The Career Return Journey
As a Specialist Coach delivering one to one coaching and webinar training on behalf of law firms and barristers’ chambers to their career break returners, there’s not much I haven’t seen in terms of common topics preying on the minds of those returning to the workplace after parental leave: career progression; confidence; time ownership; life balance and establishing boundaries to name but a few.
What is often missed though, is the opportunity for organisations to support their returners to plan for a successful return from the moment they communicate that they are going off. The career return journey starts when pregnancy is announced, continues through maternity leave and ends well beyond the moment returners actually step foot back in the office.
Here, some strategies for organisations to empower career returners to nail a successful return throughout the entirety of that journey.
10 Strategies to Empower Returners to Nail a Successful Career Break Return
Before Maternity Leave Begins
Foster a sense of Value at the point the planned break is announced
In her book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg advises pregnant women in the workplace “Don’t leave before you leave”, recognising what an important period the remainder of that time at work is for putting them in a strong position for a successful return when, finally, the time comes. I agree. So much easier whilst they are still in work rather than “Mummy” mode to gather work-related feedback about their progress to date, and create and share an up-to-date record of the value they bring to the organisation which will keep them front of mind even whilst off. Likewise, updating CVs and Linkedin Profiles BEFORE they go off will make smoother a confident and seamless return. This can be fostered and encouraged by firms, by discussing what current records/ feedback are available, how best to update them and website profiles, and making suggestions about what in addition might be included to bring value to the attention of clients during the period they are away from work.
Communication before employees take their career break is so important too, not only to communicate their expectations about the levels of contact they wish to have with work whilst off, ensuring they have input into the maternity leave of their choosing, but also to have those conversations with the boss about their ambitions- whether for promotion, partnership, or something else. Organisations would do well to offer the opportunity for career returners to meet and discuss it openly and fully well before going off. That way they feel valued and avoid any sense of being written off or side-lined on their return. Perhaps diarise a career break planning meeting to discuss with them how to update clients about the time they are off before they leave, how their return to work will be communicated at the right time, and have an open discussion about what ambitions they have and what opportunities they might expect for their return.
Before Returning from Maternity Leave
Consider Creative Options to Support a Flexible Return
With the retention of women mid-way through their legal careers a big challenge within the legal profession, so important to facilitate creative ways to work with a returner’s newly acquired family commitments. Can part-time, flexible hours be accommodated? Would compressed hours be helpful? Initiate the conversation to be supportive and accommodating, rather than assuming a preference to maintain the pre- family status quo. When confidence can be at a low ebb when negotiating a return to work, important to be mindful of this and pro-active in offering suitable and helpful alternatives rather than appearing inflexible and unhelpful. For example, if a daily 4.30pm office exit is required for nursery pick up, what are the expectations about the completion of work thereafter, and between what hours? Is there a requirement to log-on later in the evenings to compensate for the early dart? Important to have these conversations early on so that everyone knows the expectations and negotiates acceptable and agreeable boundaries.
Offer Coaching and Training
Coaching has its part to play in preparing for a return: going back to work after maternity leave is a big shift, and change brings with it feelings of uncertainty and occasional lack of confidence. Day to day work that was once second nature, instinctive almost, becomes more challenging, returners may feel rusty with both legal knowledge and with the introduction of new technology. Other changes that may have taken place since they were off include a change in personnel/ team members. On return, feelings of being at sea, isolated even, are certainly not uncommon. A short course of coaching can do wonders to firstly reassure returners that they are not alone in their experience, and secondly, to bridge the gap between preparing to, and successfully navigating a, return. Likewise, if there are new computer diary systems in place or changes in legislation, offering the opportunity for relevant training to bring returners up to speed quickly and effectively, empowers them to transition with confidence and ease.
Facilitating a Successful Return from Maternity Leave
Support a Smooth Transition
I’ve already touched on the importance of communication, but never more so than on someone’s return. How can the firm usefully inform the returner of the helpful resources that they can access which might facilitate a smooth transition? What are those options? How many Keep In Touch Days are they entitled to? How can they effectively utilise them all? Can they combine KIT days to access training and development? What options are there for a phased return which can help them to upskill on new technology/ current working practices whilst preparing themselves and their baby – more gradually- for the change in expectations and routine. This might include making available an empathetic internal network to empower returners to align themselves with, and listen to the shared experiences of, others who have experienced similar.
