How to write your New Year return-to-work action plan

Is Returning to Work one of your 2019 Resolutions? 

How do you make sure you don’t let this fall by the wayside like New Year resolutions tend to do? Shift your thinking to make Returning to Work a goal, with a clear, specific and motivating personal action plan. Here are some of our suggestions on actions to include.
Action Steps to Get Back to Work

1. Clarify what you want from work 

Start by considering what your motivations are for returning to work. Do you need, or want, to earn your own money? Are you looking for the status a professional job brings? Do you want to be a role model for your children? Returning to work after a career break is a great opportunity to think about what you really want to do, so consider what kind of working life and job you would find most fulfilling and enjoyable. Think about what you most enjoyed about past roles and whether or not you need flexibility. You may prefer a corporate employed role, to work as a freelancer or to set up your own business.
Identifying your strengths can help you decide which career direction to take. And read our tips if you feel you have too many return-to-work options or too few. Don’t over-analyse at this stage – the ‘what shall I do with my life?’ career questions can rarely be solved just by brain-power. Move to action using a Test and Learn approach.

2. Fill the gaps in your work experience/skillset

Once you’re clearer on the broad direction you want to take, it’s time to identify any gaps in your experience and any new skills you will need. Get up to date with your old industry, or learn about a new one, by taking professional courses through industry associations, attending conferences, seminars or webinars, signing up to relevant newsletters and meeting up with ex-colleagues. Find courses locally through Floodlight and look at the free online MOOCs (Massive Online Courses). If you’re worried about your IT skills being out of date, take a course before you get back to work. Strategic volunteering can build your skills and experience and may even provide a route back to work.

3. Craft your return-to-work story

Talking about your career break and how it fits into your professional story can be tricky. Use our ‘Career Break Sandwich’ method so that you don’t fall into the trap of focusing solely on your career break (and neglecting your professional background) in response to the classic questions “what do you do?” or “tell me about your background?”.

4. Rebuild your work confidence

A loss of professional confidence can be a key factor in preventing you from making a successful return to work. Don’t let this hamper you – read our blogs on Re-establishing Your Confidence and addressing the Confidence Gap.

5. Re-write your CV and develop your LinkedIn profile

If you’ve been out of the workplace for any length of time it’s likely to be many years since you last wrote your CV. We have lots of CV information in the Advice Hub section of our website including How to Write Your Post-Break CV and the use of Action Words. A strong LinkedIn profile is also important – read our blog on how to make the most of your profile.

6. Select potential routes back to work

There are many routes back to work such as returnshipsnetworking and creative crafting of a role. Consider which ones would work best for you.
7. Prepare for interviews
Facing your first interview for many years can be daunting, and we have lots of advice on our website to help you prepare. Six Essential Steps for Successful Interviewing is a good place to start. We have advice on how to prepare for competency-based interviews, informational interviews and telephone interviews. You can also read how to respond if an interviewer tells you you’re overqualified for the role and what to wear to interviews.
8. Maintain your motivation

Our motivation to achieve our goals inevitably fades after a while. Learn from psychology research about how to stay motivated longer-term.

9. Come along to our Women Returners 2019 Conference!
If you’d like a return to work boost, join us in London on 19 May. It’s a highly motivational day packed with return-to-work advice, support and inspiration and the opportunity to meet informally with employer sponsors and other like-minded women. The day will be relevant to you no matter where you are on your return-to-work journey. Find out more about our Conference here and book your place at the Super Early Bird price of £80 (available until 27 January).
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You’ll find much more help and advice on our website.

