Friday, 29 April 2016

Getting your 'work self' back: Tara's return-to-work via M&G Career Returners

This week, we're featuring Tara's story of returning to Corporate Governance after a four year break through M&G Career Returners, our partnership 'supported hiring' programme (this is a new way of hiring returning professionals which we have recently developed with M&G Investments - see the end of the post for more details on the programme and the roles currently available). 

After the birth of my first child I returned to my previous role as a Chartered Secretary with an Asset Management company. My hope was I would be able to work flexibly (four days a week) but a colleague had resigned whilst I was on maternity leave and the role was even more demanding; so it became clear that a full time commitment was needed, only this time nursery drop off and pick up were added to the pressure. So when I became pregnant again we decided that I would be a stay at home mum.
I stayed at home for four years, I weaned, potty trained, dealt with tantrums, ensured naps were taken, visited museums, farms and play parks. I didn’t get a moment to myself until my husband walked in at 6.30pm. I am so over playgroups and messy play but I would not change a single day. My youngest was heading towards Reception and I had been considering a return to work for a little while. My degree was in Law and I also completed the LPC before sitting further exams to qualify as a Chartered Secretary. I considered trying something else but I had enjoyed the career I had built up over 15 years and felt I wanted to use that knowledge and experience. So I updated my CV, mentioning my ‘career break’, and I contacted a recruitment agency.
At this time, I was also getting involved in local regeneration projects and joined Twitter to keep informed of local activities, so I also searched on Twitter for Company Secretary roles. I was very surprised when I found a role at M&G Investments that was not only similar to the position I had left four years earlier, but that also was advertised as being open to applicants who had taken a voluntary career break and that stated that the organisation was ‘happy to talk flexible working’. I had to apply!
Following quite a rigorous recruitment process, I was offered a position on four days a week. As I was a ‘career break’ employee, this included four 90 minute coaching sessions with Women Returners which provided guidance and structure on my change back from ‘mummy’ to ‘career mummy’. These sessions with Katerina were extremely helpful. From the first session before I even commenced employment, and throughout my early stages of adjusting, the coaching provided time to reflect on how I felt I was performing, what objectives would be beneficial to set and how I could perform to the best of my abilities for myself and my employer.
M&G share my view that we all have a life outside of the office and that being able to balance these roles brings out the best in the employee. They understand that working flexibly allows the employee to feel valued and therefore that they will work more efficiently and give more to the role. I enjoy working and I enjoy the role I am in at the moment, but being with my children is priceless. The fact that they need me less now allows me to pursue my own goals, and being a working mother always will be a juggling act, but it helps that I have an understanding employer that recognises the importance of delicately balancing one’s commitments.
My advice to others returning to work after a break is:
  • When looking for positions consider all routes: Consultants, direct with employer, through social media, through friends/school gate parents and through Women Returners.
  • Be clear on the hours/days you wish to work. Employers appreciate knowing what you can do, they can either work around it or suggest an alternative but at least they understand your requirements. Be realistic – consider whether the role will be possible on a part-time basis.
  • Remember that your ‘work self’ returns pretty sharpish, so have no fear – you will not have forgotten it all!

About M&G Career Returners
Women Returners is partnering with M&G Investments, a leading international asset manager, to provide an innovative supported hiring initiative enabling talented professionals who have taken an extended career break to return to their professional careers. M&G is actively highlighting roles where the business would welcome applications from people who have taken an extended career break. Successful candidates who have taken a voluntary break for 2+ years will receive individual coaching from Women Returners, internal mentoring and focused training to support their transition back to the corporate workforce. All roles offered are existing vacancies at M&G. For more details and to see roles currently available see: M&G Career Returners

Posted by Julianne

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Tackling the Paradox of Choice

I read a review this week of 'Not Working' a debut novel by Lisa Owens. It's about a twenty something woman who gives up her job in marketing career to find out what she wants to do with her life. Rather than quickly finding her 'passion', she procrastinates, faced with too many options and too much time to think, and her morale plummets: “If I can just digest enough TED talks, self-improvement podcasts, overviews on the Aristotelian sense of purpose and first-hand accounts of former City workers who set up artisan businesses from their kitchen tables, then surely the answer will reveal itself?”