Be Flexible and Understanding
Feedback from those who recently experienced both good and poor career break returns demonstrates a huge part of engendering a successful return comes from an employer’s willingness to be flexible and understand when the inevitable hiccup in childcare arrangements occurs. Whilst the work schedule may be neatly planned out for the return, these plans may well have to adapt and flex as the need arises. Understanding that the returner now has a commitment outside of work that is absolute and cannot be ignored (whether that be nursery pick up, for example, or when a child is sick and cannot be left with the usual childcare provider), makes a huge difference to how valued they feel. Talk translates into action on this by providing, for example, fully functioning IT equipment to allow for remote/ home working as and when the need arises and understanding that even with caring responsibilities, parents are no less motivated or committed to their job. Further, discretionary parental leave for time-off required to care for very young children due to sickness and medical appointments, (as opposed to losing pay and/ or holiday), can make a huge difference to a returner’s confidence, productivity and, consequently, loyalty.
Just as providing a car parking space to a heavily pregnant employee may be hugely appreciated, so too offering a practical solution, across the board, to the challenges of breastfeeding on return to avoid the need for any perceived “awkward” conversation. Firms could, for example, as a matter of course, provide a private area to enable a career returner to pump breast milk, store it in a secure refrigerator, wash equipment and make allowance for the time commitment for doing so, which often exceeds regular break times.
Maintain that Sense of Value from pregnancy announcement to point of return
From the little things, like making sure someone returns to their old desk, team and with the same PA, so too that sense of value can be fostered in an even more meaningful way by demonstrating the trust and faith firms have in returners: Ensure returners not only have a caseload to walk straight back into, but most importantly, at the same level as when they left to avoid any sense of having been downgraded or side-lined.
Promote Role Models/ Mentors
If there are Senior Partners who have already blazed the trail of nailing a successful return and are achieving ongoing career progression, promote them as visible role models who new returners can aspire to and feel confident that there is support for them to follow suit. This approach might extend to the provision of Mentorship programmes which allows the returner to align themselves with someone within the organisation more senior to themselves who not only encourages them on their return but also inspires them to achieve the most from their return and what lies ahead in their career.
Moving Onwards and Upwards after Maternity Leave
Encourage Career Progression for when the time is right
The changes new parents go through in terms of their priorities should never be under-estimated. That said, every return is different for each individual returner. Some find the return to work enough, just striving to maintain some semblance of order and routine. Others return all hands to the promotional pump, coming back with more verve and determination to reach the next career rung than ever before. The vast majority I have observed though are in the “Deciding to Decide” category – biding their time to get the day-to-day stuff under control first before finally deciding, “Now is my time”. A helpful starting point would be to encourage conversations, whether with Mentors or in coaching sessions or appraisals, about the returner’s goals/ ambitions/ priorities NOW, and where they might see themselves in the next 1, 2,5 or even 10 years. Encouraging the conversation opens up what is possible within the firm and demonstrates that career progression is something that any new, returning parent can aspire to, at the time of their choosing. Further, in order to support them in putting themselves in the best position possible for promotion, talk openly in those discussions about how they can effectively network and upskill within the organisation and externally, both in the traditional sense, and also more widely through online networking/ social media activity, writing articles/ blogs etc. Supporting them have a platform for showcasing their talents will not only help to re-establish their confidence but also inspire them to appreciate a career break should never be a reason to hold back.
This blog introduces some of the topics dealt with in my Return with Confidence Career Break Return Webinar which also includes interactive coaching exercises. For more information on how to book the webinar or coaching sessions, please email email@example.com and for further reading see: https://mck.co/30i6HTv
Nikki Alderson Biography
Nikki Alderson, specialist Corporate & Executive Coach, Keynote Speaker & Best Selling Author, & former Criminal Barrister with 19 years’ experience,
- supports organisations, law firms & barristers’ Chambers to retain female talent; &
- empowers female lawyers to achieve career ambitions.
Nikki specialises in 3 areas:
- Women Leadership Transition & Change;
- Enhanced Career break returner support; &
- Workplace resilience, mental toughness, confidence & wellness.
She is the author of Amazon No.1 Bestseller Raising the Bar: empowering female lawyers through coaching , (https://amzn.to/3fodKQX) nominee for the Inspirational Women Awards, Champion of the Year Category & finalist in the 2019 International Coaching Awards, International Coach of the Year Category.