Category Archives: Career Break

One Year Later

Sitting there eating my ice cream under a palm tree surrounded by my family, they finally asked me.  “So have you figured it out?” I had been dreading that question for 3 months.  One year ago, I had decided to end my career break with a family vacation in Punta Cana.  It was my mom’s wise decision to offer me a trip to the Caribbean in hopes of getting me to leave South America.  And it worked! But when the dreaded question came- I knew the answer. 

 “I want to stay in HR and I want to focus on international HR”.  It was that simple.  This answer only came after fully examining my career choices and decisions.  In order to get this clarity, here are some questions that I needed to ask myself. 

1)      Why do you do what you do?  People spend the majority of their lives working in jobs for companies.  I wanted to make that a place where people had a chance to do meaningful work, were recognized for a job well done, were motivated and overall had a better quality of life.  That would translate into a company with productive employees who were engaged and enjoyed better business success.  Win/Win.

2)      What was the next step?  I wanted to do international HR.  I’ve always been interested in different cultures and people working together.  The next logical step for me was learning more about the international implications of businesses and their people.  I wanted to get a job where I had global responsibilities.  Although I had been working in an international company, I didn’t have as much exposure to global HR as I wanted.  I had worked for a Canadian based company and the majority of employees were in Canada.  I wanted to work for a truly global company that was headquartered in another part of the world. 

3)      What’s your long term plan?  Invest in some formal education/training in international HR so I could apply best practices in HR on a global scale.  I knew local HR and had my professional designation but I wanted to expand that to the global marketplace. 

4)      What Changed?  I remembered the reason why I went into it in the first place. I understood that life is about trade-offs and it really isn’t always greener on the other side.  I got so caught up in the numbers and the metrics that I lost some of the human element.  But if you focus on the “right” behaviors the results will come.  As much as I thought I wanted a “simple” life, I was bored.  I craved an intellectual challenge and I did want to be in the corporate world.

5)      Anything else?  I wanted to work for an industry that I was excited about.  It had to be fun.  HR always gets a bad rep for being overly conservative and boring.  I had to work for a company that was cutting edge and exciting.  It was that simple.

 Within a month of coming back to Canada, I was hired for a UK based company managing the global human resources.  And exactly 1 year later, after researching global HR and its practices I have enrolled to take the Global Professional Human Resources Certification. So yes, I may have spent many days in South America on a beach meeting random people, partying with strangers, and doing things that I won’t be sharing with my family.  But sometimes that is what you need to get yourself back on track. It is what I needed and sometimes you just have to listen to that voice screaming inside of you- I’m glad that I did.   

 

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Giving Back- Project Argentina

Choosing a volunteer project as part of my career break was something that I felt I needed to do.  I wanted to give back in some way but I wasn’t exactly sure how or what.  While I haven’t done a large amount of volunteer work in the past, this was something I was looking to change.  I soon realized how naïve I was to the world of volunteer travel. I volunteered on a farm outside of Buenos Aires with underprivileged children for a week organized through G Adventures http://www.gapadventures.com/trips/project-argentina/TSAPJB/2011/ .

I spent 5 days working with the children on the farm and helping out in the kitchen.  These children needed to learn basic survivals skills.  My top 4 challenges were:

1)      Lack of direction– the project manager on site did not give any sort of direction on my work tasks.  I was dropped off with my bags, shown to my cabin, and basically left to fend on my own.  As I learned later on in my travels, this was not uncommon of many volunteer opportunities.

2)      Language–  nobody could speak English.  And the few that could speak a few words could only speak basic English.  Although, I had just finished two weeks of Spanish classes I didn’t nearly have enough vocabulary to contribute in a way that I felt would be meaningful.

3)      Food– about an hour before my departure, a G Adventures representative called me to let me know I probably wouldn’t like the food as it was very local.  This was definitely an understatement.  I lived off of oranges and bread for the week.

4)      Isolation– In today’s constantly connected world, spending a week in a remote rural area without any connection to the outside world was tough.  While I spent my mornings helping out on the farm, there was plenty of free time in the afternoons and evenings.

What I learned:

1)      You will only get out of it what you put into it!  I easily could have completely broke down after my first few attempts to understand the reasons they needed a volunteer.  Without any sort of direction on my arrival and basic communication skills, I needed to make it up as I went. 

2)      Communication is powerful.   I became best friends with a  6 year old who was learning English at school.  His English was the most advanced of the entire group at the farm and he was my translator. 

3)      If you are hungry enough, you will eat anything.  Watching the children on the farm rush to get as much food on their plates before it was all gone brought tears to my eyes.  They didn’t care what it tasted like; it was food. 

4)      Money really doesn’t bring happiness.  The people who lived on this farm were poor but they were happy and kind people living a very simple life.  Still money does buy freedom and choice.  I started to truly appreciate the freedom and choices I was given in my life that I took for granted everyday.

