Friday, 24 June 2016

Don’t Talk Yourself Out of an Opportunity

Cheryl McGee Wallace, is a Financial Services Manager at PwC UK who returned to work after a 6 year career break. If you're doubting that networking can help you to make a successful return to work, or if you've no idea about informational interviewing, read Cheryl's post below for inspiration.

About a year ago I planned an alumni event on networking. Led by an experienced career coach, we were given role-playing exercises on introducing ourselves as well as entering and exiting ongoing conversations in a social setting. Over the course of the evening one voice stood out for me. My radar went up. I knew those questions, that doubt. She was a returner. After the session ended, I introduced myself, and I was right. She was a human rights lawyer volunteering for a refugee NGO and wanted to know how she should introduce herself if she was not being paid. I was flabbergasted. All I heard was “international human rights lawyer.” She injected the doubt.

How often, I wonder, do women returners talk themselves out of opportunities without ever trying?

In my own re-entry story, I confronted voices of doubt. Adding my own to that chorus would have stopped me in my tracks. There is no single way to on-ramp. It is your story to write as you will. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge what reality dictates: our preferred end is not guaranteed. We will confront detours and closed doors just as we would in the absence of a non-traditional career path.

Explore, investigate, research, and prepare

You are an outsider in need of inside information. You need to clarify your best point of re-entry and understand how the market views your skills. You need to understand the risks that would prevent a potential employer from considering your candidacy.

Develop an elevator pitch and practice it.  Think of three important things you want someone to remember about you. Determine your personal brand and be consistent. What is your unique value proposition? What differentiates you from others? You want them to say: “I remember that person.  She’s the x, y, and z.” This will evolve over time as you gain experience and insights to refine your message.

Conducting informational interviews is the most critical data collecting activity you can undertake. When approached correctly, these one-on-one meetings will help you to obtain personalized feedback, direction, an insider’s perspective, industry lingo, and ideas.

Do not expect the insider to do all the work. You must prepare. Consider why you want to meet this person and the information you would like to obtain from the meeting. Research the individual and the firm before the meeting.

Tailor your questions specifically to that individual, firm, and industry. At a minimum, ask the insider: Who succeeds or fails in this environment? What was your career trajectory? What professional organizations or periodicals do you recommend? Is there anyone else whom you think I should meet? Follow up with a thank-you note and send periodic (meaningful) updates.

You are exploring. Initial meetings may be more challenging, but as you gain experience and clarity on your goals, such meetings will likely become less fraught. For this reason, it is also best to prioritize contacts within your target firms. Meeting junior staff may be more useful early in the information gathering process. Save hiring managers and senior executives for when your message and targets are more refined.

Informational interviews need not be formal. An informal invitation for coffee or drinks can be low risk and pleasant for both. (I often had to remind myself to breathe and enjoy the process of meeting such generous and fascinating people.) As I progressed to identifying target firms, however, it became increasingly important to visit the office for a “pre-interview” assessment of the environment. Be flexible, though. Often a quick call may be all your insider can spare.

Incorporate feedback

Relaunching is a process, not an event. You are constantly learning from every interaction (or lack thereof). The objective is to clarify your goals, which will ultimately help you to articulate your value proposition with clarity and confidence. Which version of your pitch worked best? Is your networking path effective in helping you to meet the right people in your target industry or firms? Are you hearing similar questions from your informational interviews, e.g., are you being asked to explain the same aspect of your professional background? Does your response raise more questions than it answers?

Create your opportunities

There is nothing stopping you from re-entering the workforce. While you may have to endure detours or even closed doors, opportunities do exist. Where they do not exist, it is within your power to make your own opportunities.

Consider the fact that the only difference between returning and not returning may well be a belief in your own ability. Belief reinforces choices and behavior.

Someone out there needs your skills. It is your responsibility to find them.

Further Reading
Read Cheryl's personal story of how networking enabled her to find a new role and move to a new country.

Note: A version of this blog previously appeared on 

Friday, 17 June 2016

How to Build your Confidence & Courage

Anna, one of our Women Returners coaching team, suggests idea and exercises to build your return-to-work confidence and courage.

