How to develop your return to work career direction

At our Women Returners ‘Back to Your Future’ Conference earlier this summer, our CEO Julianne Miles led a session on how to get focused and develop your return to work career direction. Here are some of the key takeouts.
We find that many returners adopt one of these unhelpful strategies when they want to return to work:

  • Treating it like a research project with lots of thinking but little action
  • Taking a scattergun approach – randomly applying for a range of jobs online
  • Waiting to ‘find their passion’ or for the ‘perfect job’ to come along.

For success, it’s important to have greater clarity and focus. Julianne explained, “When you’re thinking of going back to work, there are three questions you need to answer – why do I want to go back to work? What do I want to do? How do I get there?” This session focused on helping you to answer the first two questions.

Why do I want to go back to work?

Start by working out exactly why you want to return to work. Your motivation is often a mix of different things.  It could be a need for mental stimulation, to use your qualifications, or to be a role model for your children. It could be a desire for a more tangible sense of achievement or to get your professional identity back. It could be financial motivation; in this case consider whether you need the money, want to have your own money or want to have the affirmation of being paid what you are worth. As you think about your options, check that you’ll be fulfilling your major motivations in the job(s) you’re considering.

What do I want to do?

“This is often where people get off track,” said Julianne. “They don’t recognise that there is a trade-off triangle – it’s very difficult to optimise job fulfilment, flexibility and pay/level. I recommend that people start with job fulfilment and then think ‘how can I do that flexibly (if this is important to you) and how can I get the salary I want?’ A return to work is unlikely to be successful unless you enjoy what you are doing and are getting enough out of the work day-to-day.”

There’s a lot of evidence that if you orientate your career, and life as a whole, around knowing and using your strengths you are likely to be better at what you do and also to be happier. Often other people are best placed to give you very valuable feedback on your strengths. This is because we tend to underestimate our own strengths as they are often the things that come naturally to us – and we tend to value more the things we find harder.

It’s also important to determine your work values – what is most important to you in your working life? Test which aspects you can compromise on and which are make-or-break for you.

Likewise, working out what interests you is very important. What do you enjoy doing? Remember that you’re more likely to find your passion if you start off by doing something that interests you, rather than waiting for your passion to appear!

Use these factors to develop your decision criteria. This will help you to develop new options or to narrow down the options you have already identified.

The next step is to actively explore your options. 

Julianne said: “Pick two or three options that you have the most energy to investigate. Go out and talk to people to find out more information. Start by talking to family and friends. Go to conferences, seminars – parachute yourself in with lots of people who are already doing what you want to do – and investigate if this could work for you. This way you’ll be able to clarify which option best meets your decision criteria. And don’t underestimate the intangible aspects – which job feels most like you – as this is equally valuable information.” 

Sign up to our free network for more advice, support and job opportunities.You’ll find much more help and advice on our website.

Find your road to success

Following our Women Returners UK Conference on Monday, we’re delighted to feature a guest blog this week by one of our wonderful returner panelists, Samina Malik

The road to success is always under construction (Lily Tomlin)

If someone had told me 6 months ago that I would
be a panelist at the first Women Returners
Conference
 being interviewed by Jane Garvey (of Radio 4 Women’s
Hour fame) with two other incredibly talented and inspiring panelists, in front
of an audience of nearly 200 women, talking about my successful journey back to
work at O2 … I would probably
think they were mad!