 While my volunteer experience wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting and felt very disorganized from the beginning.  I did get exactly what I was hoping to gain out of it- persepective.  If you are looking to do some volunteer travel, do your research.  Know what you are getting into and what the language requirements are for the project.  Try to get some feedback from people who have gone on those specific sites or used that volunteer agency.  After all, you want to ensure that you are helping in the most meaningful way possible.

 

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Espanol, por favor?

I have always wanted to learn Spanish. I’m a true believer that you need to go beyond a classroom to learn a language. You need to experience the culture of the language and the people it represents. Being a Canadian, I am fluent in the most universally spoken language- English. This makes travel much easier; however I have often thought how difficult it would be to not have this advantage. I believe that English speaking people should try harder to learn the language and culture of so many other parts of the world. I wanted to break out of my comfort zone and see things from a new perspective. This is what I set out to do when I started my career break. I started my journey in Buenos Aires taking Spanish lessons at Expanish language school. I opted to live with a local family who provided me with food and a place to sleep for 2 weeks. But the biggest advantage was that I was immersed in a Spanish speaking environment.

Study room at Expanish

Each morning I would have breakfast with my host mother Barbara and she would speak to me in Spanish only. I would then take the subway to class. After 4 hours of class, some friends from class would go out for lunch. In the afternoons, we would wander the city and use our newly learned vocabulary out on the locals. Sometimes they understood and sometimes well not so much. But it did give me an appreciation for how difficult it must be for non-English speaking people. By the end of the day I was exhausted. The amount of concentration it would take to do simple tasks like taking a cab, asking for directions, ordering food, taking money out of a bank machine etc.

I would then go back to my home stay where dinner was prepared for me. A few times, my host mom had guests over for dinner and yes of course the entire conversation was in Spanish. In Buenos Aires, people eat late and they go out late. On a typical night, I would eat dinner at 10pm and then head to the Tango Hall at midnight. My entire day was immersed in the Spanish language and culture. While I am certainly not fluent, I did pick up more Spanish and understanding of the culture than sitting in a classroom at home in Canada. It also gave me greater confidence as I left Buenos Aires and continued on my travels in South America.

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A few simple steps…

The lead up to my break was absolutely exhausting. Crosstraining my replacement at work, moving my stuff out of my condo for my subletter, and traveling to visit family for the holidays. Its no wonder I absolutely crashed once I left. Thankfully I did a few things right along the way.  These few steps will make your return so much easier:

1. Update your resume before your leave on your travels.  All your work experience is still fresh in your mind.  And even though finding a new job may be the last thing you want to think about and you aren’t even sure if you want to go back to your old field, update it! You will be thankful when you return.

2. Call your cable company, phone company and any other providers you pay monthly expenses.  You might want to cancel the service altogether and decide if you want it when you return.  Or you may just want to suspend.  Many companies allow you to suspend your services for a period of time without any penalty.  Why pay for something you aren’t using?

3. Time to de-clutter.  There is no better time to get rid of old baggage, clothes, or anything else that you have been holding on to for far too long.  When you are committing to a backpack and your two feet for an extended period of time, you realize how little you need to get by.  On your return, you won’t miss all the things you got rid of.  You will be amazed at how grateful you are for all the things you have .

I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am that I followed these 3 steps and while it was exhausting, it made my return so much easier.

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Buenos Aires

I arrived in the early morning still amazed at how random paths intersect in your life.  On my flight over, I bumped into a girl from California that I met a year earlier on a trip in Costa Rica. Jinny had given me money when I was completely stuck in Central America without a functioning bank card.   I mailed her the money she lent me as soon as I got home but hadn’t spoken to her since.  And then I randomly met her on my plane to Buenos Aires!!!   It was a good start to the adventure that lie ahead.

The flight from Toronto to Buenos Aires connecting through Miami was easy enough.  My least favorite part of travel is getting from the airport to my destination.  As a single female traveler, this has always been my most dreaded and seems to be where I consistently get scammed.  My transfer to my host family was arranged with RealGap Adventures and I’m happy to say that I had no problems.  There was a man standing at the airport with my name on it.  He didn’t speak a word of English! Still I followed him to his car and got in thinking about the word “trust”.  Sometimes you just need to trust and let go.  He took me to my host family’s apartment in the neighborhood of Palermo where I would be staying for the next two weeks while I attended Spanish classes.

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Mixed reactions

As excited as I was to take a career break, telling family
and friends was not easy. I guess I shouldn’t have expected
immediate approval and support. After all I had been thinking about
my little get away for months. They needed time to digest this
information, understand what it meant and decide if they thought I
was doing a good thing or was just plain crazy. There were 3 camps
of people: 1) cheer lead squad 2) slow supporters 3)energy zappers
I was lucky I had a big squad of people supporting me and believing in me when I needed it most. And trust me if it wasn’t for their words of encouragement, it would have been a lot harder. I would say that 80% of people were great and the other 20% were negative thinking, energy zapping, horrible people. Funny how
the volume on those negative messages was much louder. When I read
other career breakers advice to expect resistance- they weren’t
joking. I knew I needed to manage my reactions to the negativity
and not allow it to take away from my experience. Nobody can make
you feel bad unless you let them. Still it is easier said than
done.

