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