For nearly two decades, I’ve occasionally wondered: “Am I nearing the end of my rewarding work life?” And often, I see my female coaching clients, despite their considerable success, lose confidence and struggle with fear and anger about their career options as they age in the workforce.
No matter how it starts, a dark, questioning moment actually may lead to positive change. Rough times can force us to shift attitudes and try new approaches. Women might have more self-doubt than men, but learning to work past challenges can give us a resilience that translates to renewal well into our 70s.
As I write in my book, Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO, thriving career paths aren’t steady or linear. They can encompass surprising new beginnings at any age. With that in mind, here are six strategies for women of a certain age to help jumpstart their next rewarding career phase:
1. Move past process snags. A bad patch in your career may start with disappointing results from a project or event. Maybe you’re passed over for a promotion and worry that your best times are over. But instead of catastrophizing, remind yourself that this is just part of the process of moving forward.
If you spot a problem of "manterruptions," point it out. In many offices, women's comments are interrupted far more frequently than those of men.
Let me pass along some advice on this point from Nancy Nord, who has been in and out of senior federal government jobs for four decades. Nord is now Of Counsel to the Washington law firm, Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz. She advises women to not be discouraged by what are really just process bumps. Says Nord: “Keep your eye on the long-term goal. It is easy to get diverted with immediate issues that may not advance your long-term objective. Always go back to the ultimate goal and use it as your anchor.”
2. Embrace technology. Change is tiring and sometimes you want to hold onto old ways. But this is the digital age, and your future is being reshaped by changes in technology.
If you drag your feet when it’s time to learn the latest application, a superior or prospective employer may assume that you just can’t do it because you’re an “older woman.” Don’t fall into the stereotype.
Show your interest in future trends and, if a certain new app is job-related, learn it, even if this means getting some assistance.
To this end, be sure you’re up to speed with social media. Here’s what Karen Riggs, who leads a social media program at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication and writes about age and media technology, advises: “Demonstrating nimbleness is key. Millennials arrive equipped to work in a dynamic global business environment with a mindset of adaptability. If you have observed your voice growing faint alongside them, start now to upgrade your skills and know that doing so has no end point.”
Riggs says it’s more than just knowing how to use social media. “Successful digital immigrants don’t simply master the new, shiny object, but work to understand whether, when and why to use it for their benefit. Social networks have low barriers to entry for professional use and can give you a way to show that you’re not intimidated by tech.”
3. Support other women. Female high achievers often find it satisfying to assist, include or mentor other women. By supporting female colleagues, you foster a culture that empowers women like you. And you develop allies who are there to offer encouragement or backup.
A simple way to reinforce gender equality is to draw attention to the accomplishments of other women.
And if you spot a problem of “manterruptions,” point it out. Research suggests that in many offices, women’s comments are interrupted far more frequently than those of men. But the pattern may change when a few people start objecting if women are cut off too frequently.
4. Take the high road. Arlean Leland, an accomplished mentor who leads more than 30 attorneys as Associate General Counsel for Civil Rights, Labor and Employment Law at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has a good philosophy about this. Leland notes that everybody goes through challenging times, but you are better able to restart your momentum if you don’t let frustration undercut the quality of your work.
“You gain the right to speak truth to power by always being a straight shooter, staying honest and doing the right thing,” Leland says. Even when you’re feeling unappreciated, she adds, look for ways to make a contribution. “Over the long run, your body of work speaks. People may not like you, but many will learn to respect you, and opportunities will come along,” Leland says.
5. Work at being liked. Both Leland and Nord value excellent work, but they agree that sometimes earning respect isn’t enough. Assertive women may be denied upward mobility because they are seen as having a “likability” issue. And a reputation for arrogance can be particularly off-putting to younger colleagues.
Part of Leland’s success and popularity may be her relaxed, self-deprecating humor. She’s smart and confident, but not afraid to make fun of herself. Beyond that, others appreciate her deep interest in the lives and success of her co-workers.
Nord says that sometimes women have to work at being friendly and approachable. “Competence usually does win out over the back-slapping ol’ boys club, but people prefer to do business with those they respect and like,” she says. “The respect comes from experience, knowledge and good judgment. But likability is important as well, and sometimes women either try too hard or ignore this altogether. Finding the right balance is critical.”
Remaining positive and being willing to listen can help you find that balance.
6. Find energy in your free time. Research suggests that energetic, enthusiastic employees accomplish more than others and engender success. Another reason to stay vibrant and dynamic if you’re older than your colleagues: They won’t focus on your age when you’re a consistently high energy, upbeat person.
One strategy for escaping career doldrums is to pursue a healthy hobby so passionately that you remain ebullient and in great shape for your work life. The best path to a reboot at work may be to take a great vacation, vary and expand your social life or take up a new sport. You can decide what’s best. The key is to choose something so you’ll remain spirited and resilient.
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