Friday, 27 March 2015

Challenging the stereotypes about returning professionals




This week I wrote an article for the Guardian Women in Leadership challenging the stereotypical views of women returners and urging employers to recognise the strong talent pool they are overlooking:

My aim was to highlight & question the attitude of so many corporate employers who reject those of you with a long CV gap purely because of their unconscious biases, in particular against women without recent experience. I hoped that it would make at least a few hiring employers question their stereotypes and be more open to considering returners as a result.

It has been great to see how this message has been spread on social media. The article has been shared nearly 1200 times around the world and picked up by Hearst Women who wrote a supportive piece:
Sharon Hodgson MP wrote on Twitter "As a returner I went on to become an MP! A career break should not be a career end!"

If you are one of the women experiencing rejection through conventional recruitment routes, we hope that the article does not make you feel more dispirited, but helps you to understand that it is not your personal failing - many other people are in your position. Remember that there are other ways to find a fulfilling business role, in particular using your network and building experience through freelance, voluntary or temporary roles. There are also increasing numbers of business employers who want to use returnships to bring you back.

We will continue to champion the abilities of returning professionals, to change employer perceptions and create routes back to fulfilling work so a career break is seen as a pause not an end to a corporate career.

Posted by Julianne


Thursday, 19 March 2015

Five ways to build your back-to-work networks




Why networking is important for a back-to-work job search

We talk regularly about the importance of networking as one of the key routes to get back to work after a long career break. The value of networking has really been brought home to me by two recent experiences. 

First of all, two highly experienced and qualified women who have successfully returned to work, one in investment banking and the other to a senior corporate role, told me how unhelpful headhunters were when they approached them. This included headhunters with whom they previously had relationships during their pre-break careers. The banker (who is now happily employed at Credit Suisse following a placement on the Real Returns programme) was told that her career break of 11 years was too long for the headhunter to place her. She was advised that the only way to find a role would be through her own network.

Separately in a meeting I attended to learn more about a new and growing professional women's network, my contact told me about two roles that she was trying to fill, in a discreet way, that might be suitable for a returner. These two roles are examples of the true 'hidden job market' that really does exist: often managers want to make a hire quickly, quietly, inexpensively and without lots of administration. They rely on their networks to do this as they view their own contacts as reliable and credible sources of talented candidates.

Five ways to build your networks

To access the hidden job market and circumvent unhelpful headhunters you need to get networking. Networking doesn't simply consist of walking into a room full of strangers and introducing yourself. More broadly, networking provides you with opportunities to connect with people who have similar interests, talents and concerns that you have. Through your engagement with them you will have opportunities to learn about potential roles and to talk about your own search. Ways to start making these contacts include joining any of the following:

  1. Membership organisations that match your professional interests. Networks exist for people with interests ranging from hedge funds to horticulture, oil engineering to oriental languages. These organisations commonly have informative newsletters, speaker events and training opportunities
  2. Relevant LinkedIn groups where you can initiate or contribute to discussions. In this way, you'll learn more about the issues that are current, raise your profile in the group and gain openings to contact people directly
  3. Alumni groups. All universities and business schools and many employers and secondary schools have these in place, as they recognise the value of a long-term relationship with you. Many of these groups actively encourage members to talk to each other for employment advice
  4. Professional associations. If you have a professional qualification, your accrediting body will also have a useful network as well as offering other career support
  5. Informal networks. Aside from these formal routes, you can make valuable connections through broadening or taking a more active role in social or community activities - a community group, a volunteer organisation, a school parent body, a religious community. We rarely know who our local networks are connected to and the 'hidden jobs' they might know about. 
As you build these connections, remember to talk to them about your background and what you are looking for, so that they will be able to help you. For your networking to be effective you have to be clear and convincing about the role you are seeking. See our previous post on Telling your Story if you are unsure how to do this.

For more advice on networking, see our previous posts
Do I really have to network?
Top tips for enjoyable networking
LinkedIn - an essential tool for your return to work


Posted by Katerina

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

One company's mission to provide new career paths for returning lawyers: the founder's view

I have long been concerned by the vast disparity between the number of women who enter the legal sector and the percentage of women who rise to the top of the profession. It is clear to me that there is one large, contributing factor, which is becoming less and less of an ‘elephant in the room’, and one which increasingly the sector needs to tackle. Women in particular, and parents more generally, who wish to combine a legal career with other commitments, most notably having a family, have been leaving the profession in the face of a constant struggle to balance work with life. The attrition rates speak for themselves – women have left, and continue to leave, the profession in droves. We know why they are leaving and so the key question is how can we, as an industry, stem this flow?

In 2010 I went on a trip to India to research my next entrepreneurial move. Whilst there, I witnessed a trend of outsourcing to offshore destinations which left me puzzled and frustrated given the amount of legal talent which lay dormant right here in the UK. This gave me a business idea, and thus Obelisk Support was born. I could see that we can offer a route back into the profession for exceptionally talented lawyers by allowing them to work flexibly. By tapping into this wasted talent pool, Obelisk Support could compete with offshore destinations on quality, flexibility, price and efficiency in its work with large multinational corporations and City law firms.