How to be a Successful Returner Candidate

There are many reasons why employers want to attract those returning to the workplace after an extended break. Returning professionals offer a wealth of experience, maturity and a fresh perspective. Employers are now starting to recognise this and other positives of bringing returners into their organisation. By hiring returners an employer is able to tackle skills shortages, improve gender and age diversity, tap into a high-calibre talent pool, and improve their organisation’s attractiveness to potential employees in general.
But what do employers look for in individual candidates and how can you make the most of your skills and experience when you apply for a returner programme or any open role?
Here are our five top tips:
  1. Don’t try to hide your break on your CV or make excuses for it in the
    interview. If you’re applying for a returner programme, it is especially
    important to mention that you have been on a career break, including
    the length of your break at the time the programme starts. You risk
    being excluded from these opportunities if you try to cover up your
    break. If it’s been a while since you updated your CV and cover letter,
    read our blogs How to Write Your Post-Break CV and How to Write a Back-To-Work Cover Letter.
  2. Don’t undersell yourself. Learn to tell your story. Make sure you’re aware of, and appreciate, all the skills, experience and perspective that you can bring to an organisation. It’s likely that you will return to the workplace recharged, refreshed and enthusiastic to take on the challenge with new skills developed during your break. Make the most of this in interviews. This is the time to blow your own trumpet!
  3. Low professional confidence is common in women who have taken a career break. If you feel this is an issue for you, take steps to build your confidence back up again so that you believe in yourself and in your skills and experience. And don’t forget to read the success stories on our website for proof that, no matter how long your break, you can get back into a great job.
  4. Research and prepare thoroughly for interviews. Consider why you are a great fit for the organisation/role and articulate what sets you apart. Develop detailed examples of your competencies and skills – including transferrable ones – and prepare answers to typical questions.
  5. Show your enthusiasm and positivity. How you behave and the way in which you communicate is just as important as what you say in an interview. Make sure the interviewer can see the energy and motivation you’ll bring to their organisation!

Remember that employers aren’t doing you a favour. They have sound business reasons for encouraging returners back into the workplace to take on stimulating and rewarding roles. Taking the time to prepare yourself to make the most of this will put you in a strong position to resume a successful career.

Make sure you have signed up to our free network for more advice, support and job opportunities.

The 5 steps to successfully negotiate your return-to-work role

We know that many women returners are more likely to gratefully accept any terms rather than to consider negotiating when offered a job after a career break. However, it’s important to make the role work for you for it to be sustainable. That’s why we’re happy to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Natalie Reynolds, a negotiation expert, to help you to sharpen up your negotiation skills.
We negotiate every day, in many different ways and with many different people. It is a fundamental requirement in reaching agreement, resolving dispute and succeeding in business. We might find ourselves negotiating our salary, a contract or a deadline … or in the case of those returning to work, negotiating a job which fits our new circumstances, maybe with a whole new way of working.
Negotiation can be intimidating at the best of times,
never mind when it’s going to impact on our family and lifestyle. With this in
mind, the following DEALS approach is designed to highlight the key steps to take when you’re planning for and negotiating your job offer with your potential new employer.
Discover: Before you get anywhere near the negotiation table you need to discover as much as you can about the
role and the organisation. Do your research, know the facts, understand the
market and look at what has been agreed with current employees in terms of pay and ways of working. If you want flexible working, check who is working in this way currently and on what basis (part-time/job-share/remote working) – this will give you a sense of what’s feasible. It is essential that we are
creative with this process as we often just think about the obvious issues … but
perhaps the key to unlocking this deal sits in an area you just hadn’t
considered:  could you ask for extra leave in the summer holidays, or annualised hours for example? Find out who will be involved in the negotiation process – are you talking to the decision maker? As you’re likely to be out of touch with salaries, are
there ex-colagues you can talk to for current data or industry baselines you can look at (see website such as for salary data)? Crucially, make sure you’re clear on what you are bringing to the business and any unique
skills that you can offer.
Establish: Next up is to establish some boundaries and priorities. Establish
what your key priorities are … as well as what theirs might be. To create a
win/win outcome you need to understand what success looks like for them also.
Reciprocity means if they feel they have won, they are more likely to help you
win too. You also need to establish the areas where you can’t compromise and your breakpoint or walkaway point. This is
the worst case outcome for you. Once you’ve established it – stick to it! In
the heat of a negotiation we often agree to things we wouldn’t if we were more
calm or confident.
Ask: This is about making sure you make your proposals in the most
effective way. Package all the issues in your proposal (eg. base pay, bonus, benefits, working hours, holidays) rather than going issue by issue. When you make a proposal always make sure you open ‘ambitiously
but credibly’. Ask for slightly more than you need to give yourself wriggle
room to explore what they might be willing to give you, but don’t go for a completely unrealistic opening offer. If you can, try and
make the first move in the negotiation. Anchoring is a phenomenon from the
world of psychology that means we are often overly influenced by the first
number put on the table and you are then likely to finish closer to that
figure. Don’t worry if you don’t manage to go first though; just remember to
not reinforce their proposal by going on and on about it. Instead recognise the
best way to beat their opening proposal is to make one of your own. Simply, the
more you talk about what you want and why, the more likely you are to get it.
It’s also essential that you plan several moves in advance … and again, be
creative! Think of lots of different angles to try and reach an agreement and
don’t be afraid to make lots of suggestions. If you’re asking for flexible hours/location make sure you present the business case of how it can work for the team rather than just for you.
Lead: This refers to taking the lead in the negotiation. Be confident.
Take a deep breath and speak calmly and professionally. Don’t allow your
emotions to control you. A simple tip to help with this is to remember that
even the most confident of people will often feel awkward and nervous when
negotiating; they are probably just doing a better job of hiding it!
Seal: And last but not least is to seal the deal in the right way. Get it
in writing as soon as you can. One of the most dangerous phases in a
negotiation is the ‘post-deal, pre-paperwork’ phase. This is the period after
the deal has been agreed with a handshake or verbal agreement, but the ink is
not yet on the contract or formal agreement. This is the phase where if your
counterparty has any doubts about the deal they have just done, they will come
back and try to alter terms they are unhappy with, or walk away from the
agreement in that form altogether.  To
try and limit the risk of this, be gracious rather than over the top if you get
a great outcome and make your counterparty feel satisfied with their result.
Agreements are stronger if each side feels like they are winning.
Natalie Reynolds is an negotiation expert at Advantage Spring. She has also written the popular  book ‘We Have a Deal: How to negotiate with intelligence, flexibility and power’ which is published by Icon Books. To find out more about advantageSPRING’s
negotiation programmes visit

