Networking on Steroids Opens Doors to Encore Careers

Jane Jelenko

Well before the current economic downturn, I cautioned against making the mistake of sitting back passively and waiting for job opportunities to come to you. Although you need to be open to the forces of serendipity putting new options in your path, you must attack the process of discovery with an active mindset.

In the current job market, it’s especially important to work your contact list with all the energy you can muster. Pull out all those names – friends, family, colleagues – and ask them for their help in making the connections that will fuel your search for an encore career.

Unemployment and uncertainty about the economy have us all feeling anxious, even if we’re among the lucky ones who are still working in well-paying jobs. Not an ideal time for finding your encore career, you might say.

Many people who are grateful to have a paycheck are squelching any thoughts they may have been harboring about exploring new opportunities. Yet I continue to advise: Give yourself the time, energy and permission to realign who you are with what you do.

Does this idea resonate with you, given today’s economic environment? I would argue that it should, and here’s why.

Before the recession, professional recruiters and counselors advised that you spend at least 20 percent of your time meeting with people and exploring ideas for the future. Today, you need to devote more of your time to this process.

This is no time to be high-minded or shy about using connections. It has always been the case that connections make the world go round. Merit unnoticed tends to be underutilized. In today’s climate, your network is your greatest asset, and it’s the best way of assuring that you will find an encore career doing work that is personally fulfilling while helping tackle some of society’s toughest problems.

This point came into stark focus for me when my husband, Bill, and I made the pilgrimage to Washington to be part of the Obama inauguration. It was an experience I will never forget, especially the uplifting spirit and sense of community shared by the millions of people who came to be part of history. Perfect strangers reached out to one another to express their pride and good will.

As a retired federal appellate judge, Bill is blessed to enjoy an extended family of his former law clerks who are now academics, lawyers and professionals. Many found their way to our hotel bar in D.C. for an impromptu reunion. I was lucky to have a front-row seat to witness the networking feeding frenzy that was taking place all around me.

The lure of participating in the new administration was nearly irresistible to these talented men and women, regardless of their current circumstances. Each was actively pulling out all the stops to find a role where he or she could make a meaningful contribution. Their peers reciprocated by suggesting new ways to highlight their talents and experience and new contacts that they hadn’t considered before.

Some admitted that they felt a little awkward being so forward and touting their qualifications so blatantly. But with a little prompting, they got into the swing of things and put themselves out there, often well outside of their comfort zones. These were acts of bravery that some never reached for earlier in their lives. Watching it all, I was both tickled by the spectacle and duly impressed by the guts it took.

Several are well on their way to plum assignments in the new administration. The pay may not be great and the dislocation of family may present difficulties, but the once-in-a-lifetime experience overrides those concerns. The important thing is that they are finding meaning by aligning who they are with what they do.

Jane Jelenko was the first woman partner in the consulting arm of KPMG, an international professional services firm, where she served for 25 years. She is the coauthor, with Susan Marshall, of “Changing Lanes: Road Maps to Midlife Renewal,” published by Radom Press in 2008. For more information and to read Jelenko’s blog on midlife career issues, visit the Changing Lanes site.