The last 4 years have not been an easy ride – and I did face something of an uphill battle in trying to convince clients that women could work flexibly, often remotely, without compromising on the quality of their delivery. But, the stories of our lawyers (80% of whom are female, many of them returning from a career break) who have succeeded in working flexibly around their family and other commitments is testament to the shifting attitudes of the legal industry (and, admittedly, four years of hard work from the Obelisk Support team).

Seeing the work coming through the pipeline and clients returning positive feedback on our lawyers’ work, some of whom never thought they would earn again by doing legal work, fills me with great pride. And so it is that I measure our success by the success of our lawyers.  Our success is best portrayed by the individual stories of the lawyers we have placed.

The stories are many and underpin just why we have become known as the legal business with a heart. Jane qualified at a top law firm, where she practiced for 13 years, before taking a 10 year career break whilst she started a family. After such a long break, re-entering the profession can be daunting. However, through Obelisk, Jane is now working for a large bank. She works remotely from home, for an average of 22.5 hours a week, all fitting around her other commitments.

Annie, who has a younger family, was able to work around her family commitments, working mostly from home and for around 5 hours a day. In Annie’s own words, working with Obelisk has benefited her enormously ‘both personally and professionally’.

Karina moved to Chile, but was keen to stay in full-time work. We secured her a full-time placement supporting a large telecommunications company in Ireland, where she was able to work completely remotely from home.

We really do put the client and lawyer at the heart of our legal solutions, and this is demonstrated by the unique way in which we approach each client and consultant, taking into account the needs of both parties and tailoring an efficient solution. My vision when I started Obelisk Support was to enable women like Jane, Annie and Karina to do the work they love, without having to make impossible compromises. That they have been able to do so, whilst simultaneously delivering exemplary service to large multinationals and law firms, should demonstrate to the legal profession that flexibility can, and does, work. 

Guest post by Dana Denis Smith, founder of Obelisk Support http://www.obelisksupport.com/

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Making your own choice on the working/stay-at-home mother decision



Daily Mail report this week that only 1 in 10 women are stay-at-home mothers, together with the judge's ruling in a recent divorce case that a mother should 'get a job' once her children are seven, have reignited the debate about whether mothers 'should' be at home with their children or remain in the workforce. We're at a strange point in history where there seems to be pressure both ways: a longstanding societal push, reinforced by some parts of the media, to be an at-home mother and a corresponding push from Government and other parts of the media to keep mothers working. Mothers are squeezed in the middle, torn as to the 'right thing' to do and feeling judged whatever path they take.

I hear these mixed messages played out on the personal level as well, from the mothers I work with. Some women feel pressure from partners/parents/friends to give total attention to the family, while others feel pushed to get back to work. And we then have our own internal ambiguity: "I'm being selfish and ungrateful if I want to work and leave my children" vs. "I'm wasting my education and sponging off my partner if I stay at home". It's not surprising that so many mothers feel guilty whatever they do.

What I'd love to tell all mothers wrestling with your work-home choices, either post maternity or career break, is this: There is no universal RIGHT answer. This is a time in your life when you need to acknowledge all the internal & external pressures you are experiencing, and then decide what is the best choice for you and your family, dependent on your desires and your personal circumstances (which can also change over time).

If you have no real choice and need the income, then avoid the 'pro-full-time mum' press, focus on managing your work-home balance, read our articles on how to ditch the guilt and stop labelling yourself as selfish. 

If you do have a choice, then focus on deciding what you want to do, not agonising over what you 'should' do. There are many options: working as an employee full-time/part-time/flexibly, setting up your own business, going freelance, pausing your career with a clear strategy to return later, or being an at-home mother. And it's fine to chop and change over the years as you create a life balance that works for you.

Personally, I was taken aback by the pull I felt to stay at home for a few years when my kids were small - I'd always pictured myself as someone who would never take a break. Being at home suited me best in the early years but after four years I was desperate to engage my brain again in other interests and went back to university to retrain, doing some consultancy alongside. I then worked part-time and grew my own business, working longer hours as my children got older. Many of my friends and colleagues had different experiences; from those who were very happy get back to full-time work after maternity leave to those have remained at home until their children are much older and are only now considering how they can find their way back into work. 

There is no single and perfect solution. But you'll know you've made the best choice for you when most of the time you feel (fairly) satisfied with your life and rarely feel frustrated and stuck in a place where you don't want to be. And if you don't feel satisfied, that's when you need to make a change, not when other people say you should.

Posted by Julianne



Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Returning to work after international relocation: culture, language and identity

Returning to work after a career break is challenging enough in itself. I know from my own experience of living in 4 countries in 30 years that when you are from a different country, you face a range of additional complexities, some being connected to culture, language and identity. The more you can gain clarity on these issues, the easier it becomes to turn these cultural and language differences to your benefit when returning to work.

Culture
Having spent most of my adult life in various countries outside my home nation, I feel that clich├ęs and stereotypes, although unfortunate, cannot be ignored from either side. For instance, one of my English colleagues shared with me as I arrived in the UK, that French people are perceived here as arrogant. Although it was a shock to me, as I would have never perceived us French as arrogant, it helped me understand what image we can give in the UK. So it will be useful to you to understand how locals perceive your culture, as much as what you truly think of those living in your host country.