This may ring bells for a few of you - it took me back to my own uncertainties when I was trying to work out what to do with my life after my career break. I wrote this blog post back in 2013 about how I got past the 'choice paralysis' ...

When I was on a career break after stepping out of my first career in strategy/marketing, I realised after a while that being a full-time at-home mother was not for me. I knew that I wanted to do something enjoyable and flexible and spent many hours dreaming and chatting with friends about what this might be. One month a friend and I got excited about importing baby equipment from Australia … then a few months later I was inspired to set up a family-focused travel agency … then it was a flexible childcare business ... then studying psychology. I was never short of ideas but the interesting thing was that the more options I thought of, and the more I talked about them and researched them on the internet, the more problems I could see and the further I became from actually doing them. Eventually I was reluctant to share my next great idea with my friends as I had stopped believing myself that I was actually going to make any of them happen. Somehow having too many choices was stopping me pursuing any one option more seriously.

When I went on to study psychology, I found that my experience is so common that it has a label: the Paradox of Choice. Too much choice in everyday life can make us confused and paralysed. The psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book and TED talk on this topic explained "with so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all". As no choice is perfect, we can always imagine that we will find a better alternative. And the effect can be stronger with more complex choices, such as career decisions. We are less likely to hit 'choice overload' if we are clear on our preferences or have a simple way to compare between options.

What got me out of the choice paralysis was realising that first of all I needed to develop some decision criteria to work out what I wanted from my life, so that I could weigh up my alternatives. While all options were appealing, with some positives and some negatives, I was unable to prioritise. When I became clearer on what was most important to me and where I could compromise, I was able to discount many of my ideas and to focus on the one that seemed the best fit. Then I needed to push myself to stop thinking/talking and start taking action. I dipped an exploratory toe in the water by enrolling on an introduction to psychology course and that was the first step on the road to retraining as a psychologist.

Some of the returners I meet also see too many possibilities and may have been thinking and talking about all the things they could do for years without making any concrete progress. One woman had a list of the pros and cons of the 16 options she had been considering - unsurprisingly she felt very confused about where to go next! If you too are hitting choice overload, aim to narrow your focus to get down to a manageable number of choices to investigate:
  1. Work out what is most important to you in your future job. Fine to start with 1) flexible 2) pays enough, but then go beyond that. What are you missing about work (is it using your brain, the achievement, the social aspect, ...), what are you really interested in, what are you good at and love doing?  If you’re wondering where to start with this process, look at some of our other posts on these topics or at Build your Own Rainbow.
  2. Use this to work out what you want from work, decide what are 'must-haves' and where you can compromise. You can then choose a few possibilities that really appeal and seem like they could be a good fit for you. And don't fall into the trap of looking for the perfect job as all jobs involve trade-offs.
  3. Critically don't spend more time thinking - practically reality test your short-list: talk to people in the area, maybe take a short course, go to a conference, work shadow, do an internship … test your ideas and learn along the way. 
Having choices and being open to possibilities is a great thing – don’t let it keep you stuck!

Further Reading

Posted by Julianne

Friday, 15 April 2016

Taking control of your return to work

Some of the women on career break we meet at our workshops or who write to us for advice believe they have little hope of returning to work. They express this in the following ways:

"employers are only looking for young people these days"
"there are no opportunities for [my job function] anymore"
"no employers are interested in people with a CV gap"
"the only jobs are in the cities and I live in the country"

If any of these comments sound familiar, you may think that you're just stating the truth - that the employment environment is closed to you and that nothing you can do will change this. 

However, thinking this way can mean that you give up control - you make yourself powerless. If you believe that there's no likelihood of success, you have little motivation to even explore how you might get back to work .. so, of course, you're very unlikely to make it happen.  

How to regain control

  • Be aware of what you're telling yourself. Are you are making generalised, 'black-and-white' statements about the employment environment (using words like 'only' and 'no' is a good clue)? If so, you can start to challenge your thinking: e.g. are ALL employers ONLY looking for young people?
  • Consider what is within your control. What realistic options do you have open to you for returning to work? This could include investigating work-from-home ideas, looking for local options, exploring relevant returnships and other returner programmes, developing your network, retraining in a new field.
  • Start taking action. Through taking action such as talking to former colleagues, re-joining a professional association or attending information events about a possible new field you will gain knowledge, potential contacts and, most importantly, a sense that you are in charge again.

