Dorothy Tande, a freelance HR development consultant (Chartered FCIPD) and executive coach and mentor, has been a parent returner mentor since the inception of the Steps Ahead mentoring scheme.

It’s no surprise that Dorothy Tande became a CIPD mentor. With some three decades of HR development experience up to director level, personal, career and leadership development has been a core component of her working life. 'I've always supported others on a one-to-one basis and thoroughly enjoy it. There’s something about supporting, enabling and empowering others that feels natural to me,' she says.

She began her CIPD mentoring journey in 2011, helping final year undergraduates at the University of Greenwich while working for the local NHS. She moved to helping 18-24 year olds and is now supporting the parent returner scheme.

'This resonated with me from my own experiences as a parent, ambitious at the time and feeling torn between parenthood and wanting to go back to work. There is the anxiety that one feels when you're going back to the workplace and thinking, gosh, can I still manage to do what I need to do? Am I still good enough? So when I saw this programme, I thought it was an excellent opportunity to share my learning and experience with others.'

In 2020 Dorothy was matched with Amanda*, who was about to have her first child and who wanted to be mentored by someone with experience of going back to a full-time job after having a child and who also had experience of commuting to work. The latter was important because Amanda lived in Yorkshire but had to commute to London much of the week.

Just as Dorothy and Amanda connected, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK and a national lockdown was in place. It was therefore impossible to meet face-to-face, so the sessions were carried out over the phone. For the initial session, it was vital to ensure the right chemistry was in place for Amanda, explains Dorothy.

'There’s got to be some sort of emotional connection or right chemistry that takes place so that the mentee feels comfortable, safe, reassured and most of all, listened to', she explains. It helps the mentee to make the most of the experience of being mentored.

For Dorothy this meant taking a flexible approach that was tailored to Amanda. 'It was most important for me to understand what Amanda was looking for from the mentoring overall and from me as a mentor. My approach included being open to share my own career background, experience and learning also because there may have been something that made Amanda think, I didn't know you could offer that. So, I shared as much as possible about what I've done that I thought was relevant to our discussions,' she says.

From ‘commuting working mum’ to ‘job uncertainty coach’

While the initial mentoring request was based around the challenges of new motherhood, work and commuting, by the time Dorothy and Amanda had the first session it had all changed. Amanda had just had her daughter when her employer went into liquidation. This was now the overriding issue for which she needed support.

'There was all this new anxiety to add to the existing issues. To be honest, when we first spoke I thought to myself, oh my gosh, I don't know how this lady is going to cope,' says Dorothy.

Suddenly her experience of commuting as a mum was less relevant than her skills as a mentor and HR professional. This played strongly to Dorothy’s strengths as a freelance coach and mentor.

'I didn't feel it was my place to offer advice, answers or guidance unless it was technical HR or employment law advice for example, redundancy legislation. So what I offered was a strong listening ear for Amanda to be able to talk through what was going on in her life – anything and everything she wanted to talk about, and helped her to identify what she valued in her life, career, aspirations, interests and her strengths. She was very good at self-reflection and was aware of the issues and changes that were taking place for her personally – as a mother, workwise and with her family. She laid it all out on the table in trying to understand the issues for herself, and re-arranged them with possible solutions that she came up with in terms of what she might wanted to do differently going forward'.

While the immediate question was whether Amanda’s employer would come out of administration and whether she would have a job, a few other issues came to the fore – personal and professional. This was to do with what Amanda wanted as an individual, what she was or wasn’t going to compromise on in her career, future career aspirations and how would manage family, friends or anyone else who had opinions about those choices. In addition, with the pandemic now taking its toll worldwide, a faltering economy and jobs being lost across industries and in particular in travel, there weren’t many options. She needed to weigh up all these issues.

'Amanda was also able to articulate and identify new skills that she needed in future jobs such as more financial acumen, negotiating, dealing with awkward situations and conflict, and leadership. I was able to help her to begin to think through the issues and come up with possible solutions. It wasn’t about skills gaps as such because she hadn’t needed them before but, it was now about actively developing new and transferable skills and encouraging her to have the confidence to dip her toe in and see what happens,' explains Dorothy.

Flexibility was key to the success of the mentoring relationship. Amanda had a lot on her plate. Dorothy left it to her to decide on the frequency of the sessions – weekly, fortnightly or monthly. While the programme specifies six sessions over a set number of weeks, Dorothy says she was happy to build in more time provided she kept CIPD in the loop, as there were so many issues to discuss in Amanda’s case.

Seeing the same parent-returner issues again and again

With such long experience in mentoring, Dorothy says there are a number of challenges that she finds regularly come up.

'It's really about managing parenthood plus work. So, for example, how am I going to be able to travel around with a little baby? Where can I get the right support? Can I trust my baby with another person? Do I need to begin to think about a strategy for when the child goes to school? It’s the anxiety about having a new life altogether and the responsibility of parenthood, about managing the change with your old job or workplace, or a new workplace, or just anxiety that you've been out for a while. Confidence is a massive issue and can have a knock-on effect on interviewing skills for example, or performance during the first few months back at work. I had one client who had lost so much confidence she said her stomach went haywire just before an interview and she didn’t know how to control it. We focused on interviewing skills until she felt OK. Thankfully, that person now has a very successful job that she wanted in finance!'

While mentoring plays an important role in helping parent returners tackle such challenges, Dorothy feels HR and organisations can play a stronger role. She suggests that organisations should work with managers who have staff returning, and ask what their action plan is to support their returner. She states that this makes it very real for them rather than an organisational policy alone: 'I'm not saying organisations do a bad job, but because people are still there with anxiety and confidence issues, I think there's a lot more that needs to be done.'

Dorothy says the CIPD programme is a 'wonderful scheme' that she recommends highly to would-be mentors.

'It's wonderful to be able to have the opportunity to share with others what I've learned in mentoring those returning to work. It’s beyond putting something on your CV, you have really got to want to do it, believe in it and be genuine about it. By becoming a mentor you enable others immensely to help them find their strengths, restore and build their confidence.'

'It’s very rewarding and satisfying when you work with somebody, you support them and you see them get back to, or even exceeding the level they were before or what they expected of themselves. It’s good to see them feeling good about themselves again'.

'I help people to believe in themselves, be more self-aware and articulate what they can offer in the jobs that they want. Sometimes we are so preoccupied with what we see as weaknesses and gaps and forget all the wonderful things we can do and offer at work and in our careers. Mentors can help others see those strengths and abilities. The great news to this story is that Amanda secured a job in a newly formed organisation similar to her previous. We were both thrilled!'

*Name changed for confidentiality purposes

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