Practical tips: if you are new to the country, take every opportunity to attend workshops on cultural differences. If you have been around for a while do investigate sensitively how your culture is seen locally, reflect on how you experience your own culture for yourself; and be open to conversations about cultural differences.

Language
If English is not your first language and you are reading this, your language skills are already strong.  If you are relocating to a country and you do not speak the local language, there is only one single piece of advice: it’s worth putting in the effort needed to learn that language. It could take time for you to feel confident so if need be, make this learning quite formal and put in the resources (group or private lessons, intense homework etc).

Trying to return to work when you do not speak the local language is a challenge. However I understand that in some cases, language structures and sounds are so different from what you are used to (e.g. for a European moving to China or Japan), that the effort might just be too much to take on. In such cases, my advice is to improve your English (if it is not your first language) and to look for opportunities in multinational companies or ways to offer your services to the expat community.

Identity
This is a wider topic than just culture and language. But there is a connection. If as a ‘trailing spouse’, you had to reluctantly give up a professional career, you are likely to have had your identity shaken in various ways at the same time: cultural, personal and professional. You will have experienced some loss and will need to recreate a balance and to invent a fulfilled new you.  Take action to create a satisfying life for yourself or you risk building resentment against your partner.

Practical tips: spending time acknowledging what is going on for you and what you need to create a balanced life is not wasted time: it is building precious self-awareness.  Sharing how you feel helps others understand you while asking for advice from those who have been there before you helps you realise that “it’s not you, it is the situation”. Getting support could be your best next step, whether through a buddy, a social network or a professional such as a coach.

If you pay attention to all three areas, culture, language and identity, as you investigate your return to work options, it will make your choices clearer and your decisions easier.


Post by Claire d’Aboville, a Women Returners associate, a multi-lingual and multi-cultural Executive Coach and founder of Partners in Coaching http://partnersincoaching.com/Welcome.html

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Returnship Q&A: The employer's perspective

As Thames Tideway Tunnel's new Returner Programme deadline approaches next Friday, Women Returners interviewed Tideway's Head of HR, Julie Thornton, to get her perspective on the business rationale for launching this innovative returnship, together with some information and advice for would-be applicants. 


WR: What is your motivation for setting up the Tideway Returner Programme? What is the appeal of returning professionals to your company?

JT: As a company, we are looking to increase the diversity of our workforce and this seemed an ideal way of doing so. Thames Tideway Tunnel is very active with early careers activities, graduates and apprenticeships, and the Returner Programme gives us the opportunity to fill an obvious gap – targeting and encouraging individuals who want to get back to a career after taking a break. We see returning professionals as a strong female talent pool which we are keen to access.  

WR: What can participants expect on the programme?

JT: They will experience a fulfilling role within the project, at an exciting time in our history as we move towards actually starting construction after more than 10 years of planning. They will also be fully supported by the management team to get them up to speed, have a dedicated mentor and receive expert coaching and support from Women Returners.

WR: Is your organisation expanding? Will there be ongoing job opportunities after the programme?

JT: In brief, yes. There are lots of vacancies currently on the project and there will continue to be over the coming months so this is an ideal time for people to join the project, get a feel for what we are about and apply for the roles they are interested in.

WR: In what other ways does Thames Tideway Tunnel support the careers of female employees?

JT: Our CEO, Andy Mitchell, is committed to achieving gender parity over the life of the project, and it is clear that to achieve this, we need to be a company that all people want to work for. We are focusing on getting the basics right, taking the values we promote, particularly flexible and inclusive working, through to practice. We also support employee-driven activities through our inclusivity forum, Encompass, which runs networking events and actively helps inform potential new policies or programmes.

WR: Do you see this programme as a one-off?

JT: No we are very much committed to making The Tideway Returner Programme a regular part of our overall resourcing and diversity plan. This is just the start of something we hope to see long into the future.

WR: How can people find out more and apply?

JT: Please visit http://www.thamestidewaytunnel.co.uk/about-us/tideway-returner-programme for more information and details on how to apply.

What advice would you give to prospective applicants?

A: If you are intrigued or interested, send in your CV because you have nothing to lose! Even if you aren't successful on the programme there may be other opportunities we can consider you for in the future.


Posted by Julianne

Friday, 13 February 2015

How to write a "Back to Work" Cover Letter

Many returnship and return-to-work programmes ask you to apply by sending a CV and a cover letter.  We know that this can be a daunting task for returners, hence this post.