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Bring Back the Sabbatical

Productive employees who are fully engaged, proud to be part of the team and fully committed to staying is a common goal for many managers.  Yet with all the buzz and new initiatives on retention and employee engagement, I think we have all forgotten a very valuable tool that has been around for ages.  We may have tweaked it, changed it’s name or form but the basic concept remains the same.  We all need time out of our hectic lives to recharge our batteries.  And a 2 week vacation sometimes just doesn’t cut it.

Sabbatical leaves root back as far as biblical times.  The word Sabbatical comes from the word “Sabbath” referring to a time of rest in cycles of 7.  For the working world, this often referred only to academics when they would take a sabbatical every 7 years.  Today, the sabbatical leave has evolved to not only include universities but also a wide array of other fields and professions.  In many other countries, taking time off to rejuvenate and explore the world is common.   In the UK, many people take what is known as an “adult gap year” or “career break”.  Forward thinking companies in Canada are now realizing the benefits that are associated with giving employees an extended period of time off beyond a standard 2 or 3 week vacation a year.  Travel Cuts, a Canadian owned company, now markets a “career break” program.  One recent “career breaker” from this program says of his experience “Anytime you find time to travel I find it enhances your knowledge of the world and how we are truly lucky to be living in Canada.  It also enhanced my career as I was able to compare government services in different countries and share the knowledge with my superiors. I was also able to relate better with clients and colleagues of different backgrounds?”

Some employees take this time to volunteer and make an impact on a global scale.  Sure companies have local fundraising and charity events, but some employees want to make a difference on a larger scale.  If you let an employee take 6 weeks off to volunteer in Nepal to help build medical centres, what does that say about your company?  It’s one thing to have a plaque on the company wall boasting you genuinely care about your employees, it’s another to give them the freedom to actually pursue their passions.  Anne Fisher, writer at Fortune magazine, writes on how Fortune 100 companies attract and retain Gen Xers. Autodesk, a software company, defies the Silicon Valley norm of workaholism: The company gives its employees six-week sabbaticals every four years and paid time off every month to do volunteer work. According to her article, “Gen Xers love this, because they want to make a difference”.

In today’s fast paced working world filled with blackberries, instant messaging, and social media outlets we are all struggling to wear multiple hats and juggle priorities.  “Flexible workplace strategies benefit both the employer and its employees,” said Rochelle Morandini, a senior consultant in Hewitt Canada’s organizational health practice. “These programs, coupled with supportive managers and aligned corporate behaviours, can alleviate conflicting demands, enable employees to enjoy a healthier lifestyle, create a more productive workforce, and even improve overall organizational performance.”  Giving employees the ability to take a “sabbatical” or “career break” may be one of the most underutilized tools in recruiting, retaining, and engaging employees.  Yet, forward thinking companies and those making the Best employers to work for, Top 100 lists continually cite having extended leave programs as part of their overall strategy.  Coincidence or not?

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Took the plunge- career break!

Everything in me was screaming that something needed to
change. At first, I wasn’t exactly sure what- but I knew the status
quo was NOT WORKING! I realized that life is too short to spend the
majority of my time in a career where I lost the spark. That is
when I knew I needed to go back to the drawing board.

I used to love my job and my career. It took me a long time to figure out
what I wanted to do and when I finally decided on the HR field I
was full steam ahead. I loved working with different people, seeing
different perspectives and trying to make the average person’ s
every day a little easier. But somewhere along the way, I lost the
passion. And I tried desperately to get it back. It was something
that I struggled with for months. I continually tried to ignore my
internal alarms that a change was needed. They say that the average
person today changes careers several times throughout their lives.
That thought terrified me. It took me so long to find a field that I loved and now I
want to change? Was I just having severe job burn out? Maybe I just
needed a break.

Having always been more logical than emotional, I tried desperately to make sense of it all. I read every article, book, and sought out any person who could help bring me back to that safe place where I loved what I did. And guess what? I failed miserably. This was greater than just a logical problem that needed to be solved. But the more I researched the more I learned.

Career breaks or sabbaticals aren’t new. Not even close. Sabbaticals root
back as far as biblical times. Coming from the root word Sabbath. A
period of rest in times of 7. A time to reexamine and recharge.
Hmmmm… Some countries and cultures widely accept this practice
and highly encourage it. North America- not so much! After a lot of
soul searching, I knew I “NEEDED” to do this. Some people get this
and some don’t. I’m super excited and also really nervous for the
journey. I’ve decided to start a blog to help navigate and record
the adventures that lie ahead.

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