See also:

What to Wear to Interviews

It can be difficult to decide what to wear to an interview
at the best of times, let alone when you’ve been away from the work place for a
while.  The following tips are designed
to make it an easier experience and to help you make the best impression.
Dress as though you
already work there

When you meet the interviewer(s), you want them to see you
immediately as someone who would fit in. What do you know about the brand? How
formal/traditional is it? Is it a
creative organisation, a charity, a start-up? What type of outfit would best reflect this?
If possible, go and look for yourself beforehand by
loitering inconspicuously near the entrance to see what people are wearing as
they come and go. Do you notice any kind of ‘uniform’ or a more diverse range
of outfits? Is it an organisation that calls for conformity or encourages
individuality? Some places have sub-cultures where, for example, the sales
people might wear suits, and the creatives, casual clothes. Find out what you can
about the department you’d be working in.
If the dress code looks to be very informal, eg jeans, err
on the side of ‘smart casual’ such as a tailored pair of trousers with a top/jacket
in a flattering shape and colour or a more creative dress.

Massimo Dutti – see here
I remember going for an interview at Channel 4 straight from
my job at KPMG when I hadn’t had time to change. I felt incredibly conspicuous
in my suit as I waited anxiously in Reception. I made a joke of this when I met
the interviewer as I wanted to show that I understood that a culture change
would be involved. Thankfully they
looked beyond the corporate suit and I got the job!
Choose something that
reflects you

Find some common ground between what sort of outfit would
reflect the brand and what feels representative of you. For example, if you are
interviewing with a traditional city firm, and yet your natural style is more
contemporary, choose a tailored dress or suit with a more cutting edge style
and team it with a statement necklace or a coloured bag. While you want to fit in, you want to retain
a sense of who you are and be remembered for this.

Finery – see here and Zara – see here
If you usually live in jeans and jumpers, find a smarter
outfit that still feels comfortable. There are lots of work clothes that fit
this brief, eg tailored trousers in soft fabrics look great with a crisp shirt/soft
silky top, gently structured jacket and brogues or loafers (flat or heeled).
M & S – see here – Jigsaw – see here – Warehouse – see here
Now is perhaps not the time to experiment with a whole new
look that doesn’t feel like you.
Look contemporary

I might be guilty of overusing the ‘contemporary’ word, but
I think it’s particularly important in the context of returning to work after a
break.  Some ‘classic’ work clothes that
we’ve kept may stand the test of time but, more often, some details (eg width of
collar, shoulder padding) will make them look dated. If you like shopping,
you’ll no doubt know what the current styles are; if not, have a browse online
or ask a stylish friend for help.
While I would always opt for style over fashion, looking
contemporary will influence how interviewers perceive you. Even though age
discrimination is unlawful, we know it sometimes happens and we are often
competing with younger candidates. Arguably, it shouldn’t matter, but wearing
anything that looks dated or frumpy might affect how you’re viewed. That said,
I would never advocate the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ trap that we can fall into.
My teenage daughters keep me firmly in check on that front! If you want to be
taken seriously, avoid anything too frilly, flowery or girly.
Business dress has moved on with many alternatives to the
suit, even in some of the more traditional companies/professions, eg. a tailored
dress or trousers/skirt and a tailored top/sleeveless jacket.