We find that returners often struggle with cover letters, which can raise a lot of questions:
  • How do I introduce myself when I've been out of the workforce for so long?
  • How do I account for my time away from my career?
  • Is my previous work experience relevant when it was so long ago?
  • How can I be convincing when I'm not sure whether I would employ me now?
Introduction
  • Start with your background & your target role - not with your career break ("I am a marketing professional with 10 years of international experience and am writing to apply for the position of Senior Marketing Manager advertised on your website")
  • Then mention your career break. As on your CV, keep mention of your career break short, simple and factual ('Following a 5 year parental career break, .." is sufficient) and emphasise that you are now motivated and enthusiastic to return to work in the relevant field
  • Briefly mention anything you've done during your career break which is relevant to the role (such as further study, refresher courses, volunteer or paid activities and projects) and state how it has kept your knowledge/skills up-to-date or developed new skills
Show your suitability for the role .. and believe it!
  • Show how you fit the top 5-6 requirements of the role, using evidence from your previous work experience and relevant activities during your break
  • Remember that however long ago it was, you did lead a department, manage projects, produce reports, negotiate contracts or whatever your former role required. You still have these skills, even if you haven't used them for a while
  • Your former experience includes both what you did and how you got it done, i.e. both your technical abilities and your management skills.  Even if your technical knowledge feels a bit rusty, you have the same capacity to learn as you always did and you will get back up to speed. Your management skills have probably been enhanced significantly if your break was to bring up your children!  While we don't recommend that you use parenting as examples in your CV or cover letter, the chances are that your skills of negotiation, influencing and time management have all been fully utilised during your break
  • You might be having trouble remembering some of the content and detail of your earlier career.  If so, dig out your old performance reviews, 360 feedback and any other reports you might have kept.  Re-reading these can also remind you of what others valued about your contribution in the past: these will be the qualities that you offer a new employer too
  • For return to work or returnship programme applications, make sure you mention that you have been on a career break, where this is a key criterion for candidates. You risk being excluded from these opportunities if you try too hard to cover your break
Explain why you are interested in this role/organisation
  • Show an understanding of the organisation by doing your research into the company and the role - use social media such as the company LinkedIn page & Twitter account alongside the website
  • Even it's a returnship you need to show that you're motivated by the organisation and the area not just the opportunity to get back into the workforce
If the exercise of writing a cover letter hasn't reinforced your belief that you are ready to return, you probably need to do some work on regaining your professional identity and building your confidence.  Follow the links to our relevant posts and consider getting some support with increasing your self-belief.

More Information
For general information and tips on how a cover letter should look in 2015 look at Tailored Career Coaching (written by one of our associates).  

Posted by Katerina


Friday, 6 February 2015

How a MOOC can help you to test your career dream



I heard this week on Twitter about a free new online course just launched by coursera for fledgling social entrepreneurs, guiding people who want to set up a business with social impact to move from idea to action.  This is a fantastic addition to the rapidly increasing number of free online courses run by University-level experts that you can take part in from your own home in your own time. I'm a great fan of these MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and think that they are a wonderful resource for returners: I've heard very positive reports from colleagues, friends and coachees, who have followed courses on subjects ranging from creative writing to medical neuroscience. 

There are many ways in which you might be able to use a MOOC:
  • Testing whether you have the interest and commitment to invest in a masters programme, either to become more specialised &/or retrain into a new field. 
  • Updating/refreshing/upskilling before returning to your previous field.
  • Exploring more creative possibilities, either purely for fulfilment and enjoyment, to investigate whether you want to take your working life in this direction or to finally to write your novel.
  • Keeping your brain working & your CV current while you are prioritising caring responsibilities.
Returning to social entrepreneurship, I know that for many women returning from a long career break, there's a desire to find work with meaning and purpose; if you've been wondering how you can combine setting up your own business with doing something more meaningful, the coursera course could give you the impetus you need to test whether your dreams can become reality (see here for more details).

Let us know if you have studied a great free online course - we'd love to receive any recommendations!

Some MOOC Providers
coursera (courses from 115+ top universities including Yale & Stanford) 
edX (courses from MIT, Harvard, etc)
Future Learn (range of universities & cultural institutions)
Open Learning (free learning from The Open University)
Udacity (tech skills from Silicon Valley companies)

Posted by Julianne

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Is it possible to return to work at 50+ after a career break?

This is a question I discussed recently with Dr Ros Altmann, the UK Government's Older Workers Business Champion.  It is also a question I hear regularly from our Network, particularly those who have paused their career for health reasons or in order to look after elderly relatives.

While it might be true that some organisations fail to recognise the great value and benefit of hiring older workers, quite often the returners themselves are creating self-imposed barriers that need not exist.  It is necessary to develop the right mindset where your age is to your advantage.

The women I speak to who are hoping to return to employment, regularly tell me that organisations are only looking for younger people or those who have worked their way up a career ladder.  It is easy for them to fear that they are too old and too out of touch, to be considered employable.  They worry that they won’t fit into the office environment and that their prior experience, expertise and qualifications are no longer relevant. 
Instead of looking at what is missing from your CV, it is much more helpful to notice what your years of experience, both in and out of the workforce, have given you.  As Michele (who found full-time work in her 50s, following a divorce) says:
‘I was attractive to my new employer because at my age I was reliable, I brought a wealth of different experiences which meant I could talk to anybody and I was serious about my work.  At the same time, I wasn't going to take his clients and set up on my own.  And, I wasn't going to get pregnant which made a big difference in a small company’
A Harvard Business Review article, 3 years ago, which highlighted the concept of internships for returners mentions that such internships ‘… allow [companies] to hire people who have a level of maturity and experience not found in younger recruits and who are at a life stage where parental leaves and spousal relocations are most likely behind them.  In short, these applicants are an excellent investment’.  (HBR November 2012 ‘The 40-year-old intern’). 
Regular readers will know that we have been working hard for the past two years to introduce such 'internships for returners' into the UK.  Up to now, these programmes have mostly existed in the financial services sector but we will shortly be announcing one in a wholly new field and hope there will be more during 2015.
It is also the case that the 'internship for returners' route is only one of many ways to return to work and I list below the links to other relevant articles we've published. However you plan to return, you can help yourself by remembering all the qualities described above and knowing that you offer future employers commitment and stability.  You know you will stay a long time if you enjoy your work and are valued for what you bring to the organisation.