My experience in looking for suitable roles to
get back into work had been that I had a CV gap and I couldn’t return to
corporate world. My degree, my previous extensive corporate experience for 11
years, my voluntary work … it all counted for nothing.
The fact that during my “time out” to raise my
family I had continued to develop whilst doing one of the most difficult jobs
around … as a leader, innovator, problem-solver, negotiator, teacher,
project manager, care-giver, nurse, psychologist, financial manager, supreme
organiser 
… basically as a mother … didn’t count.
I was told the best I could do now was to become a part time
teacher/tutor or executive assistant
.
But I wasn’t going to let that stop me as I knew
that there was more to me. The constant googling paid off … I read about Women Returners a leading
organisation in the returnship space, offering help to people like me. In one
of their newsletters I saw the O2 Career Returners programme being
advertised. This was it, I thought. My skillset
was relevant, the commute was manageable, a work/life balance was on
offer … I was going to go for it.
Fast forward the last 6 months or so and on
Monday I attended the sold-out Women Returners Conference as a panelist, to
talk about my “successful return to work” journey in a room full of hugely
talented and qualified women … an untapped pool (more like a sea) of potential
… looking to make their own journeys back to work.
Thank you Julianne Miles and
all the talented team at Women Returners, for your work in this area is amazing,
actually life changing. I was honoured to be invited as a panelist and proud to
represent O2, a company investing in Diversity & Inclusion programmes
because it recognises that it makes business sense to have an employee workforce
that reflects its 25 million customer base. It also makes business sense
because having a diverse workforce creates happier, more productive and more
innovative business teams.
To all those who, for whatever reason, decided to
leave work but are now looking to return … know that it is possible. Stay
positive and keep an open mind about the opportunities that come your way.
Believe in yourself and your own strengths, don’t let the inner critic grind
you down. Engage with Women Returners (or similar organisations) to help
support you on your journey. The journey will have twists and turns, it might
be smooth or bumpy but it’s a journey of discovery and I look forward to what
lies ahead on my road to success.
Samina Malik, Supplier Manager at O2 

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

Making your own choice on the working/stay-at-home mother decision

Daily Mail report this week that only 1 in 10 women are stay-at-home mothers, together with the judge’s ruling in a recent divorce case that a mother should ‘get a job’ once her children are seven, have reignited the debate about whether mothers ‘should’ be at home with their children or remain in the workforce. We’re at a strange point in history where there seems to be pressure both ways: a longstanding societal push, reinforced by some parts of the media, to be an at-home mother and a corresponding push from Government and other parts of the media to keep mothers working. Mothers are squeezed in the middle, torn as to the ‘right thing’ to do and feeling judged whatever path they take.
I hear these mixed messages played out on the personal level as well, from the mothers I work with. Some women feel pressure from partners/parents/friends to give total attention to the family, while others feel pushed to get back to work. And we then have our own internal ambiguity: “I’m being selfish and ungrateful if I want to work and leave my children” vs. “I’m wasting my education and sponging off my partner if I stay at home”. It’s not surprising that so many mothers feel guilty whatever they do.

What I’d love to tell all mothers wrestling with your work-home choices, either post maternity or career break, is this: There is no universal RIGHT answer. This is a time in your life when you need to acknowledge all the internal & external pressures you are experiencing, and then decide what is the best choice for you and your family, dependent on your desires and your personal circumstances (which can also change over time).

If you have no real choice and need the income, then avoid the ‘pro-full-time mum’ press, focus on managing your work-home balance, read our articles on how to ditch the guilt and stop labelling yourself as selfish.

If you do have a choice, then focus on deciding what you want to do, not agonising over what you ‘should’ do. There are many options: working as an employee full-time/part-time/flexibly, setting up your own business, going freelance, pausing your career with a clear strategy to return later, or being an at-home mother. And it’s fine to chop and change over the years as you create a life balance that works for you.
Personally, I was taken aback by the pull I felt to stay at home for a few years when my kids were small – I’d always pictured myself as someone who would never take a break. Being at home suited me best in the early years but after four years I was desperate to engage my brain again in other interests and went back to university to retrain, doing some consultancy alongside. I then worked part-time and grew my own business, working longer hours as my children got older. Many of my friends and colleagues had different experiences; from those who were very happy get back to full-time work after maternity leave to those have remained at home until their children are much older and are only now considering how they can find their way back into work.

There is no single and perfect solution. But you’ll know you’ve made the best choice for you when most of the time you feel (fairly) satisfied with your life and rarely feel frustrated and stuck in a place where you don’t want to be. And if you don’t feel satisfied, that’s when you need to make a change, not when other people say you should.

Posted by Julianne

Moving out of your return to work comfort zone

Last Saturday, I had my first experience of appearing on a live radio show, to talk about our work at Women Returners. Although I’m very comfortable with talking to all sorts of audiences about what we do and why we do it and have had a small amount of media training, it was still daunting to be appearing live on a public broadcast. But I did it – and enjoyed it!

