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

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Getting out of your return to work comfort zone

Last Saturday, I had my first experience of appearing on a live radio show, to talk about our work at Women Returners. Although I'm very comfortable with talking to all sorts of audiences about what we do and why we do it and have had a small amount of media training, it was still daunting to be appearing live on a public broadcast. But I did it - and enjoyed it!

This experience made me reflect how easy it is to stay in our comfort zones, generally, and specifically how remaining in our comfort zone can be a barrier to a finding a way back to work. There are many things we know we 'should' do which will help with our return (and this blog is full of ideas and advice) but if these things feel uncomfortable and difficult we make excuses and don't do them.

Three zones not one
It is useful to think about three zones of experience. In your comfort zone, you feel safe and unchallenged and possibly slightly bored. In your stretch zone, you feel slightly unsafe and nervous and there is also some excitement at doing something a bit different. In your panic zone you feel out-of-your depth, scared and unhappy.  

What might you be doing that keeps you in your return to work comfort zone?
- not calling a former colleague to arrange a coffee
- delaying putting your LinkedIn profile online
- filling your days with chores, volunteering and looking after others
- not putting yourself forward for a strategic volunteering opportunity
- not going to events or conferences in your area of interest

How can you move into your stretch zone but not your panic zone?

Sometimes we need something or someone to give us a push to do something that takes us out of our comfort zone and into our stretch zone. This was certainly true of the radio interview: I hadn't actively sought the opportunity but when it came along I decided to go for it. As I reflected on the experience, there were quite a few things which helped me to make the move out of my comfort zone, without going into my panic zone, which will be useful to in your return to work activities:

  1. Small steps. This first interview was with a small local radio station, far from where I lived so I didn't feel my reputation was at stake and nor was it a 'make or break' opportunity for the business.
  2. Mindset. I decided to treat the interview as an experiment and an opportunity to learn.  This mindset made it possible to be open to the experience and not judge myself too harshly on how I performed.
  3. Realistic expectations. Alongside my mindset, I chose to set my expectations at a reasonable level for me. I didn't have to be perfectly fluent in the interview, I could be 'good enough'. It was OK to make mistakes because I would learn from them for next time.
  4. Preparation. Even though I only managed to do this at the last minute, I spent the journey to the studio writing out bullet point answers to the questions I was expecting to be asked. Having thought through what I would say in advance and having my notes in front of me gave me focus and helped me to stay calm. I had also listened to the previous week's programme so I had some idea of the format of the radio show and the style of the presenter.
  5. Enlist a buddy. Sharing the experience with Julianne made a big difference. I wasn't alone and I had someone to give me a boost if I needed it.
  6. Celebrate success. By acknowledging that I had achieved what I set out to do, it reinforced the possibility that I could continue to stretch myself. It is great to know that I will never face my first radio interview again!
These six components are applicable to every return to work situation whether it is attending a networking event, calling a former contact or putting your self forward for a new role. What are you ready to do to move out of your job search comfort zone?


Posted by Katerina

If you want to listen to the broadcast, click here

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Routes back to law: Setting up in Private Practice

There are many routes back to work after a career break. Taking a more entrepreneurial route may allow you to create your own culture and flexible working practices. Katie Rainscourt, our guest blogger this week, offers the benefit of her experience of establishing her own family law firm. Her advice is equally relevant to other professionals thinking about setting up in private practice. And read to the end if you'd like a return to law mentor.

If you are or have been a solicitor, are you using your legal skills to your best advantage?

I am managing partner of Rainscourt Family Law Solicitors, a firm of solicitors based in Milton Keynes, working exclusively in family law. I am delighted to be able to write a blog for Women Returners, and I do so because I would like to bring to your attention the option of establishing your own firm as an alternative option to joining an existing firm elsewhere.

Many skilled solicitors are currently lost to the profession when they decide that they are unable to return. One option that these individuals may not have considered is that of establishing their own firm of solicitors, instead of returning to the traditional firm environment, or choosing to opt out of the profession altogether. My firm is a signatory to the Law Society diversity and inclusion charter, and I hope that this blog may encourage returners to consider this alternative route, and lead to greater inclusion within our profession.

Is this an option for you?
In terms of whether this is an option for you, think about the area of law you practise or practised in. Do you have skills that people will pay to access, and ask for advice from you, in your area of expertise?