Dr Altmann has been tasked with making the case for older workers within the business community and challenging outdated perceptions.  She will be reporting to the Government in March with her recommendations on what Government policy needs to be to enable older workers to continue to be productively employed.  We hope that her work will help to dispel the fears of the over 50s that they are no longer employable and lead to more opportunities for older returners.

Related posts:
The value of older women to the workforce
Thinking small: an alternative route back to work
How to create your own 'returnship'
Ideas for routes back to work
Freelancing as a return to work option
Find your way back to work through Strategic Volunteering


Posted by Katerina 

Friday, 23 January 2015

A returner's success story - Business mentoring as platform for future

As we reach the end of January, you might be finding your good intentions of finding a way back to work are slipping.  We hope this guest blog by Jill Ridley-Smith will inspire you and give a boost to your motivation.


Over drinks at a Christmas party, my neighbour recommended I read, in his words, “a gripping Scandi Noir murder mystery novel” by Karl Ove Knausgaard.  Given the synopsis, I wasn’t expecting these words in the first few pages:     

“Time is slipping away from me, running through my fingers like sand while I … do what?  Clean floors, wash clothes, make dinner, wash up, go shopping, play with the children, bring them home, undress them, bath them, look after them until it is bedtime, tuck them in, hang some clothes to dry, fold others and put them away, tidy up, wipe tables, chairs and cupboards.  It is a struggle and it is not heroic.  Nothing I previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails.  That does not mean I do not love them, because I do, with all my heart, it simply means that the meaning they produce is not sufficient to fulfill a whole life.  Not mine at any rate.” 

He must have been having a bad day!  But nevertheless I recognise the sentiment.  After having my second child I quit the City but continue to find myself emotionally split between wanting to bring up my kids myself and wanting a career. Just like Karl Ove, I’m not completely fulfilled by full-time motherhood but nor am I willing give it up.  Consequently, I try to balance being with the kids and working whilst laying the ground work for a future when they need me less and I can work more.

To understand my work options better, a few years ago I went to a conference about returning to work after a career break. Based on their book “Back on the Career Track”, Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin introduced me what they call the “Three C’s of Career Relaunch”: Control, Content and Compensation.  It’s different for everyone, but for me, I want control over my time spent working (to meet my desire for balance between motherhood and work), I want intellectual stimulation in the content of the work I do and, because they said you couldn’t have them all, I decided I was willing to trade some compensation.

We were encouraged to see the career break as an opportunity for introspection: to critically appraise how much we enjoyed the work we did before and to realise that it might be a mistake to go back to an old role.  It dawned on me that in my previous career in Private Equity I had most enjoyed working with management teams to improve company performance; the deal doing or the returns from investing were not the big pull that they are for some people. I realised too that at Mums’ coffee mornings I was always drawn to conversations about business ideas and I relished chats with mum-entrepreneurs.  So plausible career paths seemed to be either pursing entrepreneurship (but what was the idea?), or business consultancy (I had been a strategy consultant), or “going plural” and taking non-Exec Director appointments. 

In December 2012 I went along to an Entrepreneurship conference at Olympia where I met the team from Start-Up Direct.  Then in its infancy, the Start-Up Loans initiative was to pair up Government loans with business mentorship for young entrepreneurs.   It struck me that being a business mentor could meet my personal “control” and “content” goals without being a huge time commitment. I volunteered and shortly thereafter was introduced to Karoline Gross, CEO of Smartzer.  Two years later, I still work with Karoline and my journey with her has been hugely rewarding.

Initially I thought taking on a mentee would keep me stimulated and treading water until I found the “real” job. However, I now mentor two young people through Start-Up Direct (an evolution of Start-Up Loans) and I have a third mentee who is a peer of mine from Business School.  For each, my mentoring focus is different and is adapted to their needs.  We meet roughly once a month and our conversations address both pressing business issues and planning for the future.  I love the work which involves providing a mixture of support, coaching and direct advice. 

We often talk about money, and my finance background is good for this, but other regular topics are sales and marketing, managing people and strategies for growth.  I’ve learned that entrepreneurship can be very lonely, so I am a sounding board, a person who holds you to your time lines and someone who helps you find solutions to problems.

