Friday 29 April 2016

Getting your 'work self' back: Tara's return-to-work via M&G Career Returners

This week, we're featuring Tara's story of returning to Corporate Governance after a four year break through M&G Career Returners, our partnership 'supported hiring' programme (this is a new way of hiring returning professionals which we have recently developed with M&G Investments - see the end of the post for more details on the programme and the roles currently available). 

After the birth of my first child I returned to my previous role as a Chartered Secretary with an Asset Management company. My hope was I would be able to work flexibly (four days a week) but a colleague had resigned whilst I was on maternity leave and the role was even more demanding; so it became clear that a full time commitment was needed, only this time nursery drop off and pick up were added to the pressure. So when I became pregnant again we decided that I would be a stay at home mum.
I stayed at home for four years, I weaned, potty trained, dealt with tantrums, ensured naps were taken, visited museums, farms and play parks. I didn’t get a moment to myself until my husband walked in at 6.30pm. I am so over playgroups and messy play but I would not change a single day. My youngest was heading towards Reception and I had been considering a return to work for a little while. My degree was in Law and I also completed the LPC before sitting further exams to qualify as a Chartered Secretary. I considered trying something else but I had enjoyed the career I had built up over 15 years and felt I wanted to use that knowledge and experience. So I updated my CV, mentioning my ‘career break’, and I contacted a recruitment agency.
At this time, I was also getting involved in local regeneration projects and joined Twitter to keep informed of local activities, so I also searched on Twitter for Company Secretary roles. I was very surprised when I found a role at M&G Investments that was not only similar to the position I had left four years earlier, but that also was advertised as being open to applicants who had taken a voluntary career break and that stated that the organisation was ‘happy to talk flexible working’. I had to apply!
Following quite a rigorous recruitment process, I was offered a position on four days a week. As I was a ‘career break’ employee, this included four 90 minute coaching sessions with Women Returners which provided guidance and structure on my change back from ‘mummy’ to ‘career mummy’. These sessions with Katerina were extremely helpful. From the first session before I even commenced employment, and throughout my early stages of adjusting, the coaching provided time to reflect on how I felt I was performing, what objectives would be beneficial to set and how I could perform to the best of my abilities for myself and my employer.
M&G share my view that we all have a life outside of the office and that being able to balance these roles brings out the best in the employee. They understand that working flexibly allows the employee to feel valued and therefore that they will work more efficiently and give more to the role. I enjoy working and I enjoy the role I am in at the moment, but being with my children is priceless. The fact that they need me less now allows me to pursue my own goals, and being a working mother always will be a juggling act, but it helps that I have an understanding employer that recognises the importance of delicately balancing one’s commitments.
My advice to others returning to work after a break is:
  • When looking for positions consider all routes: Consultants, direct with employer, through social media, through friends/school gate parents and through Women Returners.
  • Be clear on the hours/days you wish to work. Employers appreciate knowing what you can do, they can either work around it or suggest an alternative but at least they understand your requirements. Be realistic – consider whether the role will be possible on a part-time basis.
  • Remember that your ‘work self’ returns pretty sharpish, so have no fear – you will not have forgotten it all!

About M&G Career Returners
Women Returners is partnering with M&G Investments, a leading international asset manager, to provide an innovative supported hiring initiative enabling talented professionals who have taken an extended career break to return to their professional careers. M&G is actively highlighting roles where the business would welcome applications from people who have taken an extended career break. Successful candidates who have taken a voluntary break for 2+ years will receive individual coaching from Women Returners, internal mentoring and focused training to support their transition back to the corporate workforce. All roles offered are existing vacancies at M&G. For more details and to see roles currently available see: M&G Career Returners

Posted by Julianne

Saturday 23 April 2016

Tackling the Paradox of Choice

I read a review this week of 'Not Working' a debut novel by Lisa Owens. It's about a twenty something woman who gives up her job in marketing career to find out what she wants to do with her life. Rather than quickly finding her 'passion', she procrastinates, faced with too many options and too much time to think, and her morale plummets: “If I can just digest enough TED talks, self-improvement podcasts, overviews on the Aristotelian sense of purpose and first-hand accounts of former City workers who set up artisan businesses from their kitchen tables, then surely the answer will reveal itself?”

This may ring bells for a few of you - it took me back to my own uncertainties when I was trying to work out what to do with my life after my career break. I wrote this blog post back in 2013 about how I got past the 'choice paralysis' ...

