Time Out

At 37, Debra Sandler had grown to believe that she had her career under control. After all, she was a 13-year corporate veteran who had earned several promotions. As vice president of marketing for PepsiCo Inc.’s Tricon Restaurants International’s (now YUM! Brands) Caribbean and Latin America division, she oversaw a huge staff, controlled a multimillion-dollar budget, and spent 80% of her time traveling. “I used to joke that I lived on American Airlines in seat No. 2J,” she recalls.

Then, in 1997, two events happened that would forever alter her professional and personal life.

News broke that her division would be spun off into a separate company. At the same time, Sandler learned she was pregnant, putting an end to the executive’s busy travel schedule. “I had to ask myself, ‘Well, what do you really want to do?'” she recalls. “I [had planned everything] in my career, but these two things weren’t [considered].”

The self-professed workaholic decided to take a break from the corporate grind and focus on her family. But it wasn’t an easy decision. “I was saying goodbye to a company that I loved, that I had grown up in,” she recalls. For the first time in her adult life, Sandler, who had meticulously plotted her career, could not immediately figure out her next step.

Sandler is not alone: Each year, legions of female executives grapple with the decision of whether to put their careers on hold for reasons ranging from health concerns and family obligations to job dissatisfaction. But before you make that choice, you have to be clear on why you’ve decided to take a break and then develop a plan for keeping your career on track.

A June 2005 study, Back In The Game, Returning to Business After a Hiatus: Experiences and Recommendations for Women, Employers, and Universities by Monica McGrath, Marla Driscoll, and Mary Gross, reviewed this phenomenon. Sponsored by the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management, the study surveyed both women and men to get an in-depth look at how female professionals with advanced degrees and high-ranking positions handle “stepping out” or “off-ramping” — an executive’s decision to voluntarily leave the workforce for a period of time and for a specific reason. Some survey respondents chose to step out to “care for children and enhance the quality of their lives.” Others left because they were either unfulfilled in their jobs or didn’t find them worth sacrificing their personal lives. “They concluded: ‘If I can’t add value the way I thought I could at work, I clearly could add value at home,'” explains McGrath, the lead author of the study and an adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business.

Stepping out, however, can provide many women with a purpose-driven break. Sandler’s hiatus allowed her to focus on her daughter as well as enjoy downtime activities such as spa visits and playing tennis. The break gave her the chance, she says, to “stop and think about what was really important.” The Wharton study