For further reading:
Too few choices: advice on identifying post break options
Are 'shoulds' ruling your return to work decisions?
How to make time for your return to work job search
How to return to work after a long career break
Is it possible to return to work at 50+ after a career break?

Posted by Katerina

Friday, 8 April 2016

What's your USC (Unique Strengths Combination)?

Over the years I've asked many women to tell me their top three strengths. This question typically generates a look of embarrassment, a long pause and then a struggle to get beyond one or two, often prefaced by "Well, I suppose I'm quite good at ..". 

Despite the growing body of research into the importance of knowing and using our strengths, most of us are far more able to give a long list of our weaknesses than to describe where we really excel. And I've noticed that the strengths women most readily talk about are those which differentiate them the least. By far the most common responses I hear are two of the most generic - "I work hard" and "I'm good with people". 

Why is this so difficult for us? Unarguably the British culture, together with that of many other nationalities, puts down people who 'blow their own trumpets'. And from school reports to work performance reviews, we're encouraged to recognise our 'development needs' rather than to identify and build on our strengths. We also tend to undervalue talents which come naturally and easily to us, assuming that "everyone can do this" because we don't find it hard.

Why are strengths important?

Knowing your strengths is one of the fundamental foundations of managing your career. It will help you to decide what direction you want to take, to build your self-belief as you restart your career, to market yourself effectively in CVs, networking meetings and interviews and, just as importantly, to shape your jobs to best suit you ... not to mention making you happier and more productive.

How can you identify your strengths?
  1. Think about what you're particularly good at and what energises you. There may be things you do well that leave you drained. These may be your skills, but they're definitely not your strengths.
  2. Choose your comparison point as the average person. Don't compare yourself with the best in the business or you'll decide you don't excel at anything!
  3. Be specific rather than generic. Think about what differentiates you from the next person. Rather than the bland 'good with people' focus on your particular people skills (directing, coaching, influencing, collaborating, teaching, etc.) and with what types of people you work best.
  4. If you're finding this hard, ask your friends/family what they think you're good at & to give you some examples. Other people often notice your talents when you don't and you get the benefit of some positive feedback. 
What's your USC?

Aim to build a long list of strengths, with examples of each (this is a great basis for confidence-building and for interview conversations). Then prioritise, returning to the question "What are your top three strengths?" but this time with a clear, specific and credible response.

Loving a good acronym, I've created my own variation on your USP. Think of these three strengths as your USC - Unique Strengths Combination. Recognise how this mix of strengths positively differentiates you from the next person, both during the job search process and when you're back at work. And make sure "I work hard" isn't one of them!

Further reading
See Setting your career compass to read more about the benefits of using your strengths and for more ideas on identifying them.

Posted by Julianne

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The five steps that helped me to get back to work

Wondering how or indeed if you will ever get back to work again? You are not alone - I remember that feeling well. Here are a few practical steps based on my own experience, that will help you to re-establish your existing skills and learn new ones, build your confidence and broaden your network. 

1. Take an online course. When I was looking for work after a career break, I found myself out of touch with social media. I was recommended a course from HootSuite, The Fundamentals of Social Media Marketing. The course offers 6 modules from optimising your social media profile (great if you are looking for work) to social media marketing strategy (useful if you are looking to set up your own business), and you can take a certification exam for your CV. I also took the Coursera Learning How to Learn course last year to develop more general skills - it helped me to focus and be methodical, and to learn memory and time management techniques. Taking a course demonstrates your commitment, your enthusiasm for a subject, your desire to keep current and your appetite to learn something new, and is a good talking point at an interview or during an informal chat. However be sure of why you want to do the course before starting to have the best chance of seeing it through. Are you looking to get a recognised qualification from a prestigious university? Or perhaps you just want to bring a skill up to date. See the previous post on MOOCs here  to read more about the range of free courses available. And if you're relaunching in STEM, do look the new Reboot your STEM career course from Open Learn, the free learning platform of the Open University. 