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face Eleanor Roosevelt

In my coaching of women returning to work, the theme of confidence (or lack of it) is a common one. If someone is trying to build their confidence, I first ask some questions to understand where it is they want to be. Some typical responses are:

‘I want to put myself out there and network but I'm not sure people will want to meet me’
‘I want to go for that job but I don’t think they'll be interested in me’
‘I want to go for interviews without worrying about sounding stupid and out-of-touch’

Digging underneath these responses, it is very often fear that is making these talented women hesitate. Fear of ridicule, of others’ opinions, of failing, of judgement, of stupidity, of being found out. Simply trying to be more confident doesn’t address the underlying fear.

Confidence to Courage

I often work with women to reframe confidence as courage. Courage implies feeling some sort of fear but going for it anyway. I also find women perceive courage as something positive they can aspire to. Ask them to say, ‘I am a courageous woman’ and they sit up a little bit taller.

So, in your own returning to work journey, how can you overcome your fears and build up your courage? Here are a few exercises and ideas:

  • Reframe fear as simply what happens when you are pushing your boundaries. I watched my 5 year old son stand on the steps of the swimming pool paralysed with fear. Yet he splashed in and took the first steps towards swimming. To become a better swimmer he will keep feeling fear but it’s a sign he’s trying something new, not of weakness.
  • Think about a time when you have been courageous. How did you nourish your courage and starve your fear? Taking a moment to think about your strengths and achievements can help in building feelings of courage.
  • Fear tends to grow if you don’t address it. Let’s say your fear relates to getting your opinions heard. On your return to work, you’re sitting in a meeting, time is ticking by, you haven’t said a word, and your throat is getting dry and your palms sweaty. Next time, get your voice in early. By doing something, anything, to move things forward you are demonstrating courage.
  • Imagine an area of your life where you do feel courageous – maybe it’s experimenting with new recipes, running long distances, setting boundaries for your growing children (believe me, it takes courage!). Think about the preparation needed, the consistent planning, the bit-by-bit improvement. Courage at work is the same – preparation and practice are needed. There isn’t a quick fix for courage.
  • Often, fear relates to others judging us – and in returning to work you’re likely to be hyper-sensitive to this. If someone does offer some critique, remember that they are commenting on your work and not you as a person. Often, we take ‘your views lack coherence’ to mean ‘you lack coherence’. Women, in particular, tend to internalise criticism ‘it’s my fault’ and externalise praise ‘it was good luck’. Try to separate one instance or piece of work from your overall view of yourself.
Remember, fear is a natural part of growth and progress. It takes courage and confidence to face your fears and move forward. It takes a big dose of courage to face some of the doubters and commit to making that return to the workforce. Sometimes, it can help to simply ask yourself, ‘What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’

Posted by Anna Johnstone, Coach & Facilitator, Women Returners

Friday, 10 June 2016

Sharpening your Tech Skills

Sylvie Garvey, Founder of Computer Fitness and our Women Returners go-to tech expert, suggests a variety of ways to update your IT skills for your return to work. 

Making the decision to go back to work is a tough one. Deciding what role might suit you best, incorporating the logistics of family commitments, facing interviews and getting back into the mind-set of committing your time to something new can be very daunting.

Most of us have enough to think about without the worry of the whole IT side of things. The feeling that your technological skills might have become obsolete over your career break does not help with building your confidence. IT seems to change so frequently these days, as we see from constant updates to computers and smartphones, and the worry can be that it might be the same in the workplace.

Show up with the knowledge
Employers do expect you to get up to speed yourself with basic office management software before you start back to work. You should be able to demonstrate this during your interview if the topic comes up. If you are able to say that you have been on a refresher course for MS Office or the Apple Suite of products, both you and the potential employer will feel more confident about your return to work.

You can do this in many ways depending on how big you think the gap in your knowledge is and the skills you need to feel confident. You could attend a course at a local training centre which would cover broad aspects of office management software. If you're a self-directed learner, there are many online courses available (some free) which will guide you through software packages, for example Microsoft online training,  and Lynda.comYouTube can be an excellent source of knowledge for brushing up on how do to specific tasks like consolidating Excel spreadsheets using pivot tables or inserting links into PowerPoint.  

If you prefer more personal, tailored training you can get a trainer to guide you to areas that are specific to the role that you hope to be going back to. You could also ask a student or friend to spend a few hours getting you up to speed on the changes. 

Get your home IT fit for purpose
Another aspect of IT and your return to work to consider is whether your job will allow you to work from home and if your home IT capabilities are up to scratch. You might be provided with a work laptop eventually but be prepared to access work remotely initially, especially if trying to put those extra hours in at the beginning. Trying to participate in video conference calls or working on documents from home maybe part of what is expected of you so make sure that your computer has a robust anti-virus, fast broadband, the capacity to access shared work folders and emails and the software to review and edit documents.

For technically specific jobs, find out if the employer can get you up to speed themselves and if they will provide a technical updating piece to your training.
New software and applications and tools emerge every month so don’t expect to know what each one does or how it works. Many are custom-built tools used only within the company. It would be impossible to keep up with all emerging products and as with all aspects of returning to work, be patient with yourself and be open to trying new tools and accept all training offered.

Sylvie Garvey is the Founder of Computer Fitness, an IT troubleshooting and training company specialising in small business and home office environments. She worked in Management Consultancy for 15 years before starting Computer Fitness. She can arrange group or one-to-one training on most office software and can advise on future-proofing your IT []. 

Posted by Donna

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Coping with the return-to-work transition

There are many changes going on in my work life at the moment, as Women Returners expands rapidly in several new directions. Home life is also shifting as my oldest daughter ends school life and prepares for University. One moment these changes feel exciting and energising, the next they can seem exhausting and unsettling.

You may be experiencing similar up-and-down emotions as you are getting back into the job market or starting a new role after many years out. When I hit these periods of change, I find it helpful to remind myself that this emotional rollercoaster is completely normal. In the classic book Transitions, based on 30 years of research, William Bridges explains that we all go through a period of psychological readjustment when change occurs. Alongside opportunity, change can bring turmoil. It's useful to know that this inner transition process typically takes longer than we think it will, and doesn't necessarily correlate with the scale of the change or whether it's a positive change such as promotion or negative change such as redundancy.

He provides a simple roadmap of the three stages of any transition process. Change starts with an ending and ends with a beginning:

1 Endings
2 Neutral zone
3 New beginning
Every change starts with leaving the past behind, recognising what you're giving up & deciding what you want to hold on to

In this in-between state we readjust & reorientate. Emotional ups & downs are strongest at this stage
Finally, we launch into the new activities and start to embrace the change with renewed energy

Bridges' research found that we're much better able to navigate a change successfully if we anticipate these stages and take time at each step to adjust. Don't misinterpret the confusing feelings in the neutral zone as evidence that you shouldn't be making the change and a reason to retreat. Stick with it, weather the emotional upheaval, and you'll eventually come through to an exciting new beginning.

Posted by Julianne

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Ten Tips for Starting Up A Home Business

When we spoke at a recent back to work event, we listened to Debbie Blott, Founder of The DecorCafe HomeBizClub, talk about how to start a home business. We've invited Debbie to share her advice for women who are interested in starting their own home business as a route back into work after a career break.

1. Be Authentic: Taking a career break offers an opportunity to rethink what you do. The most successful start-ups are founded on passion. Knowledge builds confidence and confidence attracts customers.

Sarah Betteley, co-founder of Fruits of The Fridge, took the opportunity of her career break to change from working as a lawyer to creating catering company Fruits of The Fridge. Passionate about providing good wholesome home cooked food she has built her business on her own way of life, as someone who thinks nothing of putting together and packing up a complete menu of delicious food for a week's holiday. (see Fruits of the Fridge).

2. Create Your Vision: Be realistic about what it is you want to achieve and how much time you have to give. Is it a business to give you an interest alongside caring for your family or do you want to grow and sell a multi-million pound business?

3. Choose the most appropriate business structure: Setting up as a sole trader is quick and easy. Creating a limited company separates your personal and professional identities and protects you by limiting your financial exposure to your business investment.

4. Set Simple Goals: It is easy to be immobilised by planning and re-planning. Once you have decided what you want to achieve, set achievable goals and an action list. Review regularly as you progress.