John Lewis – see here – Massimo Dutti – see here – H&M – see here – Massimo Dutti – see here

A good coat option is a trench coat which looks
great with formal and informal wear:

Massimo Tutti – see here
Don’t overdo the accessories

One statement piece, eg necklace, ring, oversized watch can
look great but stick to one, maybe two, unless you’re looking to work in fashion/the
creative industries where a more dramatic style might be embraced!
Choose colours that

Make the most of colours that suit you so that you stand out
from the sea of black that often dominates the work place. Your best colours
will be those that match your natural characteristics on the following 3
scales: Deep or Light, Warm or Cool, Bright or Muted. So, if your natural
colouring is Light, Cool and Muted (not much contrast between eyes, lips, hair,
skin tone) consider greys and blues without much contrast between them, as
opposed to black. Black tends only to
suit those who have Deep, Cool and Bright characteristics. For the rest of us,
it can drain us and cast unflattering shadows on our faces. Incorporating some of your best colours into
your outfit, as close to your face as possible, will help you to stand out as
well as look good.
Cool colours are considered to be more business-like (ie
colours with more blue in than yellow) so, if you suit warmer colours, try to
find warmer versions of, for example, navy and grey. Steer clear of browns.
Scarves can look fantastic and are a good way of introducing
colour, but approach this look with caution. I went through a phase of wearing
scarves to the office and was asked routinely by one of my male colleagues when
the plane would be landing!
If you’re unsure about your best colours, consider having these
identified as it will save a lot of time and money when shopping. You can edit
a shop floor in minutes!

Biba@ ouse of Fraser – see here – Ted Baker – see here – Jigsaw – see here
Choose shapes that

If you’re not confident about this, here are just a few of
the many guidelines that might help:
  • The curvier we are, the drapier the fabric we
    should wear. Trying to force curves into structured garments made from stiff fabrics
    is a challenge. You will look and feel uncomfortable. Choose clothes that are more
    fluid, but still smart.
Winser @ John Lewis – see here and The Fold – see here
  • Choose trousers/skirts/dresses that skim the
    hips, thighs and bottom without clinging.
Hobbs – see here
  • If your shoulders are narrower than your hips,
    try balancing this by adding more structure to the shoulders or wearing a wider
    neckline or collar.
  • If you want to create the illusion of looking
    taller, vertical stripes (eg pinstripes, trouser creases, edge-to-edge jackets)
    will help. Same-colour trousers/tights/shoes will lengthen the leg. Anything
    that creates a horizontal line, eg a belt, strong contrast in colours, pockets,
    wide lapels, etc, will have a widening and shortening effect.
  • Dress to suit your frame: smaller frames need
    lighter-weight fabrics, smaller patterns and accessories, while larger frames
    can take heavier fabrics, bolder patterns and larger accessories. If you’re
    petite, getting clothes tailored can make all the difference.
Be comfortable

Give your outfit a test run by wearing it at home for a
while to check that it’s comfortable, both when standing and sitting. Make sure
that buttons on shirts/blouses don’t gape, skirts don’t ride up when you sit
down. Check hems are in place, no loose buttons or marks/creases, etc. Choose
shoes that are comfortable to walk in (or have some flats in your bag to change
into). If you wear heels, the good news is that there are many styles currently
in the shops that have block heels and will help keep you grounded.

John Lewis – see here
Hair, make-up and

Again, probably not the time to experiment with radical changes
but a good haircut and some light make-up will help you look and feel confident.
I hesitate to say this, as it seems
obvious, but ensure your nails are clean and tidy. I’ve seen a few interviewees
over the years turn up with dirty nails or chipped nail polish and these are
invariably remarked upon after the event by the hiring manager. Rightly or
wrongly, people will make assumptions about what this says about you.
Plan your outfit well
in advance

Choose your outfit well in advance, including shoes, coat,
bag, jewellery, nail polish if you’re going to wear it, the right coloured
tights, etc, so you can then give your full attention to the most important
aspect: mental preparation and avoid a last minute panic.

