How Much Time Can You Take Off Without Derailing Your Career?

When you’re deeply committed to your career, the decision to take time off or explore unconventional opportunities isn’t one you take lightly. You’ve worked hard to progress toward your professional goals, and the higher you rise, the more you have to lose if you make an ill-informed decision. Yet that’s the situation many people face at some point in their lives. You decide to start a family and want to take time off to be with your young children. Or your spouse gets transferred abroad for a year, meaning you’ll need to take time away to accompany them. Maybe you want to take a year off to start a non-profit, or an opportunity arises in your company that sparks your interest but veers a bit away from the traditional career trajectory. Any of those scenarios are a worthwhile reason for taking time off your set path. The question is, how long do you have before that detour becomes a roadblock to your long-term professional goals?

Begin With the End in Mind

My advice to anyone thinking about taking time off or deviating from their prescribed path is begin with the end in mind. Where do you ultimately want to go? And is your answer the same as it was when you embarked on this career path? If your long-term vision revolves more around philanthropic work than retiring as a financial executive, you’ll have more flexibility and less risk in taking a time-out. But if your original vision holds steady, you’ll need a plan for getting back on your chosen career track within a set number of months or years. Here’s an example of how such a decision might play out. Let’s say you’ve chosen a career in finance and your top long-term goal is to become the CFO of a public company. There’s a generally accepted path to achieving that goal, including positions you’ll need to hold to build the appropriate experience.

“How long you can afford to take off largely depends on your career path and corporate culture.”

But now a role in another department opens up and you’d really like to take it. It’s an unusual choice for someone on the CFO path, but you know you’ll regret it if you don’t try it. What do you do? Well, again, begin with the end. New opportunities offer natural inflection points for evaluating your career goals. Are you still determined to become CFO? Do you still feel passionate about this line of work? Assuming that you’re still committed to your original goal, there’s nothing wrong with taking on a new role in the company for a year or two. You’ll learn more about the company’s operations and will likely pick up skills and information that will make you a stronger CFO candidate down the road. However, staying in a tangential position for more than two years could set you back, as the core skills you need won’t be as current. The finance and accounting worlds move very quickly, so you’ll be at a disadvantage if you fall behind. Now, if you’re still committed to becoming CFO but want to take time off to do something else entirely, you may want to shorten the amount of time you’re away. Someone who leaves the company for a year to travel will raise more eyebrows than someone who decides to work in another department for a year. How long you can afford to take off largely depends on your career path and corporate culture. Some companies might not bat an eye at an employee taking leave to travel or launch a dog-walking business, but others may not be as understanding. However, if your old goals no longer ring true, you have a good deal more flexibility in what you do. When you pursue your new interests, you’ll be judged against those skills and experiences rather than what you did at your previous job, so you have more time to figure out what that next step is.

Be Mindful of the Market

Although you can decide how long you’ll be out of the workforce or in another role, you can’t control the labor market. The opportunities you have when you return will at least in part be determined by supply and demand. If it’s an employees’ market and there are more opportunities than people, hiring managers will be more open-minded and may not scrutinize a gap in your résumé as closely. But if there is an abundance of candidates competing for a slim number of jobs, they can be more selective.

“It’s important to realize that any significant break in your work history will require you to do some catching up if you’re still going to pursue the same professional goal.”

Before deciding to take time off, consider the market a few years out. Maybe you want to go back to school full-time to pursue a business degree. Will there be a demand for that when you graduate? Will the market value your degree? Or will on-the-ground experience and skills development count for more? A year out of the market is unlikely to hurt you. But if you’re gone, say, five years, you’ll find it much harder to get back on that same career path. Fortunately, that is changing, especially with the growing awareness of parents who spend a few years raising their kids and then decide to return to the workforce. Still, it’s important to realize that any significant break in your work history will require you to do some catching up if you’re still going to pursue that same professional goal.

A Personal Choice

No one can decide for you whether you should take time off, or try an unconventional job, and for how long. The key to doing it right is to always be aware of the context surrounding your decision as well as your shifting priorities. If you leave the workforce for five years to raise your children, you may discover new interests that you’d like to pursue. Or you may be certain that you want to come back, so you choose to work part-time until you’re ready to take on a full workload again. Ultimately, candidates who are clear on their goals and priorities are attractive to employers because they’re decisive and determined. When you know what you want — whether that’s to become CFO or to start a new career — and take strategic steps to get there, success generally follows.  

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