Jane Michell, founder of the UK’s leading delivery diet, Jane Plan knows what it is like to struggle with your weight and initially trained as nutritionist to build her skills. She describes herself first and foremost as a mother of three children rather than a qualified business woman. She didn’t start with a complex business, rather she had a clear vision and some simple goals and progressed step by step. Following her passion to help her clients lose weight and transform their lives she has grown her business, from preparing weekly diets for friends from around her SW London kitchen table to more than £4 million in just 4 years. (see Jane Plan).

5. Make Space at Home: The lines between home and work can blur. Put a structure in place to ensure that you can close the door on work, ideally literally.

6. Build Your Brand: For many people working from home, your brand is you. Ask yourself what is distinct about what you do and your values and communicate it clearly and consistently.

Virginie Dunne worked as a nurse, but had to stop when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she began to recover she decided to retrain as a lighting designer to quite literally share her joy and shed some light and so she named her company, Splash of Light. (see Splash of Light).

7. Become an Authority: The most effective way to market your business is to become an authority. Build strategic partnerships with complementary businesses, write relevant articles for press, get involved in local online forums and spread the word through social media.

8. Seek Support: You may miss the water-cooler conversations in the office but you are not alone. Join local networks and you will find many like-minded people who collaborate and help each other. Employing a business coach or mentor provides valuable extra support in the early years. Join networking organisations of like-minded people.

9. Stay Legal and Protect Your Ideas: Don’t forget to tell the tax people that you have set up! The law is on your side and can help you to protect your ideas and business if you put confidentiality agreements, contracts and trademarks in place. 

10. Get started! There is only one way to find out just what you can do and you will learn quickly. Good luck!

About The DecorCafe HomeBizClub
Based in SW London The DecorCafe HomeBizClub is a collaborative community of people starting up or running their own home business. All about connecting, building skills and sharing ideas, they provide ongoing inspiration and support to make building your business more fun and less stressful. They welcome anybody who is interested to come along to one of their sessions to find out more.

Posted By Donna

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Q&A with Macquarie Group: An employer's perspective on a returner programme

Julianne from Women Returners interviewed Fiona Griffin, Division Director at Macquarie Asset Management to get the employer's perspective on the benefits of running a returnship programme.

Macquarie Group has recently launched the new Macquarie Returner Programme in the UK. What is your motivation for running a returner programme?
We recognise that there’s a significant pool of highly qualified, experienced professionals who are looking for the right opportunity to get back into the workforce. By having a structured programme specifically designed for that purpose, we hope to facilitate a successful return that brings benefits to both Macquarie and the individual concerned. It’s also important to demonstrate to our existing people that we value the investments they make in their careers. A career break doesn’t mean the end of your career with Macquarie, for many it can represent a new opportunity.

How does the Returner Programme fit with your other diversity initiatives?
Our commitment is to create and promote a diverse and inclusive workplace for everyone. The Returner Programme fits in perfectly with this. We recognise that the diversity of our people is fundamental to our success. Testament to that are the four employee network groups that were started by our people in EMEA. Each works on a different area of inclusion– Balance – which promotes gender balance in the workforce; Pride - supporting LGBT people and their allies; Engage – for those who are multilingual; as well as a network for Parents and Carers. 

What can participants expect from the Returner Programme?
The programme aims to show a Returner what it’s like to own their career – something Macquarie people are expected to do on a daily basis. If it’s a concept they enjoy, then participants will hopefully apply for roles based on a deeper understanding of what it is like to work at Macquarie. The programme is full time for 12 weeks and is designed to fit into the school term. We believe in providing a positive environment for our people, which is illustrated in all the additional benefits as part of our programme. Participants are assigned to one of our business groups and given a mentor from that area. They will receive specialised group coaching support from Women Returners to aid their return to work, and there will be an opportunity to take part in various networking opportunities, gaining exposure to senior leaders across the entire group. My Family Care support and emergency backup care can also be provided, if it is required. At the end of the programme, participants will be eligible to be considered for a permanent role.

What advice would you give to prospective applicants?
If you have been contemplating a return to work after a career break, this is a wonderful opportunity to get back into the workplace, refresh your knowledge and confidence and re-engage. Change can be good – take the opportunity. 

Further information

Posted by Julianne