2. Find skills-based volunteer opportunities. While looking for a paid role, you could sharpen your skills and put some of this theory into practise by volunteering. This doesn’t have to be formal - you could try your school parents’ association (I practiced my events planning and fundraising skills that way) or help a friend setting up a new business (I put my rusty HTML coding and design skills to the test by helping to build a new website). It’s amazing to see your skills valued and used in a different context. You'll find that “you still have it” after all, and this is very reassuring and empowering. Plan your strategic volunteering by reading our previous post on the subject here.

3. Get feedback on your CV. Ask your friends and ex-colleagues for feedback; it’s even better if you can send them a job spec that caught your eye along with your CV. I found that it helped to get a fresh pair of eyes looking at my CV and assessing objectively my suitability for a particular job.

4. Attend an event. Take a look at events targeting women looking to return to work organised by relevant professional bodies and associations, alumni groups and local communities. In my case, attending the Mumsnet Workfest event last year was a catalyst. I had to be dragged by a friend to sign up, as I was uncertain about my professional aspirations or what I would get out of the event.  But against the odds, I felt energised by the women I met, who reminded me of what I had to offer. I came back with practical advice (on my CV, on a job search strategy, on interviews) and was inspired by Katerina and Julianne’s session on returning to work after a career break. I was armed with new tools to look for work that would work for me. For events listing and Women Returners' talks and workshops, check our website and our monthly newsletter.

5. Get a mentor. A mentor can really help give you focus in your job search. I took part last year in the Steps Ahead mentoring pilot scheme, facilitated by the CIPD. My mentor was chosen according to the industry I wanted to move into. She provided me with valuable insight into this industry, how to tailor my CV and what a typical role would entail, and gave me a lot of encouragement, support and help. If you're a STEM returner, do look at the free mentoring available through the new MentorSET programme. 

These actions helped me to assess my situation more objectively, to determine how soon I wanted to go back to work, in what capacity and for what kind of organisation. While this is not an exhaustive list, why not try investigating one of these suggestions? You might be surprised by how much closer you get to your professional goal and how much more confident you feel at each step.

Posted by Muriel

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Unpacking your board-relevant skills: first steps towards a board role

The Equality and Human Rights Commission have just released their new report on board appointment practices in the UK’s largest 350 listed firms. More than 60% of these firms have not met a voluntary target of 25% female board members. If you're interested in boosting these numbers, this week's post by Rowena Ironside, Chair of Women on Boards UK, explores what types of roles you can seek in the boardroom, how to go about it, and what you can bring to the table. 

Some of us are fortunate to get an insight into the boardroom early on in our career. In my case this was thanks to being an executive director of a start-up business at the age of 30. But for most people what goes on in the boardroom remains a mystery until very late in their career. And if you don’t know what boards do, how do you know if your skills are relevant or if the role is one that you will enjoy?

Women on Boards (WOB) exists to fill this information gap. Our mission is to influence a measurable increase in the proportion of women both on boards and in “pipeline” roles at the executive level. And to achieve increased transparency in the board recruitment process, because at the moment the majority of board roles (public sector aside) are never advertised.

The good news is that the single most valuable asset in most boardrooms is common sense. Accompanied by the courage to ask tough questions and challenge the status quo from time to time.

Boards exist to challenge and support the executive team. They add value through a combination of collective judgement and the deep, specific expertise of each director. As an individual board member you don’t need to know everything; you don’t even need to have expertise in the “core business” of the organisation. As long as you bring a specific skill, experience or network that is valuable to the organisation at that point in time. For example:  
  • Don’t assume that you need to be a horticulturalist or an environmentalist to join the board of Kew Gardens. They may have a gap for digital marketing or event management skills on their board this year.
  •  First board role? Not everyone around the table needs to have years of boardroom experience. A board that is explicitly searching for past governance experience is not going to be anybody’s first board role. But most boards are equally interested in your breadth of experience and professional skills.
A common mistake is defining your options too narrowly by thinking you have to stay – or at least start – in “your sector”. Some charities need asset management and M&A experience and you may find that a Public Sector board is in need of your technology or risk management skills.

