Thursday 28 March 2013

Thinking small: an alternative route back to work

“I’m worried about being sucked back into working too hard and feeling like I’m back on the ‘treadmill’ … stressed, guilty and no time for anything”.

Carol*, an ex-marketing director, had quit her demanding job 8 years before to be a full-time mother and admitted that she was afraid of work taking over her life again if she went back to a corporate job. A career to Carol was all about 50+ hour weeks and high pressure.

I often come across this ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking among professional women returners - seeing only the extremes rather than any middle ground.  The thinking goes: either I have a full-on demanding job or I don’t work and have time and energy for my family/personal life.  Seeing this as a black-and-white choice between work and family leads many mothers to wait for the ‘right’ time to return to work:

“I’ll go back when the kids are at full-time school … when they’ve got through their exams … when they need me less …”

But there is never a perfect time to return to work - there will always be multiple demands on your time and energy. Even when your children are at school, the days can easily be filled with numerous small tasks for the home, the family or the school, plus visiting ageing parents, staying fit and so on. 

If you think that you may want to return to corporate life at some point in the future, the consistent advice from successful returners is to ‘keep your hand in’ with some form of skilled work, no matter how small-scale. This helps to keep up your confidence and maintain your 'professional self'. I found that starting small was also a good way to ease back into work after a break as a full-time mother. Taking on a series of one-off consulting and training projects rather than leaping into a larger employed role helped me to regain my professional identity in a manageable way with a young family.

Other returners have found many ways to adopt this ‘small steps’ approach. Carol* got back in touch with some old colleagues and was offered a six-week brand consultancy project that she worked on in school hours. Janet* took on a freelance role as a sub-editor two mornings a week, Maria* took on a non-exec role for a few days a month and Justine* became an occasional lecturer in legal education. Katerina found skilled volunteering to be just as effective (for ideas see Some of these women, like us, have since ramped up to make work a larger part of their lives; others have chosen to stick with small-scale work as it continues to give them the life balance they are looking for at this stage of their lives. 

*names & some details altered to maintain confidentiality

Posted by Julianne

Thursday 21 March 2013

What about the gap in my CV?

Susan* a former accountancy firm partner who stopped working when her family relocated for her husband’s job, consulted me when preparing for her first job interview in 14 years.  She feared that she had been out of the workforce for too long to be of interest and we talked through the kinds of questions she might encounter.  A few days later, Susan emailed me ‘…. he did ask "why now?" and when I started with "I have been a stay at home mum for 14 years..."  he cut me off and said, "And I think that is wonderful!  My wife is a doctor and she made the same decision when our children came along and you can see it in the quality of our children".   It was such an unexpected vote of support -- not what we read will likely occur when interviewers see the CV gap -- that I thought I should share it with you.  It might help others to realise that there are interviewers who understand the choices we have made because they share the same values.’
It is so easy to believe, looking at the world of employment from the outside, that we are the only person who has a significant gap in our CV.  We tend to focus on all the things that we haven’t done to build our career while we were not working: we forget about all the skills and experience we built up before our break and those we might have acquired since we left employment.  While some employers will still be most interested in what you did before your career break and might not even ask about the gap, recent research has shown that unpaid work can improve your employment prospects.  The study, (Wilkin, C., & Connelly, C. (2012). Do I Look Like Someone Who Cares? Recruiters’ Ratings of Applicants’ Paid and Volunteer Experience International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 20 (3), 308-318) concluded that voluntary work is valued by recruiters where it is relevant to the application and that even if it is less relevant, it can complement relevant paid experience by demonstrating altruism, co-operation and a work ethic. 

Think about all the activities you've engaged in as part of your communitiy responsibilities or volunteering and consider how they have provided opportunities to refresh, enhance and add to your experience and skills.  These endeavours are equally as relevant to your CV as roles for which you were paid - and can adequately fill the apparent gap.  One client, researched, created and managed a home education programme for her severely disabled child, co-ordinating nine different professional advisers while on a break from marketing and selling technology.  Another contirbuted her previous media experience and her organisational skills to an election campaign.  I filled my gap by becoming a trustee of an international humanitarian aid charity and Treasurer of a school PTA.  Whether we get involved in local politics, a religious community or a charity role, we are doing something of value, for ourselves, the cause, and for any future employer.
Posted by Katerina

Monday 4 March 2013

Too many choices: how to focus

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

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

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

Some of the women returners I meet also see too many possibilities and may have been thinking and talking about all the things they could do for years without making any concrete progress. One of my clients brought a list of the 16 options she had been considering to the first meeting - unsurprisingly she felt very confused about where to go next! If you too are hitting choice overload, aim to narrow your focus to get down to a manageable number of choices to investigate:

  • Work out what is most important to you in your future job. Fine to start with 1) flexible 2) pays enough, but then go beyond that. What are you missing about work (is it using your brain, the achievement, the social aspect, ...), what are you really interested in, what are you good at and love doing?  If you’re wondering where to start with this process, look at  Windmills online or Build your Own Rainbow.
  • Use this to work out what you want from work, decide what are 'must-haves' and where you can compromise. You can then choose a few possibilities that really appeal and seem like they could be a good fit for you. And don't fall into the trap of looking for the perfect job as all jobs involve trade-offs (see my last post!).
  • Critically don't spend more time thinking - practically reality test your short-list: talk to people in the area, maybe take a short course, go to a conference, work shadow, do an internship … test your ideas and learn along the way. (We’ll talk more about how to go about these steps in future posts).

Having choices and being open to possibilities is a great thing – don’t let it keep you stuck!

Posted by Julianne