Episode 135: The Comeback

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…a lot of women take a break at some point in their careers. Not always for the best reasons.

“I just looked to the short term and thought, ‘they don't value me, this isn't worth it, I'm leaving.’ And it's not always as extreme as that but I think often women don't play the long game enough.”

And getting back into the workforce after a few years out can be tough.  Coming up on the show: taking a break, the difficulty of re-starting your career – and how to change that.

A lot of women leave the workforce at some point or another, usually to look after their kids. Many leave for what they think is just a few years…just to get things under control…but they end up staying out a lot longer. Then they find it incredibly hard to get back in. Companies seem only to want people who’ve come directly from another job. It’s a competitive world. They fear anyone else will have lost their edge.

Lisa Unwin knows about this first hand. She’s the co-author of the book, She’s Back – Your Guide to Returning to Work. She’s Back is also a consultancy that helps women who have left the workforce re-ignite their careers.  

“I began life with very clear ambition – began my working life with very clear ambition. I joined Arthur Andersen as a new graduate, and I was determined to make partner there.”

And she did. For those who are too young to remember Arthur Anderson was a huge consulting firm that went under in the early 2000s. Lisa ended up working for another big, well known consulting firm as director of communication…

“And I still thought my career was on track until I found myself one day with children who were four and six a husband who was travelling away the whole time, a very demanding job, and I think there was one particular week when I didn't get a promotion I was expecting and my nanny resigned. I looked at the children and realized they were about to start full time school, and I just couldn't figure out how I could juggle and combine everything and so I took a break.”

She says she couldn’t see past the crisis she was in at the time. She was sore about not getting that promotion. Her kids were a handful, yes, but she didn’t really think about the fact they wouldn’t be that young forever…she didn’t have a plan for later on.

“So fast forward five years I found myself thinking, crikey, I had a 20 year career behind me but I've got 20 years ahead. What am I going to do with that next phase of my life? And I realized there was no easy answer.”

Now I had initially assumed that at this point when she was re-assessing, Lisa wanted to go back to work fulltime…

“No, you mentioned full time. I didn't want to go full time. I wanted to go back to work but I did what I've since learned a lot of people do in that situation: instead of thinking what I am is a management consultant with 20 years experience who has had played a large role as director of brand and comms of a multinational professional services firm, instead of approaching it in that way my approach was, oh, my kids might be 10 and 12 rather than four and six but I’ve still got two of them and therefore I need to look for part-time work. I started with my limitations rather than my ambition and the value that I had to offer, and so consequently when I started my search I just went on part-time jobs websites and the jobs advertised there are relatively low level, and that was just completely dispiriting. And that made me think there was no way I could go back. And I was approaching it in the wrong way.”

We will talk more about the right way to tackle re-entry in the second half of the show.

Lisa says so many women trying to get back into the workforce do what she did. They downplay what they can do. They feel less-than because they’ve been out for a while – or some for more than a while. And she says it’s easy to feel that way if your main job has been caring for your offspring…

“As a mother you are filled with guilt the whole time, and you've got far too much time to worry. So you know, you worrying that you're not feeding the kids properly and you’re worrying that they're not going to be in the top class for maths. And you think about the things you do during your day, they're all pretty mundane, important but mundane, and no one ever turns round and says, ‘well done, that was good. You know, you really helped me with my homework there Mum, that was fantastic,’ or, ‘you drove us safely to school, well done.’

So there's no feedback, and I know several people will come and they'll tell stories of their partner coming through the door and saying things like, I've emptied the dishwasher for you, as if now your whole role in life is to manage the cycle of washing and washing dishes and the house admin. And getting it right is just satisfactory, it's a disaster if you get it wrong but getting it right is just you know, anybody can do that, it's not particularly difficult, so you don't feel good about yourself. And I think that can be sapping of your confidence.” 

AM-T: “You mentioned just feeling like this, how can I do all this, my husband’s away all the time, how can I juggle it all? Was it the right thing to do, leaving work, do you feel that it was?”

