Kirsty Feltham, an L&D professional from London, signed up as a mentee on the Steps Ahead Mentoring programme in March 2020, after taking 8 years out of work to look after her children. She was mentored by Deborah Lightwood, an executive coach.

Eight years ago, Kirsty left her career and home in London to move North so she could become a full-time mum. After having her second child, she planned to go back to work once they started school, which is still a year away. She now has a plan for what that work will look like.

When Kirsty began to think about returning to work, she realised she had no idea what she wanted to do. Having previously worked in corporate learning and development at Starbucks, she wasn’t sure if going back to a career in L&D was the right move. Could she do that role anymore, having been away from work for eight years? And, more importantly, was it still for her?

Kirsty says she had so many questions she didn’t know where to start: 'Did I want a new career or just a job for a bit of extra spending money? Did I want to still be more of a stay-at-home mum with a part-time job? Should I retrain in L&D? as I was not formally trained, so there was always that slight imposter syndrome.'

On top of that was the worry of many parents about being torn between work and home. Then there was the need for flexibility and concern that employers still had the ‘bums on seats’ mindset. Perhaps self-employment would be a better route, she thought.

Fortuitously, Kirsty spotted a link to Steps Ahead Mentoring on a Facebook feed. At the time, she was 18 months from wanting to re-enter employment and wasn’t sure if the programme would accept her. However, the application process was easy, so she gave it a go and was accepted.

Kirsty was paired with Deborah Lightwood, an executive and corporate coach.

She says: 'It was spot on; perfect not only in terms of Deborah’s background in learning and development but also her style. I was impressed that they didn't just match me up with any old person on their books. And it was helpful knowing Deborah was a parent herself and would probably have experienced some of the same things as me.'

Putting the ‘me’ in mentee

Kirsty and Deborah met face-to-face in early March 2020, just before the UK went into a national lockdown as a result of COVID-19. During that meeting they discussed what Kirsty wanted to get from the programme and how best to approach the sessions.

'I think mentoring does need to be guided by the mentee because what they want out of it is so different from person to person. So first of all, it was great that Deborah was happy to be guided by me in terms of practicalities. And it wasn’t as if I had a job I wanted to go after or a CV that needed overhauling. I just had lots of thoughts and needed help sifting through them and narrowing them down,' Kirsty explains.

They met the following week virtually and then got into a routine of meeting virtually on Monday mornings every fortnight until July 2020. The sessions lasted one to two hours, depending on what needed to be discussed.

Kirsty’s confidence had been dented after eight years out of the workplace, such that she doubted she could walk back into an entry level L&D role. This was compounded by the fact she had only worked for one company. 'I was veering towards doing a job in a café, supermarket or something local, which would be flexible shift- wise and give us that little extra bit of income to make a difference to the family. I was shying away from addressing the root cause because of nervousness and lack of confidence.'

Initial sessions focused on identifying what Kirsty enjoyed about work, using models and activities to look at her strengths and personal values.

'The work around values was most helpful and most enlightening to me because what's really important to me has absolutely changed from having eight years out of work and becoming a parent,' Kirsty says.

It became apparent early on that she felt the need to do something that was going to add value, whether that was for her community or the people around her.

When talking about her experience in corporate L&D, Kirsty focused on the elements that excited her, and it seemed a career in L&D beckoned again. But she didn’t think it would be right to return to that, so discussions then focused on the type of work that would sit better with her new priorities and family commitments. The flexibility of self-employment was initially appealing, but through conversations with her mentor Kirsty realised it was not right for her.

She decided she wanted to work for a not-for-profit or a charity, maybe volunteering first to get an idea of the different jobs that she could do. She started exploring the possibility of undertaking a formal qualification, but after further investigation realised that it didn't feel right to study an L&D qualification just for the sake of it.

She eventually came across a counselling course, something that would build on her skillset, strengths and values, as well as the elements she had enjoyed in her corporate role. She began this course in September 2020.

Mentoring impacts

Discussing the impact of Steps Ahead Mentoring, Kirsty says: 'I feel in a completely different place now than I did at the beginning of March when I started Steps Ahead.'

'If I'd spoken to you in February, I wouldn't be speaking so confidently at all because I'm speaking now from a position of having a plan for the next year, which I didn't back then. What this experience has done is refocus and remind me that I did loads of great stuff eight years ago. But also the big difference that Deborah's brought is making me value the time off I've taken to look after my family and see that as something that adds to my skillset rather than something you should try and hide on your CV or pretend didn't happen.'

For example, Kirsty says that prior to having children, she found it extremely stressful when things didn’t go to plan. Having children has helped her to overcome this.

'You can’t micromanage children. You have to be resilient and flexible. You have to change plans at the drop of a hat. So I think my old skills coupled with that kind of new resilience, flexibility and adaptability have given me a really good mix. Now I feel like this is something that I should be proud to offer to an employer rather than hiding away from it.'

Another benefit of taking part in Steps Ahead is the professional relationship with a mentor. As Kirsty says, it had been a long time since she’d spoken to someone in that capacity and presented herself in a professional way.

She now feels ready to seek work after completing her course. The idea of discussing flexibility with a potential employer still fills her with some trepidation, but Kirsty is honing her CV and knows where she can add value. She is approaching charities and local organisations in a volunteering capacity to get more informal practice before applying for a job.

Highly recommended

Kirsty is now a keen advocate of Steps Ahead Mentoring. She says she looked forward to the sessions and is continuing the relationship with her mentor in an informal way now the programme has finished.

'It was a really good supportive experience that has boosted my confidence and given me renewed purpose and direction. It forced me to spend some time thinking about me and what I want to do, and I've done some really great self-reflection, which I wouldn't have allowed myself or given myself the time to do. I found having a mentor hugely useful in getting me in the right head space to get back to work.'

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