"Getting laid off was one of the best things that happened. I was on this train that I just never would have gotten off myself, and I was headed toward health issues of my own. I just never would have stopped." Kirsten Menes reflected on her 18-month "sabbatical" from a 22-year career, the last 12 of which were at Royal Philips Electronics in Amsterdam.
Lessons Learned From a 60-Hour Work Week
Kirsten, 46 and fluent in three languages, is a self-described "recovering perfectionist." She had been on the fast track into management at Philips. A graduate of the company's top-tier "Black Belt" and 6-Sigma programs aimed at the high-potential candidates for future management jobs, Kirsten frequently logged 60-hour work weeks. She had moved from jobs in marketing and product development to human resources, and was active in designing and implementing Philips' highly regarded talent management programs. Then the hammer dropped. The Great Recession meant that she and thousands of others were without a job.
But Kirsten saw this as an opportunity; a time to 'reboot.' As with a computer after a crash, sometimes you just need to clean up the hard drive and install some new software. "I took a 'time-in' and focused inward, looking into myself. Women especially are very externally focused. How am I doing? What do people think of me? Am I doing a good job? If you told me 10 years ago I was going to be a stay-at-home-mom (even temporarily), I would have felt embarrassed and ashamed that I wasn't putting myself to good use."
The only child of hardworking New England parents, Kirsten was raised with a strong work ethic. She remembers her father advising her, "Whatever you do, don't be mediocre. If you're going to fail or succeed, do it big. Don't ever be average."
Failure is not a word in Kirsten's vocabulary. But getting laid off is often a huge blow to the ego -- especially for those whose careers and job titles come to encompass their entire being. "I hid a bit behind the word 'sabbatical.' I mean, I got restructured. I lost my job. And then I called it a sabbatical... I can no longer say I belong to the Philips Corporation. I'm now out there on my own. It all felt really scary, at first."
When I asked Kirsten what she wished she'd known 20 years ago that she knows now, she replied, "I wished I had known what my strengths were. The business world, and for executive women in particular, we obsess too much on weaknesses. You're never going to turn a weakness into a strength. At best, you'll turn a weakness into something you're just not that bad at. You're better off putting your energy into building on your strengths, because they've gotten you to where you are today and will drive your future success."
New Beginnings, New Opportunities
After a long spell of introspection, and helping her husband deal with a serious health condition, Kirsten is about to embark on the next phase of her career, working for a global consulting firm. But, she said, this time she will not pick up where she left off. She's negotiated a job to help build the firm's Talent Management practice in The Netherlands on a part-time basis. "I'm done with the 150 percent full-time thing. I don't want to come in and be a partner. I want to come in and contribute on content, because I'm a believer in it. But I don't want to do this other stuff that comes along with being on some kind of partner track."
Kirsten's sabbatical and reboot into a new type of part-time career personifies the way women in business are molding their second and third work lives. It also helps to explain why we don't see as many women at the top of major corporations. The traditional (read 'male') career pattern of planning out what you want to be in 10, 20 and 30 years is outdated. Kirsten is sanguine about her future, saying, "I don't think anyone can plan out their career anymore. Because the way the job market is changing, the way of working is also changing so much. The job I'm going to be doing in 10 years is a job that doesn't exist right now."
Don't look for Kirsten, or any other highly talented professional women for that matter, to sit on the sidelines for long. Rather, they continuously reinvent themselves in order to find meaningful ways to contribute to society and truly show why the future of business is women.
Cross-posted from Forbes.com.