04/26/2012 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sage Group CEO Says: Women Execs, Keep a Foot in the Door

"If there's one thing I would say to women who are stepping out of the workforce, it's 'Keep a toe in. Just keep a toe in,'" advised Cara France, who should know. She's CEO of The Sage Group, a firm that provides high-level marketing and business consultants on contract to many of the leading San Francisco Bay Area companies. After working with more than 1,000 Bay Area executives and managers and placing hundreds of consultants on assignment, they have a unique perspective.

Just stay connected. You don't need to do something 40 hours a week. But do something five hours a week. Do something 10 hours a week. Even if that means you are volunteering your time for free to keep your skills fresh. Reach out to your network. Leverage the people you know to find opportunities. Offer your services for a reduced fee to a startup, keeping in mind that most startups need highly skilled people and usually have very limited funds. It allows you to keep your resume current, keep your skills up-to-speed and stay engaged with what's going on. I think it's much, much harder to step out of the workforce and return five years later because literally, if you compare five years ago to today, there's almost nothing that's the same.

In fact, the current economy in Silicon Valley is hopping. Cara says that she's seen a big change in how companies assess the situation these days.

The market is definitely in a different place than it was a year ago, and even six months ago. The confidence levels continue to rise and it's not just the big companies that are moving forward on initiatives at faster speeds. In general, companies are feeling the pressure to invest and move ahead. They are finally starting to move from defensive to offensive.

With the explosion of social media and the pace of technology innovation, marketing is transforming. Big data is the 800-pound gorilla in the neighborhood. Marketers have a huge amount of data available, yet using this data to understand customer behavior, preferences, and buying patterns is a daunting task.

According to IBM's 2011 Global Study of 1,700 CMOs, 71 percent feel unprepared to deal with the data explosion, making it the number one concern of CMOs worldwide. Walmart alone processes over a million customer transactions per hour. How can they use this data real time to engage their customers, build relationships and drive additional purchases? By spending a ton of money on marketing. IT research firm Gartner predicts that by 2017, the CMO's IT budget will be two to three times the size of the CIO's IT budget.

So what are the opportunities for women in this market? And how can they stay connected? Cara says that Silicon Valley, along with Silicon Alley in New York and other technology dense centers of the country, offer women, in particular. Careers are more flexible and these areas are rife with opportunities to build upon current skills and develop new ones.

People's careers are being defined differently and it's no longer a linear path. You can work for many years then stay home and take care of your kids for a few years and then go back into the workforce. You can decide that you're going to consult for a while. You can then jump back into a full-time management role and because of technology innovation, the ability to work remote and at various hours is significantly enhanced. As long as you deliver results, the flexibility to work more on your terms is possible in a way it wasn't five or 10 years ago. But the other side is that things are changing at such a rapid pace that it's critical to stay engaged and up-to-speed, even if it's five to 10 hours a week. As a mom, for instance, you can stay current or enhance your skills by taking online courses in your area of expertise, volunteering at a non-profit, or working for a reduced rate at a start-up.

We see certain skill sets in high demand within the high tech and financial services industry in the Bay Area. Social media, marketing analytics, specialized product marketing experts and experienced project managers are in high demand. The market is changing literally every 90 days to 180 days. The good news is that nobody is an absolute expert or the people who are experts weren't necessarily experts six to 12 months ago. So there's a real opportunity to jump in, dig in, learn and explore, refresh your skills and learn new ones.

As Sheryl Sandberg famously said, "Don't leave before you leave." But Cara France would add, "Once you've left, keep a foot in the door."

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