Women on Boards is there to help you navigate this complexity. Our resources and support are designed to provide a structured pathway to a board position that is right for you. As Clara Durodie, one of our members described it last year: “It felt as if someone was holding my hand, guiding me with care and skill”. WOB provides:
  1. Workshops, events and masterclasses that combine strategic insights and pragmatic advice. Our Getting Started: Realising your Board Potential workshop is a fast-paced tour through everything you need to know about directorship and how to do yourself justice as a candidate. Our Boardroom Conversations are designed to “open the curtains” so that you can be inspired by the opportunities on boards in a sector you haven't previously considered, or for in-depth insights from current non-executives in an area you are targeting.
  2. Access to board vacancies across all sectors – most weeks we have at least 150 non-executive director, trustee and governor vacancies on the WOB Vacancy Board.
  3.  Feedback on your Board CV. Writing a non executive profile that does you justice takes time and requires insight into what board members actually do. We will help.
  4.  Personal advice, connections and encouragement. This is WOB’s USP.  We will support you with targeted interventions at key points along the way, like when you are preparing for a board interview. We also do hugs if you are recovering from coming second for that role you really wanted.
  5. A rich Resource Centre of reference materials, research, articles and success stories. Our On Board page is my personal favourite. 
There are thousands of different boards across the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. WOB believes that there is a board role for everyone who wants one and that you are never too young to understand what goes on at the top table. The boardroom is where capital is allocated and where the moral and ethical standards for organisations in all sectors are set. We need more female voices at the table.
For more information about strategic volunteering, read our previous post here.

Rowena Ironside is Chair of Women on Boards UK, a non-executive director of the Digital Catapult and sits on the Governing Body of Hughes Hall, Cambridge. Before “going plural”, Rowena spent 25 years in the ICT industry, starting her career writing software in Australia; building and selling an IT services business in London and finally running several multi-national professional and managed services businesses in the software and hosting industries. She took a year’s break in 2002 to complete the Sloan Masters at London Business School.

For more information on Women on Boards, join The WOB Network

Posted by Muriel

Friday, 18 March 2016

Return-to-work CV Tips and Ideas

Last month we hosted a free webinar for our Network members on how to create an effective CV for your job search. We offered many tips and insights about what recruiters look for and addressed questions such as how to present your career break, whether to write a functional CV rather than a chronological one and how to take advantage of open questions in job applications. We have collected the key insights in this post, for those of you who missed the webinar.

How should I structure my CV?

Recruiters will expect to see three key sections:

  • Profile / Executive Summary: this describes your background, expertise and role you are seeking in 2 -3 sentences
  • Key Skills: list your 5 or so key skills, with brief evidence. Avoid generic skills like team player, leader, highly organised. Use specific skills such as strategic planning & implementation, procurement, digital media marketing
  • Professional Experience in reverse chronological order: state your achievements and contribution, not a role description. If you have a long career history, it's fine just to list early career role titles.
Following these sections include your Education & Professional Development, Memberships and other skills/activities (fluent languages, interests etc). Keep your CV to two pages in length.

Avoid functional CVs - recruiters don't like them because they make it hard to piece together your employment history.

What should I include/exclude?

When deciding the content, think about the business case you are making:
  • Why should they hire you?
  • What expertise will you bring?
  • What sets you apart from other candidates?
How do I describe my career break?
  • Don't try to hide it, particularly if you are applying for returner programmes where having a key break is one of the eligibility criteria
  • Call it a planned career break
  • Include any work (paid or voluntary) and training you have done which is relevant to the role you are seeking
  • You can include a reason for your break (e.g. parental career break; career break for caring responsibilities) but you don't have to
How do I answer the 'tell us about you' question on online application forms?

This question gives you the opportunity to do more than just repeat what is in your profile statement. You can use it in two ways:

  • to highlight aspects of your skills and your expertise that are relevant to the role you're applying for, to encourage the recruiter to look in detail at your CV
  • to express your motivation for and interest in the role which you don't otherwise have the chance to do
One final tip
As 97% of recruiters will reject a CV with 2 or more typos, take plenty of time to check your CV carefully and get others to read it through with a fresh eye, to spot errors you might have missed.

For more advice on CVs check our previous posts:

How to write your post break CV
The 'CV gap' barrier: evidence it exists & how to get over it
What about the gap in my CV?