This experience made me reflect how easy it is to stay in our comfort zones, generally, and specifically how remaining in our comfort zone can be a barrier to a finding a way back to work. There are many things we know we ‘should’ do which will help with our return (and this blog is full of ideas and advice) but if these things feel uncomfortable and difficult we make excuses and don’t do them.

Three zones not one
It is useful to think about three zones of experience. In your comfort zone, you feel safe and unchallenged and possibly slightly bored. In your stretch zone, you feel slightly unsafe and nervous and there is also some excitement at doing something a bit different. In your panic zone you feel out-of-your depth, scared and unhappy.

What might you be doing that keeps you in your return to work comfort zone?
– not calling a former colleague to arrange a coffee
– delaying putting your LinkedIn profile online
– filling your days with chores, volunteering and looking after others
– not putting yourself forward for a strategic volunteering opportunity
– not going to events or conferences in your area of interest

How can you move into your stretch zone but not your panic zone?

Sometimes we need something or someone to give us a push to do something that takes us out of our comfort zone and into our stretch zone. This was certainly true of the radio interview: I hadn’t actively sought the opportunity but when it came along I decided to go for it. As I reflected on the experience, there were quite a few things which helped me to make the move out of my comfort zone, without going into my panic zone, which will be useful to in your return to work activities:

  1. Small steps. This first interview was with a small local radio station, far from where I lived so I didn’t feel my reputation was at stake and nor was it a ‘make or break’ opportunity for the business.
  2. Mindset. I decided to treat the interview as an experiment and an opportunity to learn.  This mindset made it possible to be open to the experience and not judge myself too harshly on how I performed.
  3. Realistic expectations. Alongside my mindset, I chose to set my expectations at a reasonable level for me. I didn’t have to be perfectly fluent in the interview, I could be ‘good enough’. It was OK to make mistakes because I would learn from them for next time.
  4. Preparation. Even though I only managed to do this at the last minute, I spent the journey to the studio writing out bullet point answers to the questions I was expecting to be asked. Having thought through what I would say in advance and having my notes in front of me gave me focus and helped me to stay calm. I had also listened to the previous week’s programme so I had some idea of the format of the radio show and the style of the presenter.
  5. Enlist a buddy. Sharing the experience with Julianne made a big difference. I wasn’t alone and I had someone to give me a boost if I needed it.
  6. Celebrate success. By acknowledging that I had achieved what I set out to do, it reinforced the possibility that I could continue to stretch myself. It is great to know that I will never face my first radio interview again!
These six components are applicable to every return to work situation whether it is attending a networking event, calling a former contact or putting your self forward for a new role. What are you ready to do to move out of your job search comfort zone?

Posted by Katerina – Co-founder Women Returners

If you want to listen to the broadcast, click here

How to return to work after a long career break

Telegraph Wonder Women, The Telegraph’s online section for women, has recently launched a new Work section: “a witty, informative and intelligent look at working life”. This week, we have contributed our top tips on our favourite topic:

How to return to work after a long career break (click to follow link)

It might not be witty, but hopefully it is an informative and intelligent summary of some of the topics we’ve covered in more depth on this blog. Useful to check which of the steps you have already taken on your route back to work and what you want to add to your action plan for September.

Posted by Katerina & Julianne

How to identify work you will find fulfilling

As Julianne highlighted last week, when we think about returning to work we can focus too much on family-friendly work rather than work that will be fulfilling. In our effort to find work that will fit with the rest of our lives and commitments, we can miss this fantastic opportunity to identify what we will find sustaining and will give us a sense of purpose for the years ahead. It can be very easy, as a career break mum, to fill the days with voluntary roles, hobbies, seeing friends and caring for others.  I know – I’ve done it! These activities can make you feel useful and valued and busy but will they sustain you in the longer term?