“No, not at all. I mean one of the one of the…before we wrote the book we wrote a lot of articles and the most popular article we have ever written was called Why Women Need to Treat Motherhood and Career like a Game of Chess. And our point about that article is that very often women make short term decisions because they don’t think about the long game, and if you think about chess, in the early stages of the game, like career, everybody's got the same pieces on the board, we all make the same moves, we take professional qualifications, we get a new grad program and it’s relatively straightforward. Where it gets messy, chess, is in that middle phase of the game when you start to have to sacrifice pieces. But in chess you sacrifice pieces but you have a plan as to what are the pieces you’re going to put in place so that your next move is ultimately a winning move. The sacrifice I could have made when I flounced out of my wonderful career was I could have put up with the fact that I wasn't getting promoted and taken that knock to my ego in return for continuing to do valuable, interesting work with important clients and building my network. Or I could have chosen, if I'd had to give up permanent employment, perhaps I could have arranged to do some freelance work with the organisation so that I was keeping my hand in.”

When she quit, her firm had just won the bid to become a sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics…

“It was a massive contract and there was going to be a lot to do over the next four years, and I could have negotiated a way to stay involved in that. But I didn't. I just looked to the short term and thought, ‘they don't value me, this isn't worth it, I'm leaving.’ And it's not always as extreme as that but I think often women don't play the long game enough.”

I agree. It’s hard, but if you’ve ever been in a situation like that…the most sensible decision is sometimes to take a deep breath, put your pique aside and think about how you can make the place work for you over the long haul.

But Lisa didn’t know that back in 2008 when she walked out the door. When she decided to go back to work five years later, she knew she wanted something fulfilling, challenging – something where she could use her past skills, even if she didn’t have the fancy title to match.

And as she looked around she realized just how many other women were in the exact same position. It led her to start She’s Back and forge a different path around helping women – one of the things She’s Back does is partner with UK companies on returnship programmes to get qualified women back into their ranks.  

I told Lisa about an interview I did last year with Kathryn Sollman – it was show number 98, it’s called Leaning Back. Sollman is also the author of a new book, hers is called Ambition Redefined …she warns women off taking career breaks. She’s all about finding flexible work that fits around your family life and lets you bring in an income – even if it’s not stellar. Here she is:

KS: “There is no perfect time to work in terms of caregiving and family. The smart thing is to always work in some way from college to retirement and it does not have to be a 60 hour a week corporate job.”

Lisa Unwin: “I would wholeheartedly agree with that…and that is true, and women need to do that. But the flipside of that is that organisations need to recognise that when women do step back and maybe go part time or become consultants and are not seen as ambitious because they're not ambitious at that point in time, they’ve probably got too much on, that doesn't mean that their ambition has gone forever, and there has to be the opportunity to step back up again when you're ready, and that's missing. Too many organisations…you know, I grew up in Arthur Andersen, if you hadn't made partner by 35 I mean that was it, you were a failure. I mean Andersen doesn’t exist any more, but if you look around many law firms, big accountancy practices, I suspect that they still have the same structure where success means making partner, and if you've not made it by a particular age that's it. And actually in many of those firms you're not allowed to hang around at senior manager level or at director level for a long time because you clog up the system. So yes, women need to keep their hand in, but please don't write them off if they if they choose to do something different for a period of time.”

Coming up in a minute, how to persuade employers – and yourself – of your worth…when you’ve been out of the workforce.

 When Lisa and her co-author Deb Kahn were writing She’s Back, Lisa thought the first step they’d outline for women was what she calls ‘getting your story straight’ – meaning the story you tell employers about who you are and why you’re valuable.

“But actually when I first started speaking to people I realized this first step isn't that, the first step is getting your head sorted, really understanding what are the stories you’re telling yourself about why you can’t go back…”

She found this was a common theme. Women who wanted to go back to work on the one hand, but on the other kept telling themselves they couldn’t.

“…and in the book there’s a story of Jenny who was a teacher who’d been out for 12 years, and one of the things stopping her going back was this story going around in her head that she can’t be the teacher she used to be, and by that she meant she can’t be in at 7:00 with the caretaker and there till seven o'clock in the evening when he turned the lights out…which is what she used to be when she was a young teacher. Because now she’s got other demands on her time, but she realized in time that actually that was true, she couldn’t be the teacher she used to be, she would be different, and actually she's better and she teaches special needs, and her children have both had different types of special needs. And of course she's a much better teacher than she would have ever been before she had them because she's had the experience, she's had the life experience of bringing them up and knowing, understanding what their needs are. As an adviser to the parents of the children who now come through her class she's so much more valuable, but she was sat there with this story telling herself about how she can’t be what she used to be.”

And there was something else that had been holding Jenny back. She confided to Lisa… 

“I kept telling myself that the family would fall apart if I went back, and she said, ‘I had to tell myself that because if it didn't fall apart then what was the point of me, and what had I been doing all this time?’” 

AM-T: “What can people do, if they’re feeling negative…how can they break back into this world?”

“I think one of the things you need to do is really figure out your strengths and what value you've got to add. If I go back to my own experience, instead of defining myself as being a mum with two kids who wants some part time work, define yourself by the value that you've got to offer an organization, and I think that also means thinking about the time you've had, if you have taken a break, the time you've had as a parent or whatever it is you've been doing, and how that has added to your skillset and added to the contribution you can make to an organisation. So for example I took some time and volunteered as a magistrate which meant that I had to really get to know the community within which I live and the issues around law and order in East London, which are totally different from any issues I would ever come across getting on the tube and going to work in the City and coming back home in the evening again. So I think that makes me a more rounded person and have different contributions to offer.

So really understanding your value, and that could that could mean talking to a coach, it could mean pulling out your old performance appraisals, it could mean talking to friends who know you or people who used to work with you about what your strengths are and what you've got to add, but do something that's going to make you feel good about yourself.”

Because you may well have had a dip in confidence. You need other people to remind you of everything you can do. And talking of other people… 

AMT: “I mean we’ve talked about this on the show before, but the dreaded word, ‘networking’…”

“I do a lot of speaking to hundreds of women both in work and out of work and whenever I get to the slide on networking everybody cringes, and women hate the term networking. But actually we're really good at it. If you reframe networking as not standing in a stuffy room with business cards and horrible white wine…if you think about it as actually helping people, figuring out how what you've got that can help somebody else, rather than what they've got that can help you. Actually if you think about it women do it all the time. We're always looking to help people, find out what people are interested in, how we could be interesting to them, and your network is far greater than you ever imagine.

When we were doing our first piece of research we needed to get five organizations to sponsor us, and I had no idea before I set off She's Back that Christine, who happens to be Ollie’s mum, Ollie being my son's best friend, is actually, she was the chief technical officer at the Financial Times and she was about to move to be the chief technical officer at News International, which became one of my clients, and it is surprising who you know that might know someone who can introduce you to someone who might ultimately find you an interview.”

OK so talking to a lot of different people is key. But then what do you actually put down on a resume, a CV that hasn’t been updated in years? How do you explain your absence from the workplace?

“There’s two schools of thought. One is that when you are actually coming to write a CV you do not have to waste endless time explaining and justifying the fact that you took a break, just put ‘planned career break’. Leave it at that, and only describe any experience if it's relevant to the job in hand and it's going to help get you the interview. So that's the first point. When it comes to interview you've got to be prepared to answer the question, what did you do, why did you take it? But be aware that the person interviewing you has got a tick box that they're looking to tick off, and all they're really interested in is whether you've got the competencies to do the job they're looking for. So don't waste time warbling on about any volunteering experience unless it's relevant to the job in hand.

But then on the more positive note, I think compared to someone who's in work doing one job just looking to transfer to another organization…you have had to really think about this, if you're returning to work after a break you've got to be damn sure that you've got everything in place to make it work. You probably come really refreshed, you’re bringing some new ideas. You are motivated, you know it's going to be tough. So you are someone who has really thought through the decision to apply for this job and I think that enthusiasm has to come through.”

That was the case with a woman Lisa met early in her research for the book. She’s called Emma. She’d been a management consultant in her twenties and early 30s, but she’d stayed at home with her kids for years and done part-time project work.

“She got to 49, her husband was due to retire, her boys were 16 and 18 and she thought, right, I have got one big job left in me. And I met her for a coffee three or four years ago, and one year ago I got an e-mail from her to me and a number of other people saying thank you very much for the introductions you made. I've now got my dream job, and she's now working as a senior project manager for a law firm in the city. And when I when I first met her I said, of course you’re looking for flexibility, and she said ‘absolutely not! I don't want flexibility, I want to be on the 6:04 from Reading into London. I've done the flexible bit. I've been there at home looking after my kids, I'm not doing that anymore. I want to have this big job.’

Not only has she got the job, I was speaking to a partner in that firm on a different subject matter just yesterday, and he mentioned to me, ‘so you know Emma, don’t you? I said yes, and he said, she has completely transformed the way we tackle large transformational projects throughout the firm. She's an absolute asset.’”

Lisa was thrilled.

Now as she just pointed out, Emma the consultant had no desire for flexibility in her new work life – she wanted the whole shebang, commute included. But a lot of women DO want flexibility and they’re often very grateful if they get it.

“One of the things that I've been thinking a lot about lately is this issue of flexibility and when women work part time, because I have a hunch…Women obsess about needing to get permission for anything that goes beyond the normal working nine to five, being in an office, and therefore they go to great lengths to agree that for example they’re going to work an eighty percent week and they're contactable on these days at these hours and this is the day they're going to work from home. And they spend a lot of time putting it in writing and getting it all formalized. And I have a hunch that men just go ahead and do it and then the women that have had these highly formalized arrangements tend to get labelled as being less ambitious than the men, who just continue in business as usual…”

That’s true and some of you will remember we talked about this in my recent re-run show with Laura Vanderkam. A study of men and women at a US consulting firm showed just that – that men take the time they need away from their desks when they need it; they just don’t talk about it. Women make it all formal and ask permission and as a result they’re branded as less dedicated.  

“And it came home to me, when…there’s a woman, one of the women in our book, Emily, who works for PwC. She said she got a fantastic piece of advice from a mentor who took her to one side and said, for goodness sake stop talking about your hours, start talking about your ambition. And it made Emily realise that she just needed to stop drawing attention to the fact that she’d got this arrangement, and actually she's traveled with me along the journey of writing this book and we've done a couple of talks together, and it's given her extra confidence. Because just recently it was performance appraisal time and she was ranked at the top of her group. But when the bonuses were actually allocated and she was told what the number was going to be, it was the lowest amount in her group.”

And that was because the firm had prorata-d her bonus - they chopped down the amount to match her reduced hours. So Emily went to her bosses and pointed something out:

“Bonus is about outcomes. So the fact that I have a different working schedule is totally irrelevant and a bonus should be the bonus, and there's no need to pro rata of it. And my understanding is the firm have changed it because she was absolutely right. But sometimes I think we so grateful to be allowed to do something that's outside of the norm, we don’t argue.”


Finally, Lisa says if you want to take a career break and you’re able to…

“It’s absolutely fine to take your foot off the gas and to take a break, to step back at a point in time if that's what you need at that point in time, but it's equally fine to then want to step up again, and we were all going to be living for longer we've got a right to have the work we want, we've got a right to be able to fulfill our potential and not have boundaries put in our way.

And so I just would like people to be ambitions for the whole of their life and to find ways to go and get what they're looking for. If indeed that is more work and more money, because none of us, I don't know what it's like in the US, but none of us here have saved enough for our pensions.”

AM-T: “Oh no, it’s very much the same here. But you know what I realize as you said that, that I should ask about, is one obvious thing. Which is ageism. It’s out there.”

“Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I think it’s almost worse than sexism. And it goes back to the point I made about these firms where if you've not made it by 40 you’re classed as a failure and we have to tackle that. And I wrote another piece that was quite well received saying, this is what a 50 year old woman looks like. Because there was a chief executive of Marks and Spencer here in the UK a few years ago, he said he was going to rescue the company because he understood, he said, I know my Marks and Spencer's customer, she's a 50 year old woman who still shops at M&S. And I just thought, you have no idea what 50 year old woman looks like.

We've got tons of energy and we've got all this life experience behind us and we have got so much more to add often than a 24 year old grad, because we've come in…we’re sensible, we've got perspective, we've got judgment and we need to we need to own that, I think, and hold our heads high and put ourselves out there.”

Lisa Unwin. She’s the co-author of She’s Back – I’ll link you to more information about the book and the organization under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

We should probably do a whole show on ageism because some of you in tech have told me that in your industry it begins in your thirties.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual I’d love to hear from you – you can comment under this episode on the website or tweet me or post a comment on the Facebook page.

 Thanks again to those of you who support this one-woman show. If you’d like to join them head over to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com. If you can kick in 50 bucks I will send you the official Broad Experience T-shirt. Ladies cut.

 I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.