Most of my work currently is volunteering, so I have compromised on compensation, but I see it as a launch-pad for the future.  I find the work uplifting, fun, challenging, stimulating and interesting.  Entrepreneurs by their very nature are engaged, ambitious and driven; their vibrancy and enthusiasm is contagious!  Also I know I make a genuine difference.  My wisdom and business experience is valued and put to good effect. 


Indeed, I have already used the mentoring as a platform for taking on additional roles including being Board member for Nottingham Trent University.  As for the future, entrepreneurship itself still beckons, I’m dipping my toes into being an Angel Investor and I may yet focus on “going plural” with NED roles.  I often feel I am the consummate juggler of work, school, kids, home and family but keeping all the balls in the air is the way I keep happy and fulfilled.  Karl Ove should try it; as the book is called “Death in the Family” I’m reading on in trepidation… 

Jill Ridley-Smith works as a Business Mentor and is a Non-Executive Director on three Boards.  She took a career break in 2009 after a successful career in Private Equity with HgCapital and prior to this she held management roles at GlaxoSmithKline and LEK Consulting.  She has an MBA from Kellogg Graduate School of Management.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

How to Prepare for Competency-Based Interviews


When you're facing a job interview after many years out, it can be difficult to know how best to prepare. It may be many years since you last had an interview and the structure of interviews has changed significantly in the last decade. One relatively new and increasingly common addition to the recruitment process is the use of competency-based interviews. These raise particular issues if you've had a long career break and if you have never encountered them before they can throw you off balance in an interview. The key to performing well is detailed preparation - this is not the moment to rely on 'thinking on your feet' as you may have done previously in less structured more conversational interviews.

What is a competency?
A competency is a particular quality that the recruiter is looking for in job applicants, covering both behaviours and skills. Common examples are:
.
  • Adapting to change
  • Analysing
  • Communicating
  • Creating and Innovating
  • Decisiveness
  • Influencing
  • Integrity
  • Leadership
  • Planning & organising
  • Problem-solving
  • Resilience 
  • Team work

What should I expect in a competency-based interview?
The purpose of competency-based interviews is to allow hiring managers to determine, more accurately, your fit with the precise requirements of the role through a systematic assessment.  All candidates for a role will be asked the same set of questions about the competencies appropriate to the role.

In the interview, you will be asked questions to test whether you have the desired competencies, by giving concrete examples from your past experience. 

During the interview you will be asked a series of questions like these: 
Describe a situation when you [produced an imaginative solution]?
How do you [determine your priorities]?
Tell me about a time when you [motivated others to reach a team goal] 
Give me an example of when you [were faced with a difficult problem]

The key to answering these questions is by giving specific examples from your prior experience and not just discussing the topic in a theoretical, impersonal or overly general manner. The interviewer is likely to dig further into your example by asking specific questions to examine your behaviours and attitudes.

How to prepare for a competency-based interview
It is essential to put time into preparing and rehearsing your responses.

You will usually be told in advance that you will be given such an interview. The first preparation step is to identify what competencies are being assessed, to give you the opportunity to prepare your examples. You may be told of these upfront. If not, do ask for this information and, if it is not provided, analyse the job description and the company careers webpages to pick out the competencies highlighted there. 

For each competency, think of two examples which give good evidence of the competency area. Draft a reply which focuses on the actions you took in each example which led to a successful outcome. One of the common pitfalls in these interviews is to give too much explanation of the context and background and not to give enough attention to what you did which is what your interviewer really cares about. A useful mnemonic for structuring your examples is STAR: Situation - Task - Action - Result.  Your answer needs to include all four elements to be effective, with most time spent on Actions. 

Make sure that you are clear about and emphasise your specific contribution. Talk about what you did using "I did" rather than "we did". Your interviewer wants to know about you not the team.

Further advice for returners
  • It is common for returners to underplay their strengths and skills, particularly after a long break. This is not the time for modesty or to underplay your role in achieving a task!
  • Your examples don't have to all be recent, so don't be concerned if you have had a long break and are using a few examples from 5, 10 or 15 years ago. Just take time beforehand to remember as much as you can about the example so that you can provide enough detail about your contribution.
  • Your examples don't need to be solely work-related. More recent examples from your leisure activities, studies or any skilled volunteering you have done are just as relevant to use alongside, provided they effectively demonstrate the competency asked for.
  • If you would like some pre-interview practice and feedback to test out your examples, enlist a buddy to work with you or contact us about our interview coaching services.

Related post: 

Posted by Katerina

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Credit Suisse Real Returns: Q&A with a Returner

As the application deadline for the 2015 Credit Suisse London Real Returns programme approaches next Friday, Julianne interviewed Julia Dawson, a 2014 Real Returns participant to find out more about her experiences and to get her advice on applying for and making the most of a returnship. 


What prompted you to apply for Real Returns?
I had read about returnships in the United States and so knew about the concept. I had been on a career break to raise a family for over three years and was interested in going back into banking but not into equity sales where I had spent the previous 11 years. The Real Returns programme at Credit Suisse seemed to open up new opportunities, allowing me to apply my skills and experience to a different area. 