The hidden bonus of being on a career break is that it allows the time and opportunity to do some thinking about what gives you meaning and what is really important to you. This is great preparation for your return to work, when you are ready, as it helps you to get a clearer idea on the direction you want to take. If you’re not sure of your future path, and would like to investigate the type of work you find fulfilling and purposeful, this is a process you can follow:

  1. Take yourself away to a quiet place where you will not be distracted by tasks or people and are able to think for an hour or so.
  2. Think back over your working life and focus on one or two times when you felt a sense of personal fulfillment. Make a note of what you were doing, who else was around you, your location, your emotions and any other details you remember.
  3. Think about what it was that gave you a sense of fulfillment. This is about more than simply feeling successful, although that might be a component.  To get to what’s underneath feeling successful, ask yourself what you felt successful in and what this meant to you. For example, were you solving an impossible problem, helping others & making a difference, being recognised as an expert, …?
  4. Think about what you were doing and what was going on around you in these times of fulfillment. For example, were you:
    1. Working alone or part of a team
    2. Part of a large organisation or striking out on your own
    3. Working with data, working with things/products or dealing with people (or a mixture of these)
    4. Thinking through ideas and theories or carrying out practical actions with concrete results
    5. Developing/influencing others and/or developing yourself?

You might find it useful to talk this through with a trusted friend to help you to reflect on what was most important to you in these situations. Through asking yourself these questions, you will gain more clarity about what success at work means to you and the nature of the work and the surroundings you need in order to feel most fulfilled. In this way, you will start to form a clearer sense of your own purpose which can guide your search for a new worthwhile role.  What better way to spend an hour or so this Summer?

Posted by Katerina

Are you overthinking your career decisions?

Do you find yourself having lots of work ideas but for some
reason not actually doing anything about them? Do you spend hours talking about
& researching options & thinking about pros & cons .. but never making any real progress? 
The Overthinking Trap
I’ve worked with many women considering what to do after
a career break and many of them fall into this overthinking trap. In our former working lives we often succeeded because of our ability to mentally work through solutions to problems and this is our default. We get fooled that we can think ourselves into a decision. 
But the ‘what shall I do with my life?’ career questions can rarely be solved just by brain-power. What you really need to do is
to start taking practical actions. And I don’t mean firing off your CV when
you’re not yet sure what you want to do – it’s about finding ways to try out
your options before deciding where you want to commit.  Professor Herminia Ibarra in her career
change book ‘Working Identity’ calls this a ‘test & learn’ approach. She
warns that waiting to act until you know what to do next can keep you stuck:
“Doing comes first, knowing second”.
Start Doing
  • If you’re
    wondering whether to go back to your old company/field: Get back in touch with
    old colleagues for an initial exploratory chat; ask about small projects or
    freelance work; take a refresher course.
  • If you’re
    not sure if you want to do something new: Find people who are doing the job
    go to an industry event or look for friends of friends – and talk to them about
    their roles; take a short course; do related voluntary work or find/create an internship.
  • And if
    you’re thinking of setting up a business, find some entrepreneurs to talk to or
    go to a start-up workshop like Enterprise Nation’s Start Up Saturday.
  • For more
    ideas see our return-to-work success stories.
Once you have some ideas on future options, it is more doing not more thinking that will get you clearer
on the route you want to take.
This is an amended version of our guest post for the
Mumsnet Workfest blog
Workfest is on 7th June 2014 in London:”an
inspirational and helpful day for women returning to work post maternity or an
extended career break, those looking to switch jobs, as well as those embarking
on a new business venture. We’re running 2 sessions:
  • Returning to work after an extended career break 
  • Tackling your fears, doubts and guilt

Hope to meet some of you there!


Posted by Julianne

Using your instincts in career decision-making

“I’m thinking about applying for corporate jobs again and have been approached about a part-time Marketing Director job. I know it would be a good move and work with the family but for some reason I’m putting off making the phone call to the recruiter.” 

Marion had left the corporate marketing world 6 years before to spend more time with her two children who were approaching senior school age. She now felt keen to return to work and had been focusing on the logical plan of using her past experience and networks to get back into a leadership position. She’d had a few promising leads but noticed that she was dragging her feet and putting off following up on them. Why was she making this so difficult for herself?

