Melanie*, a finance professional, signed up as a Steps Ahead mentee in October 2019, after taking a career break of 2 years 9 months due to carer responsibilities. She was matched with Steps Ahead mentor Lucy Vause, a freelance coach.
Melanie says: 'I felt stuck and isolated. I was struggling with my motivation and to see where my broad experience would fit. Days could just drift by and then you think, gosh, I still haven’t applied for anything.'
Three years ago, Melanie’s world turned upside down. A successful professional in fulfilling and exciting roles, she was unexpectedly made redundant from a job she loved, after nearly two decades. Then, just three months later, tragedy struck with the sudden death of a close relative. At the same time as dealing with the shock and grief of this, Melanie abruptly found herself with a parent requiring care support.
While, paradoxically, the money from her redundancy payment gave her the immediate financial freedom and time to focus on this new responsibility, it also meant that she took her eye off the ball in terms of job search.
'I should have been thinking about what I should be doing next career wise, but it wasn’t an immediate focus.'
Melanie took a career break to concentrate on caring but after 14 months realised she needed to look for a new role. It was then it registered: the big issue was that she didn’t really know what she was qualified for. An accountant by training, she’d had broad experience in her previous roles so there were a number of potential routes open to her, but she didn’t feel there was an obvious career path.
Confusion then clarity
'I was struggling to explain who I was and felt agencies weren’t the best route for me. I may be wrong but I felt that agencies would just be trying to get the job filled. So I applied for roles direct and my applications tended to be quite bespoke and took a lot of effort. I applied for some roles that were probably optimistic.'
Melanie ended up focusing her job search on project roles, mainly because it was easier to explain her experience in this area as she had been involved in numerous projects in her former roles. However, a resulting job offer for a project role on a return-to-work programme changed her perspective.
'When I got the job, I knew my heart wasn’t in it. Getting that offer helped me realise this kind of role just wasn’t for me. I was, in a way, slightly fooling myself.'
Initially this moment of clarity helped Melanie to get momentum back into her search and to reposition herself to focus more on mainstream finance roles. However, after a while she foundered again.
'I recognised I might not have quite the depth of experience compared to some people going for the roles I was looking at. And I was also concerned about my age. I could feel myself thinking only about what sectors could be open to older people. So, I did feel quite stuck.
'That was when I thought it would be so good if I could have some support in some form. I’d been looking for nine to 10 months by then and been out of work for two years. It was getting a bit boring and I didn't realise it was going to be this difficult. You begin to wonder if you are ever going to get a job.'
Take a chance on mentoring
It was while attending a conference for women returning to work that Melanie signed up for a mailing list that was to start her Steps Ahead journey.
'Under the useful links and resources section on the email I received I saw the CIPD’s mentoring programme. However, I wasn’t sure I fitted the bill because it looked like it was mainly for young people just starting out rather than people with eldercare responsibilities. But I thought, wow, this sounds great and nothing ventured, nothing gained. So, I contacted them.'
What appealed in particular was the mentoring support and the fact that it was from a recognised professional organisation. Melanie quickly signed up to the programme in October 2019. However, she wasn’t matched with her assigned mentor, freelance coach Lucy Vause, until early 2020. After hesitating to accept at first, due to the remote nature of the mentoring provision (living alone, Melanie was keen to meet face-to-face), she finally jumped in – a decision she has not regretted.
'Lucy was so quick to respond and came across so supportive and positive, I thought let’s just give it a go. And I am so, so pleased that I did. She’s been brilliant and so flexible. I got so much more support than I ever thought I would get.'
The mentoring took the form of diarised remote sessions, video and telephone, though they were able to meet face-to-face for the third session in March, just before the coronavirus lockdown came into effect.
Melanie had narrowed down the sector in which she was interested and had applied for a role in that area. While she didn’t get offered that job, the feedback was not to give up, as they thought she would flourish in the sector she had chosen. When, early in the mentoring programme, three jobs came up in that sector, Lucy helped her evidence the behaviours required by challenging her to make sure she wasn’t understating her achievements.
'I have a tendency to be quite modest. Lucy gave me the confidence to strengthen my stories. So, as part of the application, there may have been something around delivering at pace, for example, and I was able to draft something and discuss it with her. By talking it through, she was able to help me be less modest about my achievements in this area.'
Related to this, Melanie says her mentor has been a good sounding board around how her broader experience can be relevant to roles.
'She really helped me dig a bit deeper and dust off some of the experience I'd forgotten about, which was really relevant to where I had chosen to take myself professionally. She gave me the confidence to go for things that I wasn't sure about and helped me with how I was presenting myself through applications.'
The result was that Melanie received an invitation to attend an interview for one of the roles. The country was now in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, so the interview was to take place through Google Hangouts – ironic, laughs Melanie, given how resistant she had been to non-face-to-face mentoring initially.
To add to this, a close family member had just been admitted to hospital with COVID-19. So, an interview for a role Melanie really wanted was due to take place using an unfamiliar technology at a time when she was self-isolating at a family member’s house and anxious about the health of that relative. Here, again, her mentor helped her by practising in advance so that she was familiar with the tools and approach, making suggestions she hadn’t thought about, like taking Post-It notes to stick on the wall as reminders, and showing real empathy for her situation.
'It was the hardest of times, but Lucy was amazing. I think she went well beyond the brief because, as you can imagine, it was a real rollercoaster. How could I think about an interview with all that was happening? She was so supportive and was genuinely there for me.'
Stepping ahead into a flurry of interviews
As the old saying goes, you wait ages for a bus and then two come along at once. Melanie applied for three jobs within the space of a few days and got shortlisted for all roles.
Having been offered the initial job, the organisation then told her about another role in which they thought she would be even more interested. So, she had yet another interview and got offered that role too. With two job offers, having a Steps Ahead mentor again proved invaluable and Melanie was able to have someone independent with whom to discuss the roles and cement her thoughts about which was the right role to take.
Without the Steps Ahead scheme and mentoring support, Melanie believes it would have taken longer to find a job. The programme has helped her with her confidence, and the relationship with the mentor has been motivational and supportive, both professionally and personally.
'Having a mentor is just great. I would definitely recommend it to returners to work. The big thing is that it's a really safe environment. There are no hidden agendas. Your mentor is like a really good critical friend, there to give you feedback. My advice to would-be mentees is to be open with your mentor, don’t worry about the mentoring being virtual and just give it a go.'