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 at-home 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 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 woman had a list of the pros and cons of the 16 options she had been considering - 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:
  1. 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 some of our other posts on these topics or at Build your Own Rainbow.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 
Having choices and being open to possibilities is a great thing – don’t let it keep you stuck!

Further Reading

Posted by Julianne

Friday 15 April 2016

Taking control of your return to work

Some of the women on career break we meet at our workshops or who write to us for advice believe they have little hope of returning to work. They express this in the following ways:

"employers are only looking for young people these days"
"there are no opportunities for [my job function] anymore"
"no employers are interested in people with a CV gap"
"the only jobs are in the cities and I live in the country"

If any of these comments sound familiar, you may think that you're just stating the truth - that the employment environment is closed to you and that nothing you can do will change this. 

However, thinking this way can mean that you give up control - you make yourself powerless. If you believe that there's no likelihood of success, you have little motivation to even explore how you might get back to work .. so, of course, you're very unlikely to make it happen.  

How to regain control

  • Be aware of what you're telling yourself. Are you are making generalised, 'black-and-white' statements about the employment environment (using words like 'only' and 'no' is a good clue)? If so, you can start to challenge your thinking: e.g. are ALL employers ONLY looking for young people?
  • Consider what is within your control. What realistic options do you have open to you for returning to work? This could include investigating work-from-home ideas, looking for local options, exploring relevant returnships and other returner programmes, developing your network, retraining in a new field.
  • Start taking action. Through taking action such as talking to former colleagues, re-joining a professional association or attending information events about a possible new field you will gain knowledge, potential contacts and, most importantly, a sense that you are in charge again.

For further reading:
Too few choices: advice on identifying post break options
Are 'shoulds' ruling your return to work decisions?
How to make time for your return to work job search
How to return to work after a long career break
Is it possible to return to work at 50+ after a career break?

Posted by Katerina

Friday 8 April 2016

What's your USC (Unique Strengths Combination)?

Over the years I've asked many women to tell me their top three strengths. This question typically generates a look of embarrassment, a long pause and then a struggle to get beyond one or two, often prefaced by "Well, I suppose I'm quite good at ..". 

Despite the growing body of research into the importance of knowing and using our strengths, most of us are far more able to give a long list of our weaknesses than to describe where we really excel. And I've noticed that the strengths women most readily talk about are those which differentiate them the least. By far the most common responses I hear are two of the most generic - "I work hard" and "I'm good with people". 

Why is this so difficult for us? Unarguably the British culture, together with that of many other nationalities, puts down people who 'blow their own trumpets'. And from school reports to work performance reviews, we're encouraged to recognise our 'development needs' rather than to identify and build on our strengths. We also tend to undervalue talents which come naturally and easily to us, assuming that "everyone can do this" because we don't find it hard.

Why are strengths important?

Knowing your strengths is one of the fundamental foundations of managing your career. It will help you to decide what direction you want to take, to build your self-belief as you restart your career, to market yourself effectively in CVs, networking meetings and interviews and, just as importantly, to shape your jobs to best suit you ... not to mention making you happier and more productive.

How can you identify your strengths?
  1. Think about what you're particularly good at and what energises you. There may be things you do well that leave you drained. These may be your skills, but they're definitely not your strengths.
  2. Choose your comparison point as the average person. Don't compare yourself with the best in the business or you'll decide you don't excel at anything!
  3. Be specific rather than generic. Think about what differentiates you from the next person. Rather than the bland 'good with people' focus on your particular people skills (directing, coaching, influencing, collaborating, teaching, etc.) and with what types of people you work best.
  4. If you're finding this hard, ask your friends/family what they think you're good at & to give you some examples. Other people often notice your talents when you don't and you get the benefit of some positive feedback. 
What's your USC?

Aim to build a long list of strengths, with examples of each (this is a great basis for confidence-building and for interview conversations). Then prioritise, returning to the question "What are your top three strengths?" but this time with a clear, specific and credible response.

Loving a good acronym, I've created my own variation on your USP. Think of these three strengths as your USC - Unique Strengths Combination. Recognise how this mix of strengths positively differentiates you from the next person, both during the job search process and when you're back at work. And make sure "I work hard" isn't one of them!

Further reading
See Setting your career compass to read more about the benefits of using your strengths and for more ideas on identifying them.

Posted by Julianne