not just the women who are demanding [better work-life integration] — it’s men, too. This is a new reality,” Stromberg said. “What I saw is our generation of women trailblaze this path for nonlinear careers, and that’s the path we have to support,” she added, emphasizing the importance of inclusive parental leave (that men feel comfortable taking!)

5. It’s not only parents who need these kinds of supports at work.

Career pausing is not exclusive to parents. In her research, Stromberg spoke to many women who never paused their careers because they had kids, but they did when they had aging parents or needed to care for an ailing loved one. “I even spoke to women and men who were athletes, who wanted to run a marathon, for example, and were looking for companies that would let them [make time to do that],” Stromberg shared. 

“If retirement is not going to come until we’re 70, we want to be able to make time for ourselves,” added Newman.

Stromberg stressed that companies need to offer and trust their employees with “time mastery” — a term she uses in place of “flexibility.” 

“Companies should be thinking about how to offer that to as many employees as possible,” she said. “It has to be baked into the DNA of the culture. It has to be understood that when John goes home at 5, he’s not actually not ambitious. He’s likely logging on to his computer again after his kids go to bed. If you trust John to get his work done, the whole team will function better.” 

6. Return-to-work programs are on the rise. Use them!

For women who find the prospect of returning to work daunting, Stromberg suggests looking into which companies offer return-to-work programs, which are specifically designed to ease the transition back to the workforce. 

Ultimately, Stromberg and Newman concluded, navigating your career alongside personal changes is all about our most precious resource: time. Fortunately, companies like Fairygodboss help women investigate what kinds of companies will allow them the space to dictate their own time mastery, however that balance may shift throughout their careers.

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