What were the benefits to you of the Real Returns programme?
The programme offered an open door back to banking with no downside and great potential upside. The 10-week framework structured around the school terms allowed me to trial a return to the workplace without too much disruption to my family routines. It was an easier transition than going straight back into a permanent role and gave me the opportunity to really show what I could do. 

Real Returns gave me a lot of confidence - it was fantastic to see so many capable women finding their feet. The peer group was a really positive aspect, as we were all in it together. There was more involvement from very senior management than you might think - you get amazing access as everyone was interested in finding out more about the inaugural Real Returns cohort.

What type of work did you do?
I led a research project on diversity, The Credit Suisse Gender 3000, a subject that remains very relevant and incredibly interesting. [Julia's research report was published in September 2014 and can be viewed here]. All the participants were involved with business critical projects and made a significant contribution.

What support did you receive?
We had support from the programme managers throughout the 10 weeks. In addition, each returner was assigned a mentor - a great point-person for introductions, particularly for people looking more broadly within the bank for opportunities. We also received training and career coaching, which I was initially sceptical about but found extremely rewarding and eye-opening on a personal and professional level.  

What happened at the end of the programme?
I was offered a full-time job in equity research within the Thematics team. I was appointed as a Managing Director, the same level as I was prior to my career break, so I have not had to take a step down in my career progression at all.

What advice would you give to potential applicants to Real Returns or other returnships?
Be honest about who you are in your application and get your application in as soon as possible - you have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. It is a wonderful way to get back to work and maybe to try something new in a related field.

What advice would you give to future returnship participants?
Several things made this a valuable experience for me. I would advise other participants to network as much as possible - take the opportunities given to you. Keep an open mind about the areas that might interest you - coming back to work brings a great freshness and invigoration and many departments want to take advantage of this. Make the most of the coaching sessions as they can be very revealing and rewarding. And finally, really showcase your contribution on the program - you are part of a valuable talent pool so show what you can still do and have to offer.

Any final comments?

I was surprised how little pressure I felt once I got through the door. It was thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating. I am extremely happy to be back at work.


If you are inspired by Julia's experience to apply for the 2015 Real Returns programme, you can find more information and application details here. You'll need to be quick as the application deadline is Friday 16th January.

Posted by Julianne

Monday, 5 January 2015

How to Maintain your New Year Motivation

Why do New Year's Resolutions usually fail?
Why does our New Year's Day determination to achieve our long-term objectives so often fade after a few weeks? Why do the same goals reappear year after year? This isn't another reason to beat ourselves up for lack of self-discipline. It's not enough just to set a goal and rely on willpower. And psychology research has found that many of the other techniques we think will help us to achieve our goals are also ineffective. 

Last year I finally managed to achieve one of the goals that kept reappearing on my New Year list: starting running. I loved the idea of running - getting out in the fresh air, 'easy' to fit in with my schedule - but April arrived & I still hadn't put a trainer-clad foot out of doors. I had lots of excuses (running 2 businesses, demanding teenagers, waiting for warmer weather) but the truth was that my motivation just wasn't strong enough. The short-term comfort of staying home in the warmth always outweighed the long-term gain of getting healthier.

The turning point for me was signing up in May for a beginners' running class on our local common. I realised that I needed the push of the weekly commitment in my diary, together with the pull of the sociable side of the group to give me the motivational boost to get out of the door. And it worked! I can't say that I've turned into a dedicated runner, or managed to run regularly more than once a week, but I've shown up each week, even on those freezing, wet & windy mornings when a hot coffee in a warm house seems infinitely more appealing, I now enjoy running comfortably for half an hour, and I've signed up for the improvers' class this year!

How can we boost our motivation? 
There's a lot of research evidence that having a long-term end goal just isn't enough. A study into motivation at the University of California found that students asked to visualise the end goal - getting a high grade in their exam - for a few minutes each day ended up working less and getting worse marks. Another experiment found that students who often fantasised about their dream job were actually less likely to get job offers.

Richard Wiseman*, one of my psychology gurus, conducted two large-scale global scientific studies into motivation and found that only 10% of people successfully achieved their aims. He looked at the techniques that participants used most often and discovered that half were effective and half ineffective, and that most people were using the ineffective ones. 

He identified 5 effective ways to boost your motivation ...:
1. Making a step-by-step plan, breaking the goal into achievable sub-goals to reduce the fear and hesitation of change. 
2. Telling friends, family and other people about your goals. In this way you both strengthen your resolve and get support. 
3. Thinking about the specific ways in which your life will be better if you achieve your goal.
4. Rewarding yourself in small ways for progress towards your goal. 
5. Making plans, progress, benefits and rewards more concrete and specific by writing them down. 

... and 5 ineffective techniques to avoid:
1. Focusing on a successful role model.
2. Thinking about the bad things that will happen if you don't achieve your goals.
3. Trying to suppress negative or unhelpful thoughts.
4. Relying on willpower.
5. Fantasising about how great life will be when you achieve your goal.

For me, the first thing that most strengthened my motivation was having a regular commitment that I treated as an important not-to-be-cancelled meeting in my diary. This created a 'healthy habit' out of running. The second was the group aspect, as we encourage each other and enjoy running together.

