The 3rd Act

Photo by Alicia Malesani
How to chart your professional future when your career suddenly grinds to a halt. 

Like a play, our career trajectory can be categorized into three acts: The First Act is the start of our professional journey, when we’ve decided on a vocation or are in the midst of  choosing one. The Second Act is when we’re climbing the ladder, reaping financial rewards and promotions. Our Third Act is different. This arrives once we’ve veered off our previous career path. During this phase, many of us have hit the proverbial glass ceiling. Some of us have been downsized, casualties of a reorganization or a layoff when we’re at our peak earning potential—usually in our forties and fifties. Once we’ve picked up the pieces and started our careers anew, we begin the Third Act of our professional lives.

But starting over isn’t easy. For Black women, recovery from the Great Recession has been slow. While White, Latina and Asian women saw their unemployment rates go down during the economic revival, the unemployment rate for Black women rose between 2009 and 2013, according to a recent study from the National Women’s Law Center. “The recession has wreaked havoc on the economic fortunes of Black Americans,” says Marc Morial, president and CEO of the New York City–based National Urban League. Last year the nonprofit launched Jobs Rebuild America: Employ, Educate, Empower, an initiative aimed at putting urban America back to work. “It has damaged employment prospects for many outstanding, college-educated people who are struggling to find work.”

Black unemployment is more than 11 percent, and if you include the number of people who work part-time while look- ing for full-time posts and those who have simply given up on the job search altogether, “you’re looking at a number that blows up to 22.4 percent,” says Julianne Malveaux, Ph.D., economist and president emerita of Bennett College.

Don’t wait until your career hits a roadblock to get serious about your Third Act. “There’s no such thing as a secure job,” says Carole Stovall, Ph.D., a business psychologist and president of SLS Global in Washington, D.C. “You have to think, If I get laid off, what will I do?”

There are steps you should take during your twenties, thirties and forties to ensure a lifetime of professional success. In order to be ready for the Third Act, whenever it comes, do the following:

Keep your skills up-to-date. As new trends transform the workplace, you must evolve. “If you have ten years to retirement, you have to ask, What are the skills I need to pick up now that will make me more relevant to my company to prevent me from being laid off?” Stovall says.

Create multiple streams of income. Even while you’re gainfully employed, look for other ways to make money, such as part-time jobs, consulting gigs or even entrepreneurial activities. Some women use volunteerism to discover their passion and turn it into a revenue-generating opportunity.

Be ready to move. One of the mistakes many Black women make is to stay in certain jobs too long and fail to get a breadth of different experiences, says Audra Bohannon, a senior partner at Korn Ferry, a leadership and talent executive search firm. “White men tend to move strategically from one position to another. We don’t tend to move as easily.”

The following four women were thrust into the Third Act in different ways. Whether it was forced on them or they planned for it, here’s how they turned an ending into a starting point for something greater.

The Master of Reinvention: Deborah "Debbie" Mitchell
Age: 51
STRATEGY: Embrace new skills.

Mitchell had worked as a producer for CBS’ The Early Show for ten years. So when new management came in and she was terminated, she was blindsided and devastated.

Her reaction was normal, says Beverly Richards, Ph.D., a psychotherapist based in the Philadelphia area. “Women are not only shocked when they get this kind of news, they also experience sadness, anger, frustration, depression and anxiety.”

After taking some time to catch her breath, Mitchell started looking at how technology had transformed the way people communicate. She reconnected with a former CBS colleague who had created a brand in the blogger space and who became her mentor and showed her the ins and outs of social media. “She was very helpful in teaching me this new world,” Mitchell says.

Deciding that social media would be a good fit for her skill set, Mitchell hired a tutor, attended seminars and blogger conferences and became an entrepreneur. Today she owns Deborah Mitchell Media Associates, a TV production and social media management agency where she can make the most of both her old and new talents.

THE LESSON: As your industry shifts, keep your skill set sharpened to leverage it into a new role.

The Game Changer: Doreen Mills
Age: 55
STRATEGY: Take a step back to move forward. 

Mills, a boutique hotel sales manager in Beverly Hills, was called into her supervisor’s office one day to be told that the company was undergoing reorganization and her position was being eliminated. Though she had worked at the hotel for two years and in the hotel industry for 25 years, her career flatlined in an instant. “I had to leave that day,” she recalls. “Thank God I had money in the bank.”

She wasted no time looking for her next job, immediately updating her résumé and turning to employment Web sites such as and social networks like LinkedIn. She reached out to a contact at another hotel chain who assured her he would forward her résumé to the right person. Weeks later when she hadn’t been called, she did some research. An industry colleague explained that her salary was out of the range for the position, therefore, her résumé was automatically eliminated from the candidate pool.

That’s when Mills realized she needed to adjust her expectations about what she could earn in this market. She accepted a position as a sales manager at half her previous salary with twice the responsibility. Since this job paid less, she needed to account for the shortfall. Mills turned her passion for redesign into the business of staging—decorating homes to make them more attractive to potential buyers. She took a class and met an interior designer who soon became her business partner. Her ability to leverage old and new connections made the difference. At press time, Mills’s job prospects had changed again. She is now a director of sales at Residence Inn by Marriott in Beverly Hills. It pays better than her last position but not as well as her original job. 

THE LESSON: “A successful Third Act depends on how well we develop relationships across gender and race to build a strong and broad network,” says Korn Ferry’s Bohannon.

The Consummate Planner: Najoh Tita-Reid
Age: 42
STRATEGY: Be ready to relocate. 

While some women are forced into their Third Acts, Tita-Reid has planned for it all along. An executive at Merck & Co., Tita-Reid is married with two children and has always been intentional with her career. “A lesson I learned was, pick your leader over your company,” Tita-Reid shares. “While selecting an organization that fits you is important, studies show you rarely quit the company; you quit your boss.”

While working at Procter & Gamble, Tita-Reid connected with an executive recruiter who was interested in developing future general manager talent and had a reputation for helping people make successful career moves. The recruiter understood Tita-Reid’s long-term vision and helped her identify the organization, skills, the culture and the type of leader she needed to reach her goal. That led to Tita-Reid’s latest role as general man- ager of Western Europe at Merck Consumer Care in London. 

THE LESSON: Being ready to relocate is crucial to long-term success. “Since the world we live in is more global and multicultural, you have to be more global in your career perspective,” says Janet Salazar, CEO and founder of IMPACT Leadership 21, based in New York City. “Multicultural exposure is critical.”

The Dreamer: Regina Chamberlain
Age: 47
STRATEGY: Explore a passion.

When Chamberlain, a Chicago native, got laid off from her job as VP of business development for a major credit card company, she was tired of the corporate grind. She saw this as an opportunity to do work she loved. “I wanted to shift into something more fulfilling and work with a nonprofit.”

She took a job as director of projects for Fathers Inc., a national organization that promotes and markets responsible fatherhood and mentoring. “Not having had a father present, I know what it means to grow up without one,” she says. “I now work with a diverse group of dads, which aligns with my life.” Chamberlain also vowed to never be unemployed again and now has multiple streams of income. As founder of MBRACE Sports Communications, a company that helps athletes focus on their life beyond the game, she also teaches a marketing class at a community college and is studying to become a licensed minister.

THE LESSON: Diversify your résumé so that you will always have options.

This article was originally published in the November issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now. 

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