Advice from Employers for Returners – Recognising your Value

At our 2019 Women Returners ‘Back to Your Future’ Conference, Claire Cohen, Women’s Editor of The Telegraph, interviewed five of our employer sponsors who have experience of running successful returner programmes: Bloomberg, Credit Suisse, FDM Group, Fidelity International and O2.

Read some of the highlights from the panel’s responses below (more to come in our next blog).

Why do employers run returner programmes?

“We were thinking about this talent pool that’s incredibly talented and has amazing skills and we thought we’re going to tap into this to help us solve one of our business problems. So we launched in 2014 and it’s been brilliant for us. We’re now in our sixth cohort and we have a fantastic group of alumni who’ve been through the programme and are active participants in our day to day work.”

“The proof is in the pudding. The more returnships we run and the more the hiring managers see the quality of the candidates coming into those programmes and what they can bring over and above another hire from another bank, or similar institution, is really valuable and I can only see that growing.”

What benefits do returners bring to the workplace?

“[Returners] come in with a really fresh pair of eyes. They can look at our processes and our systems and the way that we work quite differently and it’s a real breath of fresh air – that’s what we hear from our managers.”

“Another thing that I’ve seen is the enthusiasm when they come back and the fact that they bring so much – they want to give back to the organisation. I can cite several examples of our returners acting as mentors to some of the more junior women. They are active participants in key elements of our organisation.”

What are employers looking for in a returner candidate? 

“I want flexibility of mind. You’re not the same person as before your career break. You want us to see this a positive so you’ve got to see that as a positive as well. Be flexible, be open! Your time out has taught you a lot.”

“We’re constantly looking at ways to improve things so any type of improvement or process improvement [including during your career break] that you’ve done will be really valuable to organisations.”

“Flexibility – we want to move people around the organisation so I’d really encourage people to be really open-minded about what they initially start to do because it could lead on to so many other things once you’re there.”

What have they have been surprised by when running returner programmes?

“I knew the talent was going to be good but it’s far surpassed what I thought. For me its been really eye-opening. We get to see these amazing resumes coming in all the time. The talent pool is truly outstanding and it’s very much untapped.”
“I never expected how much of an integral part of the community [returners] would be in terms of giving back to the organisation several years in. They’re really involved and engaged and willing to support those coming after them.”

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

 

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 

Responding to “You’re overqualified for the role”

We are often asked by returners how to respond to the comment from recruiters that they are “overqualified” or “too good” for a position. In this situation, it is worth asking yourself whether you are aiming too low because your confidence is diminished after a long time out of the workforce. However, if you have purposefully targeted the role as being an appealing re-entry point, maybe wanting a less pressured role to better fit with the rest of your life, it is very frustrating to receive this feedback and hard to respond in a way that positively affirms your motivation.
When thinking how to answer, it is helpful to put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager. Recruiters often make this comment when they are concerned that you
will quickly become bored with the role and so will either under-perform or not
stay for the long term. They might not understand that you have deliberately applied for a role that is less senior than the role you held before your career break because you are coming back to the workforce with a new perspective on your career.
Understanding the interviewer’s viewpoint, your response needs to include the following elements of reassurance:
  • you have thought through these issues
  • you have specifically targeted this level of seniority (explaining briefly why)
  • you are committed to
    doing the best you can in the role
  • as with any other new hire, you hope that your career will progress over time
Carol Fishman Cohen, who co-founded and runs iRelaunch, our closest US equivalent, provides some recommended wording which you might like to use if you are targeting a lower-level role to provide more balance in your life than your past positions:

“One of my top priorities is to deliver excellent results to my employer, while also managing the rest of my life outside work.  So while it might look to you like I am overqualified for this position, this level is exactly where I want to be in my current life stage, and I intentionally sought it out.  I feel confidence I can deliver excellent results to you at this level of seniority.” (You’re Overqualified! Carol Fishman Cohen)
If you think that this might be an issue with your application, it is worth addressing upfront, by including your explanation in your cover letter.  You will then hopefully have the opportunity to reinforce your message at interview.

Posted by Katerina

Re-connecting with your professional self

One of our top tips for returners is to remember that you are the same professional person you always were, you are just out of practice.

Why do we need to be reminded of this?

There are many reasons why, when we take a break from our career, we can develop a diminished view of ourselves from the one we held when we were working. In the mix are:

  • a change in priorities (our career is no longer our sole focus and might not be as important as it once was)
  • a shift in identity (taking a long break, especially when it involves taking on new responsibilities, changes our daily activities, what we think about and talk about)
  • refocusing of values (where we once valued position, responsibility and status, for example, we might now be more concerned with creating strong family relationships or working for a purpose).

All these changes can mean that we no longer recognise the previous professional version of our self, or doubt whether we can be like her again.

Remind yourself of the professional you were

Even if your perspective and priorities have changed in the years you’ve been away from your career, the things you accomplished during your career and the skills you gained have not. You are still the person who built strong client relationships, managed a team, delivered complex projects, won sales pitches and gained qualifications.  These experiences are still part of you and you still have those skills and abilities even if you haven’t used them (professionally) for a while.

You may find it hard to recognise and value your former self because the work you did before didn’t fully fit you at the time. Maybe that professional identity felt false. Even so, you still achieved and gained experiences which you can take forward into a new role that will feel more authentic.

Regain your professional self


This is a really important step to take as you plan for your return to work.  It will help with developing your self-belief (if you need it) and will provide content for your CV, LinkedIn profile and your interview answers.