Where to Shop

If you need to buy something new, and don’t know where to
start, consider somewhere like John Lewis or House of Fraser where there’s a
good range of styles and prices.  Browse
online before you shop, so you can be more focused when you get there. Other
brands worth looking at include Zara, Massimo Dutti, Cos, Benetton, H&M, Whistles,
Jigsaw, Hobbs, Finery, Pinstripe & Pearls, Reiss, M&S and Jaeger. For
bigger budgets, or for inspiration, have a look at Boss, Adolfo Dominguez and The
Fold (although not so much for petite frames.)
I always chuckle to myself when people describe clothes as
an investment (who are we kidding?), but ‘cost per wear’ is a more truthful and
useful gauge, so try to choose ‘building block’ garments that you think you’ll
get plenty of wear out of to justify the cost.
If your budget is tight, have a look in places like TK Maxx
and there are some great charity shops, especially if you go to the ones in
smarter areas where you can pick up some good quality bargains. There’s also a fantastic
charity called Smart Works which helps women to choose free outfits to help
them get back to work.
Above all, spending some time choosing the right outfit will
enable you to project yourself as confidently as possible. Making a favourable
impression at the outset will give you an advantage.
Natalie Hunter is a Women Returners Coach and trained Colour/Style
Consultant and offers these services separately, or together, for clients.
Please contact if you’d like to find out more.

Be Ready for the “Simple” Interview Questions

I was working with a coaching client recently who,
fresh from an interview, explained that she was pleased with the way she’d
answered the competency-based questions about her skills and experience. However she had come unstuck when faced with what she’d assumed would be the
“simpler” questions: “Why do you want this role?, “Tell me a bit about
yourself”, “What would you bring to this role?”.  Because she’d spent most of her preparation
time building up a bank of detailed examples and stories to demonstrate her
skills and expertise, she realised she’d neglected to fully prepare and rehearse
her answers to some of the questions which, on the surface at least, seemed
more obvious.
What appear to be the simpler, more obvious
questions are often the hardest to answer and yet, arguably, the most
important ones to get right. Simple in
form only, they leave you wondering where to start or what to include. In a
world of information overload, being able to get your message across concisely is
a real skill that requires a good deal of reflection, editing and rehearsal.
Another of my returner clients described the bitter-sweet
experience of the time she couriered a letter to the founder of a high profile
online retailer. As an enthusiastic customer of the site, and an experienced PR
professional, she wrote to say how much she admired the brand and offered some
suggestions as to how she believed the customer’s experience could be even
better.  Within half an hour, the founder
called my client and invited her in to talk further. The meeting seemed to be
going well and, as they walked through the offices, the founder said that she
liked her ideas but was “wondering how she might fit her in to the company.” My
client recounted how, in the moment, she had no answer to this and, at that
point, felt any potential opportunity slipping away. With the benefit of hindsight, she wished she
had prepared a range of options as to how she might fit in. A painful learning
opportunity and one that many of us can no doubt relate to.
Sometimes, it’s the more informal or
unplanned situations that catch us out. I’ve kicked myself a few times over the
years for missing opportunities in an informal situation and giving weak, ­off-the-cuff
answers. On the flip side, shortly after I started working for myself, I bumped
into a parent from my children’s old school and he asked me what I was doing.
Thankfully, on that occasion, I was ready with a good answer and he became one
of my first clients.
Six tips to be ready for the not-so-simple questions

  1. Make a list of all the
    questions that might come up in formal or informal settings to gauge your
    motivation, strengths, interests, what you’re looking for, what you’re
    offering, etc. Prepare and rehearse until you have a well-crafted, brief, confident
    answer for each, packed with relevant and interesting content.
  2. Rather than answering with
    vague generalities, weave in specific examples that show how your values
    overlap with their organisation and how your skills, experience and strengths
    would make you a good fit.
  3. Do your research so you can use
    relevant language that shows a contemporary grasp of their business issues.
  4. One of the most common openers
    in informal meetings is “How can I help?”, so be clear in advance on what it is
    you’re asking for: insights into the business/industry; an introduction to
    someone else; advice; consideration for any relevant opportunities, etc. Think also about what you might offer in
  5. Your CV and LinkedIn profile
    are important and it’s tempting to put this at the start of your search.
    However, prioritising time to figure out your answers to these questions
    will make it easier for you to create a CV that paints a coherent picture of
    who you are and what you’re offering/looking for.
  6. Treat all encounters as a
    chance to sell yourself. Anyone in your
    network could play a role in helping you to secure your return-to-work role or opportunity.  Even if they’re not in a position to help, they
    may well tell someone else who will be.
Clearly you don’t want to sound like an automaton reading a
rehearsed script, but if you have prepared the key ideas and messages that you
want to get across, you can keep it natural and be ready for any encounter,
chance or otherwise.
Natalie Hunter, Coach, Women Returners

Don’t Talk Yourself Out of an Opportunity

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.