As we talked, I noticed that Marion’s energy soared when she spoke about friends who had set up their own businesses and about her own ‘impractical’ entrepreneurial ideas. When she reverted to talking about the ‘realistic option’ of going back to mainstream corporate life her energy drained away like a pricked balloon. Her tone of voice and body language were telling a different story from her words. As we talked, she identified a strong reluctance to give up her freedom and autonomy and the focus of our conversations switched to the feasibility of entrepreneurship. Having turned down a second round interview for the Marketing Director role, she is now enthusiastically developing her own venture.

Rational vs Instinctive Decision-Making

Many of us tend to believe that our decisions should be directed by our rational brains and we distrust our emotional response. But we need to remember that our experience of working, be it positive or negative, is subjective. Whether we enjoy a job depends just as much on how we feel about it as how good it looks on paper. Our emotions are often linked to underlying values, like Marion’s pull towards freedom. And an instinctive reaction can pick up something intangible (like a company culture or a manager’s personality) that does or doesn’t feel right before you can explain the reason why.

And there’s another reason to listen to your intuition. It’s true that ‘gut feel’ can be misleading and lead to faulty conclusions*. On the other hand, psychology studies show that we do not always think best when we rely on reason alone. For more complex decisions (like career choice) our rational brains can hit information overload. If we put our attention elsewhere and allow our unconscious mind time to work through all the factors and come to a decision, we are more likely to make an ‘instinctive’ choice that we will be happier with over time, even if goes against a logical pros & cons evaluation**. 

Ways to incorporate the emotional & instinctive in your decision-making


1. Follow your energy. When you talk about each of your options, notice when your energy levels rise and when they drop. What are you most drawn to investigating? Ask your friends/family what they have noticed too. 
2. Try describing yourself out loud in each of the different options: “I’m running my own business”, “I’m a Marketing Director”. Which intuitively feels best? Which feels more like ‘you’?
3. When you find yourself over-deliberating about your options, take a break, engage in an activity that distracts your mind for a few hours and then write down your decision before consciously thinking any more about it.

And in general, when you’re considering your next move, value your emotional reactions just as much as your logical analyses.

Note: names and some details have been changed to maintain confidentiality

Further Reading
* For examples of biases see Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast & Slow
** One study by Dijksterhuis & van Olden asked participants to look at 5 posters and choose which one they liked best using 3 different techniques: 1) pros & cons 2) gut feel 3) look, solve anagrams, look again, decide. A month later the 3rd group were happiest with their choice. This Unconscious Thought Theory effect has been replicated in more complex decisions such as renting an apartment (See Richard Wiseman, 59 Seconds).

Posted by Julianne

How to creatively craft your next role

Are you struggling to work out what role you can return to?  You might think you have few choices or are attracted by many possibilities.  One way to look at this question is to think afresh about the kind of role you would like to create for yourself if you were free to do so.
 
Amanda*, formerly a Board director of a PR company, consulted me about her return to work after a 10 year career break during which she’d carried out some individual PR projects.  She was uncertain as to what to do next: although she enjoyed some aspects of her previous role, there were others that didn’t interest her at all anymore.  During our work together, Amanda identified the specific elements of her former role that still appealed (qualitative research and guiding guests around exhibitions and historic places) and set about researching how to pursue her career in each of these fields.
 
Rosie* had taken a six year break from a City law firm.  While she loved working in the law and felt strong loyalty to her former employer, she knew that the demands of returning to the partnership track were not right for her.  At the same time, Rosie knew that she had lots to offer her firm: she understood the pressures on trainee and newly qualified solicitors as well as the business needs of the organisation.  She believed that she could help her firm by providing specific support to the lawyers as they set about building their own practices … and the HR Director agreed with her!  The firm funded Rosie to gain a coaching qualification and she has continued to develop and evolve her internal career management role as the needs of the firm have changed.
Both of these are examples of women who have designed a role which stimulates them, builds on their skills and expertise as well as taking them in a new direction.  While Amanda is crafting a role from elements of her former career, Rosie has been able to create a role which was new both for her and for her employer.
If you’d like to try this approach, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which elements of my previous roles did I most enjoy and excel at?
  • Can these elements exist as roles on their own or as key aspects of other roles? Did I notice any gaps at a previous employer which I would like to fill?
Posted by Katerina