Your first step will be to sketch out your business plan:
How familiar are you with the market in which you operate or operated?
What is your product? What is your brand? 
Where will you base your firm? 
What area of law is your expertise focused in, and how can you best offer this to your clients? 

This will require in-depth planning and research on your part. Think about your existing contacts or friends who may be able to help you with your brainstorming.  These contacts need not necessarily come from the legal world, but may come from a finance or business background. Think of how best to promote yourself and your skills, and what will be unique to you and your business.

There will be many decisions that you need to make, but ultimately, you may end up with a product that you take a great deal of pride in, and which will enable you to make best use of your legal skills.

Mentoring
I would be delighted to act as a mentor for a returner to law, or to speak to any of you who are interested in taking this path, so please do get in touch with me via Julianne or Katerina at info@womenreturners.com.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

How to avoid the Top 10 Return to Work Job Search mistakes

Over the years that I have been working with returners, I've noticed how many women make the same job search mistakes that can completely derail their return to work. To stop you falling into the same traps, here's my summary of the Top 10 and a few tips on how to avoid them.

1. Relying on headhunters and recruitment agencies to find you a role
Headhunters and other agencies are paid for filling specific vacancies and if your profile doesn't exactly match they won't be interested. And a long career break labels you as a risky candidate. Do let any headhunter contacts know that you are looking for work, & look for agencies sympathetic to returners, just don't make this your sole strategy or be deterred by the negative reception most will give you.

2. Sitting at home scanning LinkedIn, job boards and website for vacancies
Only an estimated 20-30% of vacancies are ever advertised, so if this is your approach to finding a role, you are missing out on the the majority of positions that are filled through recommendation, word of mouth and former colleagues. To access the 'hidden job market' you need to be more active, start networking and tell everyone you meet about your search.  

3. Defining yourself too narrowly by your previous role
It's easy to restrict ourselves to roles similar to our last job title or specialist qualification. This narrows your options and can make you feel that you're not qualified for any role that fits with your life now. Instead, look out for roles that ask for the broader skills and strengths you possess within fields that interest you.

4. Sending one application at a time...
If you get excited about having found The Ideal Role and wait to see what happens with it before making other applications, you could be waiting a very long time. Hiring decisions are rarely quick, company priorities can change and you may not ultimately get the job for a variety of reasons. Keep networking, and seeking and applying for other opportunities in the meantime, until you actually sign the contract.

5. ... Or making scatter gun applications
Don't fire off applications or direct approaches to everyone you can think of. You waste time applying for roles that aren't a good fit for you and you'll appear unfocused in your application & under-motivated in an interview. Decide what to target and treat each application with care, researching the organisation and the specific requirements of the role and tailoring your application accordingly.

6. Applying for roles that are too junior
If your confidence in your abilities is low, you may apply for 'less demanding' roles as a way of easing yourself back into work. The trouble is that you will appear over-qualified to the hiring manager and are likely to become rapidly frustrated once you're back up to speed. If you have a strong reason for choosing this route, clearly explain the rationale in your application.

7. Looking just for part-time or flexible roles
You might have decided that your job needs to be part-time or flexible. However many employers will consider flexible working 'for the right candidate' even though they don't state it in the job ad. Consider whether the content of the role appeals and whether there could be a business case to do it flexibly.

8. Apologising for your career break
Explain the reason for your break on your CV (eg. parental career break) and in interviews and then don't dwell on it, justify it or apologise for it!

9. Undervaluing what you've done in your break
If you have done something that has built your broader skills or opened new perspectives to you during your break, this is valuable to a potential employer, so don't minimise or ignore it on your CV.

10. Not asking for feedback after rejections
When you are rejected after online tests or interviews it is easy to blame yourself and to become dispirited. By requesting feedback you can find out what you need to work on to make future applications stronger. 

Other useful posts:

Posted by Katerina

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Who are your best return-to-work supporters?


What do we normally do when we're thinking about making changes in our lives? Our natural instinct is often to talk things through with friends and family - to get their opinion and test out our ideas. I remember many mornings spent discussing future plans with other mothers over coffee when I was on career break.

It can be useful to chat about your return to work ideas - setting up a business, returning to your old field, retraining, or whatever your inspiration may be. As you speak about your thoughts, this can help them to become more concrete and move you to action. 

But this can also be a risky strategy as your trusted friends might not be the supporters you need to develop your fledgling ideas. If they pour cold water on your tentative plans, this can be a major knock to your confidence, raising more doubts and worries in your mind and stopping you moving forward to action. 

