Cheryl McGee Wallace, is a Financial Services Manager at PwC UK who returned to work after a 6 year career break. If you're doubting that networking can help you to make a successful return to work, or if you've no idea about informational interviewing, read Cheryl's post below for inspiration.
About a year ago I planned an alumni event on networking. Led by an experienced career coach, we were given role-playing exercises on introducing ourselves as well as entering and exiting ongoing conversations in a social setting. Over the course of the evening one voice stood out for me. My radar went up. I knew those questions, that doubt. She was a returner. After the session ended, I introduced myself, and I was right. She was a human rights lawyer volunteering for a refugee NGO and wanted to know how she should introduce herself if she was not being paid. I was flabbergasted. All I heard was “international human rights lawyer.” She injected the doubt.
How often, I wonder, do women returners talk themselves out of opportunities without ever trying?
In my own re-entry story, I confronted voices of doubt. Adding my own to that chorus would have stopped me in my tracks. There is no single way to on-ramp. It is your story to write as you will. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge what reality dictates: our preferred end is not guaranteed. We will confront detours and closed doors just as we would in the absence of a non-traditional career path.
Explore, investigate, research, and prepare
You are an outsider in need of inside information. You need to clarify your best point of re-entry and understand how the market views your skills. You need to understand the risks that would prevent a potential employer from considering your candidacy.
Develop an elevator pitch and practice it. Think of three important things you want someone to remember about you. Determine your personal brand and be consistent. What is your unique value proposition? What differentiates you from others? You want them to say: “I remember that person. She’s the x, y, and z.” This will evolve over time as you gain experience and insights to refine your message.
Conducting informational interviews is the most critical data collecting activity you can undertake. When approached correctly, these one-on-one meetings will help you to obtain personalized feedback, direction, an insider’s perspective, industry lingo, and ideas.
Do not expect the insider to do all the work. You must prepare. Consider why you want to meet this person and the information you would like to obtain from the meeting. Research the individual and the firm before the meeting.
Tailor your questions specifically to that individual, firm, and industry. At a minimum, ask the insider: Who succeeds or fails in this environment? What was your career trajectory? What professional organizations or periodicals do you recommend? Is there anyone else whom you think I should meet? Follow up with a thank-you note and send periodic (meaningful) updates.
You are exploring. Initial meetings may be more challenging, but as you gain experience and clarity on your goals, such meetings will likely become less fraught. For this reason, it is also best to prioritize contacts within your target firms. Meeting junior staff may be more useful early in the information gathering process. Save hiring managers and senior executives for when your message and targets are more refined.
Informational interviews need not be formal. An informal invitation for coffee or drinks can be low risk and pleasant for both. (I often had to remind myself to breathe and enjoy the process of meeting such generous and fascinating people.) As I progressed to identifying target firms, however, it became increasingly important to visit the office for a “pre-interview” assessment of the environment. Be flexible, though. Often a quick call may be all your insider can spare.
Relaunching is a process, not an event. You are constantly learning from every interaction (or lack thereof). The objective is to clarify your goals, which will ultimately help you to articulate your value proposition with clarity and confidence. Which version of your pitch worked best? Is your networking path effective in helping you to meet the right people in your target industry or firms? Are you hearing similar questions from your informational interviews, e.g., are you being asked to explain the same aspect of your professional background? Does your response raise more questions than it answers?
Create your opportunities
There is nothing stopping you from re-entering the workforce. While you may have to endure detours or even closed doors, opportunities do exist. Where they do not exist, it is within your power to make your own opportunities.
Consider the fact that the only difference between returning and not returning may well be a belief in your own ability. Belief reinforces choices and behavior.
Someone out there needs your skills. It is your responsibility to find them.
Read Cheryl's personal story of how networking enabled her to find a new role and move to a new country.
Note: A version of this blog previously appeared on iRelaunch.com