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Interview with Women Returners’ Head of Coaching

In this blog, we speak to Women Returners’ Head of Coaching, Karen Danker, about her background, why she joined Women Returners, what her role entails and her hopes for the future…

What is your professional background, Karen?

I started my career as a solicitor and then moved to a City law firm to run their graduate recruitment and development function. After a brief career break in the US with my young family, I returned to the UK and joined Women Like Us (now Timewise), a brilliant flexible working consultancy, where I first gained real insight into the challenges women often faced returning to work after a career break. I loved working with them to help them find quality flexible work that matched their seniority and skills, and to provide great talent to organisations. Most recently, I worked in the charity sector, running leadership development programmes for young adults and professional women. The common thread that’s run through my different roles has been this real driver to enable others to develop and flourish so that they can fulfil their potential in line with their skills and values.
Why did you decide to join Women Returners?

I’d known about Women Returners for quite a long time and had been following their progress. I was really excited about what they were doing – championing a route back to work that really helped maximise the success for returners. I also knew they were a voice within Government and had built partnerships with big corporates. I was excited by the impact they were having. 

Their values also chimed with mine – and that’s become increasingly important to me as I’ve got older. Their aim to make a positive difference to society was a key driver for me. They’re professional, innovative and ambitious and that for me makes them a really dynamic organisation to be part of.

What is your role at Women Returners?

I joined in January 2019 focusing on one-to-one coaching at first. As Head of Coaching, the main part of my role now is to be the focal point for our brilliant team of coaches and to make sure we continue to innovate, evolve and develop our materials and resources – and, of course, ourselves as coaches.

What do you think makes Women Returners’ coaching work?

Firstly, we have a team of really skilled, talented coaches with backgrounds in the corporate world. They understand both our clients’ business needs and the experience of being on a long career break and the challenges of returning to a professional role. They’re also incredibly warm and empathetic people. So for returners who start on day one feeling a little anxious about returning to work, our coaches really help them start well and progress successfully.

Secondly, we work with our clients from the beginning to understand what their business needs are so that we can tailor a programme to support them. A key objective for us is to set up programmes for success from the onset. We offer initial training for a client’s recruitment team and line managers so that they understand upfront the return-to-work marketplace and the practical steps they need to put into place to allow returners to perform at their best both at interview and when they join the organisation.

For returnship programmes, we run our Career Returners Coaching Programme which has been specifically tailored to address the practical and psychological challenges faced by professionals re-entering the workforce. The coaching workshops are very effective as they coincide with various transition stages the returners are going through. Our coaching for supported hire roles follows a similar pathway. The coaching is tailored to the group or individual and includes building professional confidence, sustainable working patterns, networking skills and action-planning for success.

We also offer a variety of Return to Work coaching for individuals outside of our corporate programmes, which include CV, LinkedIn and interview preparation coaching. 

We get fantastic feedback so we know the process works!

Finally, how do you see the job market for returners developing?
My hope is that, with people having longer working lives, taking career breaks for all sorts of reasons will become the norm. I’d also like to see supported routes back into work become a normal part of any recruitment strategy to find senior talent. I’d like to see all returners have the ability to hit ‘play’ on their ambitions and careers knowing that they will be sought-after by top organisations. And when they do return, to know that they will be supported, trained and mentored so that they can get back up to speed really quickly. I hope all organisations will recognise that if they’re not doing this they are missing out on some great talent.

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Gillian’s story: Returning to corporate life after a 15-year break

Fifteen years is a long time to be away from the corporate world but re-joining has been easier than I thought. For anyone considering returning to work, my advice is to go for it!

Before my career break, I worked for a global accountancy firm as an employment tax manager. My route there took me through university and working for a number of smaller accountancy firms before joining one of the Big Four. It was a dynamic, fast-paced environment, where I got a number of exciting opportunities and learned a lot. 

Two children and seven years later, the company was offering voluntary redundancy and my husband and I decided it would a great time to take a career break and spend more time at home with the children. That was 2003 – little did I know my career break would last 15 years!

During that time, I’ve been pretty busy. Working from home, I set up and ran an e-commerce business before selling it on in 2011. I also started childminding for my family and friends in 2003 and over the years, gradually built up a nursery business which now employs qualified nursery nurses, provides childcare for 30 children and runs smoothly with a manager in place.

Running both businesses allowed me to carry on developing my financial skills while developing a host of other skills! From number crunching to nappies, it was great to be home-based over the years while my kids were growing up. Now, with two older teenagers, I felt the time was right to take the big step back into corporate life.

After mustering up some courage and carrying out a bit of research I found Women Returners. It seemed perfect for me. I updated my CV, got a crash course in LinkedIn and applied for a role that seemed a great fit on their cross-company Returners to Financial Service, Legal and FinTech Scotland programme.

Grant Thornton appealed to me as they seemed to be doing things a little differently and I really liked their dynamic outlook. When I walked through the door for my interview, I immediately felt at home. My delight on hearing the news that I’d been successful was short-lived and quickly overtaken by the dreaded imposter syndrome. Would I really be able to learn new systems, to tackle this role, to keep up with the fast pace of corporate life after 15 years?

I really shouldn’t have worried – or had the sleepless nights. My experience of returning has been smooth and everyone in my team has been very supportive. While I had doubts that I wouldn’t be able to operate at the same level as before, I’ve been encouraged not to be too hard on myself and that it will take time to learn new systems and get back up to speed.

Importantly, I have been supported by a buddy, a mentor, coaching and an understanding people manager. This support has allowed me to relax into the role, knowing that I can ask for help when I need it. Grant Thornton also promote agile working to offer their staff a healthy work-life balance. I have chosen to work part-time, but I can also work from home when possible. This definitely provides a great work-life balance and it works well for me.

Now, over two months into the role, I’ve started to get into my stride and I was thrilled to have my contract extended. It has given me confidence, knowing that I am doing a good job. Now, I’m starting to work directly with clients and I’m enjoying this interaction and being back in a professional working environment.

Fifteen years is a long time to be away from the corporate world but re-joining has been easier than I thought. For anyone considering returning to work, my advice is to go for it! You will be surprised at just how much you have to offer employers and your confidence will soar. What you get back in return is simply invaluable.

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