Lucy Vause, a freelance coach, has been a Steps Ahead mentor for the past three years. A chance conversation at a conference three years ago marked the beginning of her Steps Ahead mentoring journey. After hearing the programme being talked about with great enthusiasm, she checked out the CIPD’s website for more information. She was about to leave her full-time role to set up as a freelance coach and planned to balance some paid work with voluntary opportunities. After looking into Steps Ahead, Lucy was hooked.

'The opportunity to be able to help someone, even in just a small way, to find their place in the world of work is really rewarding. But one of the things I really like about the Steps Ahead programme is the flexibility to focus your firepower wherever it is needed most.'

Flexibility to do your best for your mentee

Having spent the majority of her career in policy and strategy roles in the Department for Work and Pensions, Lucy was acutely aware of the financial, emotional and mental toll of being unemployed and the positive impact mentoring could have. She had witnessed the difficult but rewarding job work coaches were doing and was keen to play her own role in supporting people back into work.

Coming from a professional background and having been an internal mentor in previous roles, she could see the training and resources offered by the CIPD were impressive. But it was the flexibility to do what you needed to help the mentee that swung it.

'There aren’t any limits on how many meetings you have, where you have them or a long list of things you have to do, which you sometimes find with volunteer opportunities. Your role is purely there to help your mentee and you have the flexibility to do that however you think best.'

One of the attractions of Steps Ahead for Lucy is the ability to hold mentoring sessions remotely. Virtual coaching and mentoring has mushroomed since the coronavirus pandemic, but prior to this it was not the norm. Remote communication methods enable mentors to work around other commitments, in Lucy’s case her young daughter’s schooling, and to mentor people anywhere in the country.

Lucy matched with Melanie*, a return to work carer, in February 2020, just prior to the UK’s national lockdown. Melanie had been made redundant three years ago, from a professional role she loved, and had then taken a career break to care for a parent. She had started to look for a new role 14 months ago, but was struggling with confidence, motivation and clarity on the type of role to which she would be suited.

The first two sessions were informal and conducted on the telephone, as Melanie was not comfortable using video conferencing technology.

'I never have a fixed approach because everyone that I've mentored is so different, both in terms of what they want to talk about and how they want to talk – by phone or by video call instead. It’s whatever is best for the mentee.'

Lucy prefers a less structured approach at the beginning, saying that once people start talking her role is just to listen in the initial sessions.

'Quite often it's the first opportunity they've had to talk to someone about their career plans, about their worries and anxieties, about what's happened so far, without any risk of being judged or told what to do. So, I like to give people a lot of space to talk.'

Then by the end of the session, mentor and mentee have a clear plan about what action needs to be taken. In this case, Lucy realised Melanie’s job search was quite narrow, focusing on job titles similar to those she had had before, but which were not what she really wanted to do. By talking more generally and stepping back, Lucy helped her to see she was capable of doing so many more roles than she thought. In other words, Melanie was way more marketable than she had realised.

'She had tons of leadership experience, interpersonal skills, team working skills – the full spectrum of high-quality employability skills that make you really valuable to an employer. Having that conversation helped her realise that she could widen her job search and could be at the front of the queue as a qualified professional with the icing and cherry on top.'

So, Lucy set Melanie the challenge to go away and find a few roles that she would be really interested in doing, even if they weren't ones that traditionally came up in her job search so far.

Engendering confidence in carers

Helping a mentee to step back and see their skills in a different light is one way of adding value. Another, says Lucy, is encouragement. When mentees have applied for a number of roles and been knocked back, it’s easy to see it as a hopeless situation and to give up.

'My role as a mentor is to say absolutely not. Don't give up, you've actually got a huge amount to offer. It’s basically a sort of cheerleader role.'

For those who have been out of the workplace for some time owing to caring responsibilities, returning to work can be daunting and lack of confidence can be a big issue. One way to tackle this is to break down the areas in which they are least confident and most worried about and discuss whether they had faced similar difficulties in the past and how they overcame these. Lucy calls this a ‘reality check’.

'Because you've been thinking about it on your own without the opportunity to talk about it, your brain starts saying ‘I can't do this, everybody can do this better than me’. But when you talk about it to someone else and they say, ‘well, where's the evidence for that?’ and ‘what can you do better than others out there?’ they start thinking, ‘yes, I can do an awful lot more than them’ and then they start to see the links and how it all joins together to match jobs they are applying for.'

Coronavirus concerns

Flexibility is one of the benefits of the Steps Ahead programme and in this case it was all the more important as the mentoring sessions took place just as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the UK. This backdrop meant that she and Melanie talked more regularly than Lucy has experienced in other mentoring scenarios and also that she became more of a personal sounding board as well as a professional one.

Initially the sessions were weekly and then Melanie accepted a job offer and they scaled back, talking a couple of weeks prior to starting and then when she started. Most of the conversations lasted an hour, although they were able to meet face-to-face just before the pandemic hit, and this session lasted 90 minutes. Lucy estimates spending a day’s worth of work in between, searching for examples of roles that were outside her typical search and helping polish job applications.

With Melanie’s first interview taking place during the pandemic, Lucy also did some virtual interviewing practice. This was especially important as Melanie had said she was uncomfortable with videoconferencing technology, so Lucy helped with everything from receiving an invitation and accessing the software to helping Melanie position her computer screen.

It also meant Lucy learnt something herself as the interview was via Google Hangouts, a technology she hadn’t used for meetings before, so she practised in advance with her daughter to get a good overview of how it worked.

Mentoring impacts

The strategy agreed between Lucy and Melanie was to focus on fewer jobs but more focused jobs. There is no doubt in Lucy’s mind that Melanie would have eventually got a role, but she believes the Steps Ahead mentoring helped speed the process up.

As well as helping with confidence and Melanie’s understanding of the unique attributes she has and how to communicate those with more clarity, Lucy says she believes the mentoring has also helped Melanie to see how she can progress going forward, whichever way she takes her career.

Having mentored for three years now, Lucy notes a number of issues that regularly come up. Confidence can be an issue for everyone, but for carers in particular there can be emotional issues. They can have feelings of guilt that they are now focusing on their career, doing something for themselves while someone else has to take on the caring responsibility and the practicalities of that. Then there is the sheer frustration of not getting feedback from employers, so not knowing what you are doing wrong. For those out of the workplace for a while, understanding how the recruitment process has changed, especially with automation, can also be a challenge.

So why become a Steps Ahead mentor?

Lucy identifies three personal benefits from being part of the Steps Ahead programme. Firstly, it enables you to keep using the critical core skills that are so important in today’s business world: being able to listen to someone, to build that relationship, to show empathy, to give great feedback.

Secondly, you become part of the CIPD community more generally. 'I’ve met lots of other people through Steps Ahead that I wouldn't have done. So, feeling part of something bigger and being able to connect with other mentors, other like-minded volunteers who share that same passion and commitment for helping people into work, has been really good as well.'

Finally, you can learn and develop yourself. For example, Lucy admits she was terrified at the beginning that someone was going to ask her to help them write their CV, as her background was not in traditional HR. But using the resources provided by CIPD, you can learn skills like this and now Lucy confesses she loves writing CVs. In addition, she’s taken on an ambassador role for Steps Ahead, talking to jobseekers, job centres and work coaches about the programme as well as training new mentors.

'Just being a mentor is fantastic. That's enough in itself. But if you want to do more and learn some new skills, there's always the opportunity to take it further. Steps Ahead mentors have access to top class training, professional support from a dedicated CIPD team, a strong community of like-minded volunteers, and then there are opportunities to test and develop skills that are at the heart of our profession. Why wouldn't you volunteer?'

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