If you've committed to yourself to return to work this year, think about how you can apply these principles to build your own motivation when your New Year enthusiasm wanes and the rest of life gets in the way. Maybe create your own 'return to work' peer group to share your goals and support each other; set aside regular times each week to work on your job exploration; set achievable weekly return-to-work goals; and buy a journal to record and reward yourself for progress. And use our Network and LinkedIn group as an extra source of support and encouragement.

Happy New Year!

* See 59 Seconds for more of Richard Wiseman's research-based advice

Posted by Julianne

Monday, 22 December 2014

Season's Greetings from Women Returners



Thank you for following our Back to Your Future blog. We hope that we have been a source of advice, support and inspiration to you during 2014.

If you're a returning professional, we now have other ways of connecting with you. If you haven't already done so, do join our Women Returners Professional Network for up-to-date news and information and join our new Linked In group to participate in return-to-work discussions and to connect with other returners. 

We're taking a festive break for a few weeks and will be back in 2015!

Best wishes, Julianne & Katerina

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Vodafone "Return to Technology" programme - participant story

For our final post of 2014, we decided to share Nina's return to work success story.  Nina has returned to a role in technology following an 11 year career break.  We hope that her experience and tips will inspire you to believe that your own return might be possible in the new year.  We are really proud of having helped at least 15 returners back to work in 2014 (these are the ones we know about personally).  We hope that there will be many more of you in 2015.


I returned to the mobile phone industry after an 11 year career break due to family commitments. Before that I had been working for a variety of multi-national mobile technology firms.  I had an earlier 4 year career break during which I took an MBA (and had two children) but during this last break I had re-trained as a maths teacher in senior school which I ended up hating and that really knocked my confidence. Also, with the break being 11 years long I had not kept in touch with colleagues.

I heard about Vodafone’s six-month “Return to Technology” programme in one of the Women Returners newsletters. I threw everything and the kitchen sink at getting the job, asking my husband to review my application and my friends and fora for interview advice. I applied online, was interviewed over the phone by HR within a couple of days and face to face by engineers within a week. I went from no-hope to employed in a month!

Am I enjoying it? YES It’s fantastic. I really enjoy being back in work, I enjoy the team and I feel energised and happy. The only problem is the difficult commute from Surrey to West Berkshire which I have solved that by adjusting my working hours. Vodafone has been open to my need for flexibility. I have had to employ an au pair as I still have a 13 year old boy who needs to get around. I employed a mature unemployed Spanish Biology teacher who is here to learn English to improve her job prospects, thereby offering my very own returnship.

Much of the learning is on the job although I have been using Vodafone’s fantastic on-line Technology Academy to get myself back up to speed. We are getting career advice and we will be shown how to apply for internal jobs later in the programme.

My best advice for technology returnships:
- In selling yourself, focus on your skills, not your knowledge.
- There are loads of technology jobs out there, someone is looking for your skills set. Don’t worry about having been out of the industry for some years, they are looking at what you can do for them.
- Don’t wait for the perfect job that matches your long term ambition. Get your foot through the door and you can look around once inside.
- Get yourself an LinkedIn account and get back in touch with old colleagues. Technology is booming and someone is most likely looking for help on some project or other so you can get some recent experience under your belt.

Posted by Katerina

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Did you opt out or were you pushed out?

There has been a lot of media coverage over the last few weeks of a research study* carried out by Harvard Business School into the career paths of their MBA alumni. One of the headlines has been that "the vast majority" of high-achieving highly-educated women leave their jobs after becoming mothers "reluctantly and as a last resort". The conclusion the HBR article makes is that highly-qualified women who take career breaks are not 'opting out' but are pushed out of corporate life by the inflexible and unsupportive nature of the workplace and their partners.

This doesn't quite ring true for me. A 2010 UK study** reported different findings: of the 23% of women who didn't return to work after having children, only 34% of these stated job and childcare obstacles as the reason. Around half cited wanting to look after their children themselves as their main motivation for taking a career break, and there were most 'carers by choice' among the highly educated group. This was my experience - I was concerned about integrating family life with a demanding job, but this felt challenging not completely impossible. My primary driver for taking a career break, and that of many of the returning professionals I have worked with, was a strong (& unexpected!) desire to be the main carer of my children in their early years.    

I recognise that for most of us there is usually a combination of push and pull factors. The question I am interested in here is what is the PRIMARY driver. It's an important question for our advocacy initiatives on behalf of returners because it demonstrates whether an extended career break can be a positive choice or is just evidence of a problem to be resolved.

If you've taken a career break to look after your children, I'd love to hear about your main reason for the decision. Let me know by completing the survey question below  - please help me to get enough replies for a meaningful sample. You can also contribute your thoughts and perspective on the new Women Returners Professional Network LinkedIn group (for returners only) where I'll also be posting this question. 


Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world's leading questionnaire tool.

If you can't see the survey question, here's the link to access it:
https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/VD3NN76

* Rethink what you 'know'about high-achieving women Harvard Business Review Dec 2014
** Maternity and Paternity Rights and Women Returners Survey DWP Research Report No 777 (Chanfreau et al, 2011)

Posted by Julianne