Posted by Katerina

Friday, 11 March 2016

Routes back to work for expatriates: going independent

Returning to work as an expatriate is both exciting and challenging. In her second post, Claire d'Aboville explores how expatriates can work independently, adapt to different markets, make the most of their differences and turn them into competitive advantages.

You have put your career on hold, possibly in order to raise children. During that time, the family has moved to another country, where it currently resides. You feel now is the right time to get back to a professional activity. Amongst the various routes, creating your own business is an attractive option, offering flexibility and independence. What do you need to consider? Let’s focus on specifics related to your expatriate situation.

Retain same field of work, or not?

First you need to think about the field of work you want to get into. A few questions are worth investigating.
  • Are your skills recognised locally and what does it take to get local recognition? I once worked with a dentist from the Middle East who decided to go into headhunting because she did not feel like going through retraining as a dentist in the UK. You need to do a bit of research to find out whether your diploma and experience are accepted in the country you are in.
  • Do you speak the local language to a level that allows you to do a good job? My initial field of work was human resources. As a French person working in England and Germany, I felt it was easier to focus on the remuneration side of my profession than on the leadership development side. It felt less challenging to talk numbers than to talk emotions in a foreign language.
  • Are your skills up to date? Chances are that the world has moved on since you last worked. Also you may need to boost your confidence with some refresher course. Or you may want to learn something new. In any case, it might be wise to take a local course, as opposed to relying on e-learning, because a local course will also help you with your local network. I retrained as a coach in the UK.
  • Lastly, how portable do you want your activity to be? And how portable will your client base need to be? This is a wide topic. The two main aspects to consider are your personal plans and practicalities. Are you settled in this new country for many years or not? How quickly can you build a new client base if you move again? My current clients are UK based, but I could stay in touch remotely with many of them if I moved again.
In a nutshell, your field of work has to fit two criteria: you feel passionate enough about it and it is practically possible.

What does it take?

In addition to thinking about the field of work you want to engage in, you need to be aware of the specifics of “going it alone” and how they impact you as an expatriate.
  • Every independent professional has to work on his/her marketing and to make sure he/she has enough clients to work with. It takes time to build a client base. Being from a different country, you may not have any initial network to press the “word-of-mouth” key. And you may not have ready-to-buy clients who know you from a previous role. Therefore your efforts and patience might be needed.
  • Depending on when you have moved to the new country, you might still be busy adjusting to the new environment. You are less in your comfort zone than if you were at home. You have more uncertainty to deal with. These adjustments take your attention and energy away from starting your business.
  • It is quite useful to think about how your business (and you in it!) can cope with moving country again. I know a French financial auditor who retrained as an artist in the UK and established a good client base there. After her husband took a new role in Dubai, she had to start her marketing all over again, but she was able to apply lessons learned in the UK.
  • Lastly, you need to learn about the local legal, fiscal and business practices. This requires research and probably expert advice, depending on the country. Not all countries are equally welcoming to very small independent businesses. My friend in France found it much more challenging to register her business there than I did to register mine in the UK.
What market to serve, what ideal client?

Last but not least, who is your ideal client and whom do you want to serve?
  • As an expatriate, the community you are likely to know best is the expatriate community. According to my observations, the bigger the culture gap and the more remote the host country, the stronger and more supportive the expatriate community is. That can create an ideal market for you.
  • Modern technology broadens your world and your potential client base. As a teacher or a coach, you can work via skype and phone. As a journalist or writer you can deliver your work over Internet. In those cases, it does not matter so much where your clients are, provided you are able to keep in contact with them and keep marketing yourself, i.e. be visible and in a position to get work.
  • Lastly, you may consider bringing to local clients precisely what local people do not have / have less of: i.e. language, technical skills or products specific to your culture. I know a French person who offers her perspective and interior design skills to the expatriate community in Hong-Kong.
Working independently offers incomparable advantages with regards to flexibility and control of your time. As an expatriate, you face specific challenges but you also can build on your differences and turn them into competitive advantages.

For more information on issues facing expatriates, read Claire's first post on returning to work after international relocation.

Post by Claire d’Aboville, a Women Returners associate, a multi-lingual and multi-cultural Executive Coach and founder of Partners in Coaching