How to make sure your return to work is a success

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Returning to work after a career break can be daunting. There are so many emotions at play. You are excited but scared. Keen to get going but nervous about the road ahead. So just how do you go about making sure that transition is a success?

It’s like driving a car …. but in a foreign country on the wrong side of the road!

“How do you feel about returning to work?”

Jenny, a lawyer who’d been away from law for eight years was asked this very simple question at interview just last week.

“It’s not a problem. It’s just like driving a car” she answered.

The interviewers looked relieved and ready to move on, until she added:

“Except you’re used to an old fashioned manual and it’s a souped up electric automatic. And you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, in a new country. And the rules have all changed. And the traffic’s a lot busier than it ever used to be … and you don’t know how to use the sat nav and …”

As her audience went ashen faced, she decided maybe best to leave it there.

It’s not a bad analogy, though, if you think about it.

You Don’t Learn to Drive by the Book

Sooner or later, you have to get behind the wheel. One of the reasons we set up the Reignite Academy  five years ago was that some well intentioned firms were offering one or two week “returner” programmes. They brought people into the office, gave talks on how the law had changed, talked about how to write a CV and use LinkedIn, shared new “hot topics” in the law. The only thing missing, sadly, was a job.

Just as you can’t learn to drive by reading about it or watching someone else do it. Sooner or later you need someone to offer you an actual job.

Take A Test Drive

Many years ago, I landed in Chicago to begin a three month secondment and had to collect a hire car straight from the airport. I had never driven an automatic before and, this being the US, the car was not only automatic but also extremely long. It was also pitch black as my plane had been delayed six hours due to a storm.

There is no way on earth I could have driven that thing unless the kindly man in the car hire place had taken me on a test drive around the car park. It wasn’t even a very big car park but that was all I needed to have the confidence to tackle the open road.

It’s the same with work. One of the reasons “returnships” are so popular and successful is that they create semi-safe space for a returner to put themselves back into a working environment with some structure and support for a defined period.

Find a Co-Pilot

You know how to drive: you passed your test at seventeen and you were driving for twenty years before you took your foot off the pedal. You don’t need to go back to having a driving instructor and dual controls.

However, isn’t it reassuring to have someone sitting beside you who can tell you how the electronic dashboard works? Who can remind you how to use the sat nav and who can help you navigate in a strange coutntry.

It’s the same with a return to work. Having a coach or a mentor can be super helpful to get you through those shaky first few months.

The Dashboard is Essential

I have to admit I’m not always great at using the rear view mirror and I have been known to drive off without opening the wing mirrors. However, I could not imagine driving a car with no dashboard.

Just googled it and here is a synopsis of the benefits of a dashboard:

  • The capacity to make more informed decisions
  • A clear representation of performance
  • Quick identification of data outliers and correlations
  • A way of measuring efficiency

The good news here is that whilst dashboards on the modern car are sophisticated and expensive, the solution you need when returning to work is extremely easy. Feedback. Regular, personalised, specific feedback from a line manager or reporting partner.

Without feedback I have seen people descend into a spiral of self doubt. They don’t need to be patted on the back and it’s fine to tell them where they are going wrong (and right) – all feedback, assuming it’s well intentioned, is useful.

Choose the Right Route

My friend Giles recently found himself accidentally driving a rented SUV through the Lincoln Tunnel in New York, in rush hour. He was, how shall I put it, … uncomfortable. I think his wife may have been navigating. Words may have been exchanged.

Imagine you’re about to embark on your first road trip in this strange new car in a foreign country. You wouldn’t choose the Boulevard Peripherique in Paris, the Autobahn in Germany or Meskel Square in Addis Ababa for your first trip (look it up). Instead, you’d choose a slightly quieter road, where there is less traffic, considerate drivers and where you have time to actually enjoy the drive.

It’s the same with a return to work. The main motivation from the women I work with is to use their brain again, to achieve the intellectual stimulation their career once provided and to return to doing the work they loved. However, they are also very clear about the culture they are looking for. Collegiate, inclusive, respectful and one which recognises that people have a life beyond work. They do now want to work for a firm which demands they are “always on call” and where holidays and weekends are always at risk.

Driving is Fun and Empowering

I failed my driving test three times but I can still remember the sense of freedom and independence that came with finally being able to drive.

It’s the same with work. Five years after the first Reignite Academy programme we have seen hundreds of women return to their careers and whilst, for some, the first few months might have felt daunting, they all go on to thrive.

So what are you waiting for?

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Reignite Academy Summer Roadshow

We are excited to announce that the Reignite Academy will be on the road in May, offering you the chance to join us in person to explore ways to relaunch or pivot your legal career.

The Reignite Academy team will be joined by other women who have successfully returned to law after a career hiatus. They will share their stories, experience and advice.

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