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.

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