Incorporate feedback

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.

Further Reading
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

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 

How Informational Interviews can help with your Return-to-Work

What is an Informational Interview?

The start of a new academic year is often a time when returners start thinking about going back to work. If you are at the stage where you are considering a variety of options, you’ll need to do some detailed research to help you to narrow your focus or even generate new ideas before embarking on a full job search. An essential source of information is people who have done or are doing the kinds of roles you are interested in: the way to approach them is by requesting an informational interview.

Informational interviewing is absolutely NOT about asking for a job and it is vital to separate the two. When both parties understand this, it takes away any discomfort about the meeting and allows for a more relaxed and informative conversation.

Uses of Informational Interviewing

Information interviewing is a research activity, for gathering data and getting advice. The range of potential uses include:

  • Finding out about the skills and qualities needed for a particular role that you are investigating and any specific qualifications that are required
  • Understanding the content of a role and the day-to-day responsibilities
  • Learning how a specific company is on the inside – information which isn’t communicated on the website e.g. the company culture and values and what it is like to be an employee
  • Gaining industry sector insight and finding out practical market realities
  • Making new contacts in your field of interest
How to set up and conduct an Informational Interview
  • Identify people in the role you are researching via your own contacts, LinkedIn or other networks (eg. alumni groups)
  • Contact people directly or request an introduction from your network
  • Email the person to ask for a short meeting or phone call: 15-20 minutes is a good length
  • Make it clear that you are looking for information, not a job. Don’t send your CV unless you are asked for it
  • Prepare your questions to make the best use of your time and keep the conversation friendly, brief and focused
  • Always send a thank you to the person you met (as well as the person who introduced you)
Overcoming your fears about this activity
Sometimes returners find it hard to ask for help in this way as they question what it is they can offer in return. Just remember:
  • People enjoy being asked for their advice and to talk about themselves and their careers
  • The people you are meeting may well have been in your position themselves and they know the value of the activity you are doing
  • Often people in a role don’t make time to read about current industry trends and news. As you gather insight, you may have useful, up-to-date knowledge to share with the people you are meeting
Posted by Katerina

Just do it! Taking action to bring back your confidence

Regular readers of our monthly newsletter will be aware that, Julianne and I have presented or joined panels at a large and varied number of events on getting back to work after a long career break. At one of these, a CFA Women’s Network panel, I was asked for ideas on how to build confidence, a very natural question. In my coaching work, this is often an area where returners wish to focus and I have also run dedicated workshops and written advice columns about it many times. As I have so much to say on this topic, I initially wondered how I could do it justice in a short answer. Ultimately I responded simply with a single effective method for improving confidence … just get on and do stuff!
I can illustrate this idea best with my own experience of speaking at all these events in the past months. I’ve always believed that public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me and so I haven’t actively sought speaking and presenting opportunities. In fact, prior to 2015, I’ve given maybe 6 or 7 public presentations in total through my whole career. However, since the profile that we have generated for Women Returners has led to multiple speaking invitations, I’ve had plenty of chances to gain experience.
As is normal when doing new things, the first few times didn’t go smoothly at all: I made many ‘rookie’ mistakes and felt what confidence I had at the start was draining away. Although I would have found it easy to decide that it was all too difficult and uncomfortable and decline to do more, I didn’t have that option because I had already committed to more events. So, I had to persevere, learning from my earlier errors and gradually developing an approach to public speaking which works for me. Each time I’ve presented or participated I’ve learned something new and as I’ve gained experience, I’ve learned to take the positives from it, rather than focus on the bits that aren’t perfect.
Over time I’ve noticed that I can stop my voice from wobbling and my heart from racing, that I know my topic and don’t need copious notes and that I can pause and take a drink without losing my connection with my audience. Through doing this – keeping taking action, while focusing on what has gone well – I’ve experienced a noticeable increase in my confidence at speaking. Even though it still doesn’t feel natural to me, I no longer dread it. Indeed I find myself looking forward to opportunities to test out my new skill!
When returners ask about how to improve their confidence, I will ask them what it is they would like to feel more confident about: we all have areas of our lives where we feel confident as well as areas where we don’t. Two areas where returners commonly tell me they feel low in confidence are re-establishing a professional network and going to interviews. Based on my experience of building confidence through taking action, these are some ideas for actions I recommend:
Re-establishing your network
  • Draw up a list of all the possible people you could get in touch with, including people from your past, your present and those you’d like to meet in the future
  • Starting with those who you find easiest to approach, set yourself a target of a number of calls to make, or emails to write, on a weekly basis.
  • Ask friendly former colleagues if you can meet for a coffee to talk about industry or sector developments
  • Join LinkedIn groups in your professional field and initiate, or comment on, discussions
  • Volunteer at or attend relevant conferences or professional network meetings with the initial goal of speaking to just one or two people
  • Reward yourself for meeting your targets, identify what went well with your approach so you can repeat it – and increase your targets as your confidence builds
  • Performing well at interviews requires preparation
  • Ask family, friends and even former colleagues to support you by giving you practice at answering interview-type questions. Ask them for feedback on both what you do well as well as ways to improve
  • Take every opportunity for interviews as a place to practice your technique: even if you are not interested in the role, you can gain valuable experience from the interview itself
In whichever area you are hoping to re-build your confidence you will find that regular and repeated action will pay off.