These are some reactions potential returners have told me they received:
From other at-home mums: "What do you want to go back to work for - you're so lucky to be able to be at home?" 
"I can't imagine having the energy to work. All the working mums I know are exhausted"
From family & ex-colleagues: "I never saw you as a [creative person / entrepreneur / mature student ..]"
From partners: "Well, if you're absolutely sure that's what you want to do ..."
"If you think you can manage that and the kids without getting too stressed ..."

There's a big difference between these generalised negative comments, which can make you want to give up, rather than helpful specific questions that encourage you to reality check your ideas. If you're facing comments like these, rather than simply taking them at face value, it's worth putting them in context. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
  • Your friends who are also on career break may want to keep you 'on their team'. They don't want to lose you to the workplace!
  • Your plans to return to work may raise doubts in their minds about the decisions they've taken. When we experience 'cognitive dissonance', where our actions don't directly align with our beliefs (eg I should be using my education but I'm not in paid work), we feel uncomfortable. They may subconsciously try to convince you that it's too hard to be a working mother to prove to themselves that their decision is correct.  
  • Your ex-colleagues tend to define you by the role you used to have. This is similar to the cognitive bias called 'functional fixedness' where we find it hard to see familiar objects in a different light. Which is a real advantage if you're returning to the same field, but limiting if you're considering a new direction.
  • Growing up within a family we all often have set roles (the smart one, the creative one etc). If you're stepping into a sibling's role, they may feel challenged or disorientated.
  • Your partner and children naturally will prefer the status quo if it's comfortable for them. Accept they may not be your cheerleaders initially at least!
To balance the naysayers, think about creating a group of return-to-work supporters:
1. Identify & seek out friends and family members who are encouraging and positive and fill you with a sense of possibility 
2. Partner with one or more women who are also looking to return to work
3. Seek out a mentor - find a woman in your field who has successfully returned after a career break and ask for advice.

As our network grows we're thinking about setting up a return-to-work support group. Also a number of successful returners have offered to be to mentors. Would you find either of these useful? In what format (eg.LinkedIn)? Let us know in the comments below or on info@womenreturners.com.
Posted by Julianne

Friday, 7 November 2014

How to write your post-break CV


When you're launching yourself back into the market after a long career break, updating your CV can feel daunting, but it's worth taking time and effort as CVs are the most important self-marketing document for your job search. Employers typically receive hundreds of CVs for every advertised job, so yours will need to stand out by being focused on what you can offer and avoiding looking out-of-date. Gill Lambert, one of our associate coaches, provides her advice on some of the main issues to consider for your post-break CV, including how to address your career break. Most of these ideas apply to your LinkedIn profile too.


Start with a profile not a gap
Avoid starting with a job that ended many years ago, looking like you've fallen off the planet since then. Instead open with a profile statement, describing your background and qualifications. State you are returning to work after a [parental] career break. If you are shifting sector/role, you can also state that you are looking for opportunities in [target sector]; otherwise you don't need an objective. You then have the option of including a short 'Key skills & achievements' section, to draw attention to a few highlights. Avoid a laundry list of generic skills (strong team player, highly-motivated, etc) as this won't impress anyone! In the Career history section, clearly state the years of your "[Parental] Career Break" and include any skilled volunteering roles (eg School Governor, Charity Treasurer) - don't hide them in a voluntary work section at the end. For more advice see The CV Gap Barrier post.

Sell your achievements
The point of a CV is to tell others what you are capable of, so they want to talk to you further. It's the time to take credit for what you've achieved.

Base your CV around your relevant achievements and skills, don't just list the duties in your role. Firstly find out what skills, qualifications and experience employers are looking for in the types of role you are seeking. I would do this by reviewing a good number of job descriptions, highlighting the key words and identifying the most common. 

Now go back through your work experience, study, volunteering and other personal achievements both before and during your break to find examples that show that you meet these criteria. When giving evidence of a skill, show what you achieved by using the skill and try to quantify your contribution if at all possible. 

For each job application, tailor your CV to fit the requirements in the job description, to show that you clearly fit the role. Take this to the level of using their key criteria words in your CV (as the first screen is often now performed automatically by keyword sifting software). 

CV Content and Style
  • Appearance:  Use font size 10 or 11 and write in the third person with no pronouns, for example “Reduced the month-end accounting timetable by 3 days”. 
  • Structure: Use a clear structure, my recommendation would be: name and contact details top centre, Key skills and achievements, Career history, Education, Other qualifications, Languages (if fluent), Interests (optional). I don't recommend a skills-based CV to try to 'hide' your break - recruiters usually find these irritating as they have to piece together your work history
  • Length:  Keep your CV to 2 sides and aim for about 1,000 words. This means you need to include only the most important pieces of information, so prioritise and leave the rest out.
  • Checking: Make sure the CV looks good on the page, that the formatting is perfect and there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes. Check that you have been consistent in tense with all your verbs.  
To avoid looking out-of-date, DON'T:
  • Use the heading “Curriculum Vitae, as the sifting software can think that is your name. Always have your name as the central heading
  • Include a photo or your date of birth, gender, marital status or details about your children as these have become inappropriate on CVs following discrimination legislation
  • Include your A-Levels, O-levels (GCSEs) or school
  • List bland interests (reading, cinema etc); only include if relevant or impressive (eg. society memberships, triathlons) 
  • Give details of references or say “references available on request”
And Finally: If you get stuck, talk it through with a friend or get help from a coach, don't let it delay your job search. Once you are happy with your CV, ask a friend to check it over, to point out any errors and give you marks out of 5 for impact .. and congratulate yourself for getting over another return-to-work hurdle!


Gill Lambert
Women Returners Associate Coach http://wrpn.womenreturners.com/about/ 
Owner of Tailored Career Coaching http://www.tailoredcareercoaching.co.uk/

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Return-to-work advice for Allison Pearson's Kate Reddy


This month saw the return of Kate Reddy, Allison Pearson's fictional working mother who started in a Telegraph column in the 1990s and ended up in the best-selling novel and Hollywood film  "I Don't Know How She Does It". Many of us remember the pangs of recognition in the shop-bought cakes 'distressed' in the middle of the night before a school cake sale, and Kate's ultimate decision to leave her over-demanding City job to get more balance in her life.

Thirteen years later, Kate is back every Friday in the Daily Telegraph as Sandwich Woman: 49-and-a-half with two teenage children, a husband with a mid-life crisis retraining as a counsellor and frail elderly parents. And she's about to fly the flag for women returners, returning to full-time work after a six year career break. At least we hope for a (fictional) role model, but in the first few weeks Allison Pearson has focused on the dispiriting side of returning to work, as Kate says "Amazing how fast all the confidence you built up over a career ebbs away". So far our heroine has been patronised by a dismissive headhunter when she targets a non-exec role, wondered whether anyone will want to employ her and she's decided to lie about her age & her recent experience ...

Allison Pearson says she is bringing Kate back to show other 'sandwich women' that they are not alone in their struggles. So we decided that it's time to get Kate on track for her return to work with some words of motivation and advice:

1. Your timing is great. Businesses are waking up to the fact that returners are a high-calibre talent pool and are actively targeting them. The 2014 innovation of 'returnship' programmes is aimed at women like you (see here for more details) and many are in City firms. And Goldman Sachs stated this month in the FT that they are actively targeting their alumnae for senior roles.

2. After a long break you are not a 'square peg fitting into a square hole' so avoid most headhunters and recruitment agencies. The exception is firms who specialise in flexible working &/or women returners (try Sapphire Partners if you're looking for a non-exec role).

3. Don't lie on your CV! You don't need to reveal your age as CVs no longer include date of birth (or gender & marital status). And miss out your decades-old school qualifications. Include voluntary or paid work and studies during your break experience where they (honestly!) used or developed your professional skills. 

4. Focus on building your network of contacts. You've only been away for 6 years and your old colleagues will remember you as a highly talented senior manager. Set up a (brief) LinkedIn profile, connect with ex-colleagues and get into the City to meet them for coffee. Look for university and organisational alumni groups too. Tell everyone you know that you want to get back to a corporate role - you never know who might be able to help.

5. Above all don't undervalue yourself. Focus on the benefits your age can bring to an employer: maturity, stability and a huge amount of training and experience which will enable you to get back up to speed very quickly once you've got your foot back in the door. We have many success stories of women who have got back into satisfying roles & hope that your imminent successful return will inspire many more!

Update 31/10/14: Great to see Kate is now taking the contacts route to finding a new job!

Posted by Julianne