Liz Knight, an HR director at ECSC Group plc and chartered fellow of the CIPD, has been a Steps Ahead mentor for eight years and a parent-returner mentor for the past three years.

As an HR professional of 25 years, Liz Knight has seen the positive impact of mentoring in her own career. 'Knowing that my actions have had a positive impact on someone and helping them to move to the next chapter of their working life can only be considered to be a win in my book,' she says.

Liz was therefore quick to volunteer as a mentor in the CIPD’s Steps Ahead employability programme when it launched in 2012.

'I know it’s a well-worn phrase, but I just saw it as an opportunity to give back. I've been fortunate enough to have some solid guidance and support throughout my career. And I wanted to give back to others the same way,' she says.

Liz has been HR director of full-service cyber security information provider ECSC Group plc for three years. Just as ECSC operates with a consultancy-led approach it summarises as ‘listen, understand and deliver’, so these three behaviours underpin Liz’s approach to mentoring. She says it is important to mentor those you feel you can best help and to whom you can give practical, actionable feedback.

'The thing about Steps Ahead is that it is a combination of coaching and mentoring. The way I see it, coaching is about drawing out what's already in there. And mentoring is putting something new in. The two can dovetail and, depending on the mentee, the emphasis changes. This makes it interesting. I'm comfortable in that split space, flicking from one to the other.'

From youth to parent returners

Steps Ahead Mentoring was initially focused on supporting people aged 18-24 to secure work through helping them with their employability skills and confidence.

When this was extended to parents and carers who wished to return to work, Liz started to support this group as well. At the end of 2019 she matched with Shirley, a mother of two with several gaps in employment due to maternity and other family issues, whose career comprised a mix of permanent, temporary and self-employed roles.

'The reason I was drawn to Shirley is that, over my working years, I have seen that in some respects people like her who have been out of the workplace for a while can get a bit of a raw deal. Certainly, when it comes to the recruitment process, it’s a situation they've probably not been in for a long time. It’s more about confidence than competence and I felt I could really help out in that regard,' she explains.

With Shirley based in Hull and Liz in Bradford, face-to-face was not a feasible option, so the sessions were conducted over the phone. After each conversation, Liz followed up with an email capturing the discussion and the agreed next steps. This enabled an open and flowing two-way conversation rather than Shirley having to worry about taking notes. They agreed a fortnightly call of around 30 minutes with six in total, but on some occasions there was the need for a longer period between calls, to give time for actions to be undertaken. In total around 10 hours of support was given, once preparatory and follow-ups are taken into account.

The first area where Liz added value was in reviewing Shirley’s CV. With experience in both finance and HR, the CV had what Liz calls 'an identity crisis'. Shirley was applying for both types of roles with the same CV, which diluted the messaging. There was a lack of clarity on what she was looking for and what her expectations were.

'I teased out early on that Shirley was open to both HR and finance, as I didn't want to end up going down the rabbit hole if she'd got a clear interest in one over the other. So part of my role was to really try and pin down what she wanted from these so she could be much more targeted in terms of her applications, rather than a bit of a scattergun and ‘hope for the best’ approach,' she explains.

After gaining that clarity Liz helped Shirley to develop two separate CVs, one tailored to HR and one to finance. The next stage was preparatory work for interviews, building confidence and interview techniques. This included talking through the types of questions she could be asked and how she might answer those, including the inevitable ‘do you have any questions for us?’ question, so that in an interview she could draw on these rather than having to think on the spot.

'It was clear Shirley could fulfil the roles she was looking at. It’s less about the work itself and more about giving the mentee as best an opportunity as possible to come across as well as they can in an interview scenario. Lots of encouragement and getting them to see what they are capable of.'

Mentoring impacts

With her second son just one year old, Shirley was searching for a flexible role. Just as the mentoring came to an end in the first quarter of 2020, just prior to the UK’s national pandemic lockdown, she heard about a remote working role with a consultancy based in York. While she wasn’t quite right for that role, the company’s owner called her back with a different role and now she is working in a self-employed role in HR.

Liz believes Steps Ahead helps parent-returners such as Shirley because it recognises the barriers carers face and is tailored to their needs.

'Where else can someone like Shirley go for such one-to-one steerage and mentoring?' she asks. 'It's very tough when you could be up against somebody for a role who's perceived as the safe bet, given that they might already be in a role and just looking for that next step, versus somebody with similar skills but who's been out of the workplace for a period of time.'

By joining Steps Ahead, carer-returners can get help in doing their preparatory work and develop confidence in their skills so they can demonstrate to interviewers that they are doing all they can in terms of being up to speed with what is going on in that sector.

Steps Ahead impacts mentors too

From Liz’s perspective, the Steps Ahead programme has fully met her expectations right from the start. She says it is clear from the outset what the mentoring looks like, what the expectations are and the practicalities around the process. 'In terms of prospective mentors, it's really good in terms of giving support and direction before you embark on the journey with a mentee,' she says.

But what about the impact on you as a mentor? There are plenty of benefits, says Liz. One is being able to engage and speak with people in different situations outside your day-to-day work. Working with parent-returners has renewed her focus on the issues people returning to work face after having children.

'It’s good to be able to really understand the challenges they face. I had empathy anyway in terms of their situations, but I think it's always good to be reminded of how things feel from the other side of the fence. From an interviewing point of view. Those kinds of thoughts sit firmly at the forefront of my mind when I'm going through a recruitment process and filtering the candidates.'

Then there’s the general feeling of wellbeing when you know you have played a part in helping someone and seeing how they progress. And, finally, there’s the learning.

'I've been in the industry for a long time and I don't think you ever get to a point where you stop learning. The Steps Ahead programme has played a part in this, because when you start to build somebody's trust, they end up telling you much more than they might in the first place. People often want to share other experiences that might contribute to their feeling nervous going back into the workplace, for example if they have had a bad experience in a workplace previously. Through programmes like Steps Ahead it's actually encouraged me to look at things differently,' she explains.

So much so that Liz, alongside her current role, has gone back to university herself to train to be a psychotherapeutic counsellor. As she says, dealing with different people and their situations that are outside of those you come into contact with every day gives you a valuable skillset. It’s a win for the mentee and a win for the mentor.

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