Posted by Katerina – co-founder of Women Returners  

How to Shine in Telephone Interviews

One of the innovations in recruitment practice in recent years is the increasing use of telephone interviews. In addition to their use in standard job recruitment, many of the return to work programmes we support use them as part of the screening process when deciding who to invite for face-to-face interviews or to selective returner events. This is the case for the Bloomberg Returner Circle which we launched last week as well as for many of the corporate returnship programmes.
If you’ve not had an interview for many years, the process may seem daunting, particularly if a telephone interview is a totally new experience for you. We are often asked for advice about how to handle them; in particular, the lack of personal contact can be seen as a barrier. Although telephone interviews throw up different challenges from the traditional format, with the right preparation and approach, you will be able to put yourself across well.
What’s different about a telephone interview?
  • Lack of visual clues: clearly, you are not able to see your interviewer (or vice versa). This means you’ll miss out on the normal conversational cues about whether you have the interviewer’s interest or are answering in the way they expect. Similarly, the interviewer won’t have any visual cues about your engagement or enthusiasm for the role. This means you have to use other methods to ensure a good understanding.
  • Length and format: telephone interviews are commonly shorter than traditional interviews and the interviewer is often working from a set of highly structured questions, with less introductory ‘small talk’ so it may be harder to build rapport.
  • Nature of interviewer: as the telephone interview is part of an initial suitability screen, the interviewer could be a recruitment generalist who might not have detailed knowledge of the company or the role for which you are applying.
Preparation is key
As with all interviews, your preparation will be vital and all the advice we give in our other posts is relevant (see links below). In addition, you can do the following:
  • Ask in advance about the interview format, length, types of questions and what the interviewer will be assessing (for example this might be a CV-based check on your match with the profile, an assessment of your motivations, or an competency-based interview).
  • Think about your answers to common interview questions and make some notes, but don’t write out a script as you will sound wooden if you read from it, rather than speaking naturally.
  • Make arrangements to ensure that you will be uninterrupted (especially by children!)
  • Give yourself time just before the interview to prepare mentally and physically. Have a pen & paper and a copy of your CV and cover letter in front of you to refer to.
  • Dress in business wear if it helps you to feel confident that you will project the right image.
During the interview …
  • Behave as you would in a face-to-face interview, with the same degree of formality.
  • Don’t worry about silence, the interviewer is probably writing.
  • You can check on your performance by asking if you have answered the question fully or if more detail is needed.
  • Smile – you’ll sound more enthusiastic and confident.
  • Speak clearly and not too quickly.
  • Sit up straight or speak standing up if this allows you to talk with more power and energy
… and make this your opportunity to stand out
To show your enthusiasm and commitment in a limited time:
  • Provide clear, succinct and focused responses to the questions you are asked. Avoid rambling!
  • Keep your voice upbeat and fully of energy.
  • Project yourself as the professional person you would like to be seen as, after all, you can’t be judged any other way!
After the interview
  • Make notes on what you discussed.
  • Do send a thank you email as you would for any other interview.
Other useful posts:

Posted by Katerina