  • Reflect on what you consider your career highlights and think about what qualities you exhibited. Are those qualities still part of who you are today?
  • Talk to former work colleagues, who remember you as the professional you were, and ask them for some feedback on what they saw you doing well or admired about you.
  • Practice your career story, starting with your professional background and expertise rather than your career break
  • Find a project or volunteer position which allows you to refresh your skills (see Think Small and Routes back to Work posts).
  • Subscribe to the industry journals you used to read and join on-line forums which are relevant.
  • (Re)join professional networks and attend relevant conferences.
  • Take refresher courses in your area of interest or expertise.
If you are still finding it difficult to re-connect with your professional self, then you might like to consider working with another returner or a career coach to give you the boost you need.
Posted by Katerina – Co-founder Women Returners

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

Setting your career compass: identifying your strengths

When you’re planning to re-start your career after a break, one of the challenges is working out whether to go back to your old field or to try something different .. and if so, what? One of my clients told me she wanted to develop an internal compass to point her in the right direction towards a job she would enjoy and find fulfilling.

How do we go about developing our own internal career compass? Thanks to recent positive psychology research, we’re now much clearer on what makes us happy at work. Studies consistently find that one of the key aspects is using your strengths. A true strength is something that you are good at AND energised by – maybe developing new ideas, analysing, seeing the big picture or empathising with others [We can be good at things but find them draining; these aren’t strengths in this sense].

Why focus your career choices on your strengths?


People who use their strengths more*:

1. Are happier
2. Are more confident
3. Have higher levels of self-esteem
4. Have higher levels of energy and vitality
5. Experience less stress
6. Are more resilient
7. Are more likely to achieve their goals
8. Perform better at work
9. Are more engaged at work
10. Are more effective at developing themselves and growing as individuals

*Source: Centre for Applied Positive Psychology.

Convinced? So, it’s clearly a good start point to ask yourself which jobs would best play to your strengths. However first you need to work out what your strengths are …

Identifying your strengths


I’ve found that most people can give a long list of their weaknesses, but few can describe their strengths in detail, and even fewer can pinpoint what strengths differentiate them from the next person. Often we don’t value our natural strengths: if you naturally get on with most people, you may assume that it’s nothing special and not realise that building relationships is a core strength for you.

Ways to build up your personal strengths list


1. Use an online strengths assessment: Strengthsfinder 2.0 is a good choice & one of the easiest to interpret yourself
2. For another perspective, get strengths feedback from your friends & family: ask them what they think you’re good at and to give you specific examples so you don’t just think they’re ‘being nice’ (& resist the temptation to ask them for your weaknesses too!)
3. Keep a note over the next few weeks of times when you are engaged in an activity and feel highly energised. Think about whether you are using one or more of your strengths at these moments. It can be helpful to talk this through with a friend who can help you to ‘strengths-spot’.

Once you’ve better understood your strengths & thought about where you can best use them, you’re on the way to setting your career compass. We’ll talk more about other aspects to consider (such as values and interests) in future posts.

Further reading
For more tips and advice on career decision-making see: using your instincts, too few choices and too many choices.

Posted by Julianne 

Who am I anyway?

Many clients arrive at our first meeting with the same concern: they have lost touch with their professional identity and are only able to view themselves as partners or mothers.  Thoughts such as ‘I can’t do those things anymore’, ‘I don’t recognise my old self’, and ‘I’m not the person I used to be’ are regularly voiced.  For some women, the loss of identity is compounded by not having felt fully themselves in their professional life.  If your previous working identity has felt ‘fake’, then it is even harder to work out how you might wish to express yourself professionally in the future.  Other women recognise that their former working identity doesn’t fit with the life they now want to lead and are unclear how to create the new self.

According to findings from Dr Lynne Millward Purvis, women – particularly working women – undergo three ‘identity shifts’ when they become mothers. Before giving birth, we begin to feel increasingly invisible and undervalued as we prepare to go on maternity leave. After giving birth, we are forced to acquire a ‘mother identity’, which causes our goalposts to move. And if we return to work, we find we need to redouble our efforts as we seek to revalidate ourselves, both as employees and as mothers.  (Dr Lynne Millward Purvis, The Transition to Motherhood in an Organizational Context). Those of us who take an extended career break miss this opportunity to revalidate ourselves as professionals and as mothers within the familiar context of our former role.

Often the loss of the professional identity is expressed as a loss of confidence.  Indeed, recent research of 2000 women by the Association of Accounting Technicians (The Times, April 17, 2013) has indicated that women on maternity leave lose confidence after eleven months absence from the workplace.  So is it really surprising that women who take an extended break will lose their confidence?  (See post Where’s my confidence gone? for ideas on how to regain confidence).
My own experience of identity and confidence loss occurred when I arrived in my office after my honeymoon, to learn that my position had been made redundant.  Suddenly, I found myself with no professional identity, an unfamiliar surname and living in a new home that didn’t feel like mine.  It took me some months to find myself again and re-create my new, married, professional identity.

The process for regaining or re-crafting your professional identity involves reconnecting with your real interests and your values and articulating your skills and experience (even from long ago).  It is ultimately a rewarding experience as the emergence of a new professional identity is inextricably accompanied by a growing self-confidence.  Remember that you have already successfully changed identity at other points in your life (eg when you first started work or when took your break) even though that might have felt daunting at the time.  You will be able to do it again if you allow yourself time to adjust.

Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners