Michael Bontempi: How My Career Break Helped My Career
The decision to take my career break began in August of 2007. I had reached an impasse in my career as a management consultant with my current employer and had decided it was time for me to pursue a new organization to continue my career path. For most people, the typical approach to leaving a job is to remain in their current position as they seek other opportunities. For me, I knew if I continued in my current position, my daily responsibilities would continue to take top priority over seeking a new opportunity. I’m not sure if this is a character flaw or my sense of dedication and work ethic, so I knew that taking a break was my best alternative.
What amazed me the most was the number of colleagues who advised me to take the typical approach to leaving a job. Of course for many of them, there were other responsibilities (spouse, children, mortgage) that I did not have to consider as part of my decision. But in the end, the choice to leave without another position secured did seem incredibly risky.
By nature, I’m not the most foolish individual, nor do I avoid a new challenge. I consider myself a prudent saver and investor, so I took this opportunity to invest in myself for a period of time. I wanted some time to examine what I had accomplished in my career and begin to understand not only my strengths and weaknesses, but also what were the characteristics I would be looking for in new position and employer.
Till this day, I still believe that the company I was leaving is the best in its class, so I knew my answer was not going to be to take a position with a competitor. While this would have been the easiest path to securing a new job, I knew this was not going to satisfy me in the long term.
I also realized that leaving my position in September would not leave a lot of time in the year to secure a new position, with year-end budgets and the holidays quickly approaching. So my first decision was that the New Year would be the right time to pursue a new opportunity. I had 3 ½ months to invest in myself.
My second decision was to determine how I would spend this career break. I had the dream of many Americans to see the world once I reached the magical milestone known as “Retirement”. But as I examined how most Americans spend their retirement, very few ever achieve this common dream. So for those who are concerned with the idea of a “career break,” think of it as an opportunity to move a portion of your retirement forward in life.
As part of my career, I had logged hundreds of thousands of air miles, but mostly to where my clients resided, rarely where I wanted to go. But one thing I knew how to do well was to immerse myself in the local environment in an attempt to try and experience the local culture, their cities, their history and their people. So traveling internationally for myself seemed like a great way to spend my break.
Of course, I did choose a worthy travel companion for this adventure as my girlfriend, Michaela, was an avid traveler.
While Michaela focused a lot on preparing our travel plans, I made preparations that would help us during and upon our return – especially in regards to my career.
- Resume: I developed a resume prior to leaving to ensure that my latest accomplishments were fresh in my mind.
- Cost Reductions: I placed all of my belongings into storage and canceled my apartment lease with the plan to find a place when I returned and leverage Michaela’s apartment until we found employment.
- Expenses: I coordinated for all of our monthly expenses to be consolidated onto one MasterCard and one American Express card that were adjusted to close at the end of every month and be due on the 15th of the following month. This allowed us to simply process two bank transactions a month and all of our expenses were covered.
- Cash Flow Forecast: I knew to the penny how much we could spend on our adventure and how long our money would last once we returned. I wanted to be comfortable and be able to give myself six months upon returning to find the right position for myself.
- Investments: I ensured that all of my investments that were maturing (stock, options, tax payments) were secured and set to automatically process at the appointed time.
- Networking: I spent a good two weeks reaching out to colleagues, clients and friends to let them know about my decision to leave and ensure the “word on the street” knew that I would be seeking another position upon my return in the new year.
My career break gave me the opportunity to reflect on my previous 14 years of experience and helped me to reevaluate my career path and evaluate if I was on the right track. Ironically, putting our 9-month plan together started me on the decision path for my next role. It came very natural to me to orchestrate all the moving parts that would be required to enable me to enjoy my career break and ensure that our life back home was in order at the same time.
So as I started my career search at the beginning of 2008, the one frequent question that was on everyone’s mind was “how I would be able to explain my career break to a new employer?” To be honest, this was not something I was overly concerned about. I had decided that when asked, I would tell my story as it happened. To hide the truth or try to spin this time into something it wasn’t would be foolish. Surprisingly, most of the negative reaction to my career break decision came from the recruiters I worked with, and very little concern from the potential new employer. In today’s competitive market, some could view a career break as a handicap, while most see it as a differentiator.
So today, I find myself in a new position and a new organization that meets the criteria I devised for my next position. All told, my search took me about 3 months. The organization is smaller than my last company, but my scope of responsibility has increased and is focused mostly on operations and client service delivery, which were certainly two of my criteria for a new position. And believe me, my career break still comes up in conversation from time to time and I am happy to relive my stories.
For anyone that is considering a career break with hopes of returning to a career, you will inevitably have many doubts, concerns and questions. But at the end of the day, the choice to take a career break is not just about the travel – it’s about you. It’s about trying to reflect on all that you have accomplished and what you haven’t and determining if the current path you’re on will eventually put more in that “accomplished” category.
As for the travel, I would recommend it for two reasons. The first is, to make this a successful adventure you need to step away from your everyday. I am the worst at falling back into common routines. Second, the world is vast and seeing how other cultures live helps to put your own life into perspective.
Now I would never say that taking a chance like this wouldn’t hurt your career. But conversely, one could argue that staying in an unfulfilling position in your career or life is hurting you as an individual. To me, that is what this career break was about. Life can be full of regrets for those who focus on the potential consequences of taking a risk as opposed to the new opportunities a change can enable.
I have no regrets. In fact, when I share my story with people, the first reaction I get always starts with “I would love to do something like that.” The truth is, you can.