4 Questions to Help Women Navigate the Second Half of Their Career
As an executive coach for a number of female leadership development programs, I work with purpose-driven women in every industry to identify their strengths and growth areas. While I’ve helped women of all ages, I’ve found that for many women in their 50s, the combination of newly empty nests, extensive professional experience, and financial freedom make it the perfect time to time to finally accelerate their careers.
But that’s often easier said than done. As a 50-something woman, what can you do today to reenergize your career and make the most of your remaining professional years? Here are four questions that I’ve found can help anyone rethink and achieve their professional goals:
1. What would your career look like if nothing was in your way?
Your 50s are the time to invest in the second half of your life. Find a quiet, reflective moment to ask yourself:
- What’s missing in your life? In your work?
- What kind of difference do you want to make?
- What does your dream job look like?
- What career move would you make if you knew you couldn’t fail?
- What do you want to be remembered for?
Some of my clients dream about advancing into more senior leadership positions, some envision job crafting a new, more fulfilling role for themselves, while others have considered leaving their organizations entirely to become entrepreneurs or focus on personal projects.
For example, Isabelle*, a senior technical lead in a regional office, enjoyed an impressive career with several published books and key industry reference pieces. At 52, she had just sent her son off to college, and she came to coaching for advice on how to make the most of her next 10 years. She recognized that she “had more time, energy, focus and freedom to reinvest in [her] work life,” and she wanted to push herself out of her “narrow technical comfort zone” and focus on leading others.
With her son out of the house, she was no longer limited to local opportunities, so she started applying for jobs globally. In less than six months, Isabelle landed a leadership position in another country.
Another client, Florence, was a senior manager in a multinational organization who came to coaching to talk about a troubling trend she’d been experiencing: less competent, less experienced men kept moving past her into leadership positions for which she felt more than qualified. She was deeply committed to her organization and believed that by taking up a leadership position, she would be better poised to affect change both directly and by influencing others. She began actively promoting herself and applying for leadership positions within her organization, and after 14 months, she was asked to lead a major department.
2. What permissions do you need to give yourself in order to become who you want to be?
Many women get stuck in some version of the authenticity trap: They hold on to too-rigid definitions of a singular self that don’t permit them to engage with and develop other potential identities (e.g., a leader) or skills (e.g., networking).
For example, Isabelle never allowed herself to ask for help, feeling that it would run counter to her core values of independence, autonomy, and strength. Florence prided herself in being someone who put her head down and got the work done, not someone who sought the spotlight. By interrogating these limiting beliefs and exploring how they created unnecessary professional roadblocks, each woman was able to expand her identity and enrich her skillset.
Isabelle started to appreciate asking for help as an important component of good leadership, rather than an indication of a lack of independence. Instead of attempting to find a new job entirely on her own, she reached out to her boss, who turned out to be a supportive ally and actually introduced Isabelle to the hiring manager at her new organization.
Similarly, when Florence reframed her negative assumptions about self-promotion, she was able to find ways to promote herself that aligned with both her goals of increased visibility within the company and her values of humility. After becoming more open to being in the spotlight, she enlisted her boss’s support to present her team’s work at a senior management retreat, joined a high-level working group, and presented her research at an international conference.
3. How can you build and access your support network?
At first, neither Isabelle nor Florence leveraged their networks to further their ambitions, so I urged them both to conduct a relationship audit. The process is simple: Open a Word or Excel file (or grab a pen and paper), and write down as many names as you can for each category:
- Career champions: Who will sing my praises?
- Sources of feedback: Who will give me honest feedback on my performance and challenge me to develop?
- Emotional support system: Who will give me a positive boost?
- Organizational sages: Who will help me understand the ins and outs of the organization?
- Mentors: Who will help me think through personal and professional decisions?
- Connectors: Who has a large and diverse network and is willing to introduce me to others?
- Power people: Who has the power to make things happen?
After completing this audit, Florence reached out to colleagues who helped her identify new opportunities and connect with key decision-makers. Similarly, this exercise helped Isabelle leverage existing relationships to connect with important people both inside and outside her organization, ultimately leading to her new role.
The exercise was valuable not only because it helped both women to identify useful contacts, but also because it allowed them see how they themselves routinely supported others in their organizations. This enabled them to reframe networking as a shared, reciprocal activity rather than a purely transactional pursuit, making them feel more comfortable and confident with the process.
4. What do you need to learn?
Good leaders are constantly learning. What skills, information, or self-knowledge do you need to get to where you want to be?
For example, both Isabelle and Florence found that they had to upskill in order to meet their late-career goals. Updating CVs, preparing bios and LinkedIn profiles, and engaging on social media were all skills they needed to refine and/or learn from scratch. Not only did they gain valuable technical skills through this process, but the exercise also helped both women refamiliarize themselves with their professional accomplishments, building confidence and improving their ability to self-promote.
While I’ve focused on helping women who are looking to ramp up their careers in their 50s, this advice can apply to anyone. If you are a few decades into your career and looking to accelerate, think about what you want to be, do, and feel; recognize the beliefs and assumptions that might be standing in your way; and identify what new knowledge or skills will help you reach your goal. And when you inventory your supporters, don’t forget to include yourself. You are your own strongest ally — so move forward boldly, and with no regrets.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.