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Back to Work

Back with a bang: how to relaunch your career

Ready to make a career comeback? Author and expert Lisa Unwin lays down the six commandments to obey if you want to kick-start your career after taking time out - whether you want to dive back in or start afresh.

Lisa Unwin left her senior role at a large City firm when her kids were 4 and 6, run ragged by the juggle and feeling she should put family first. So far, so familiar. 

But when Unwin was at the school gates with other mothers – lawyers, bankers, accountants, marketeers, journalists – all professionally set adrift by work/life issues, she decided to write a book. She’s Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work was described by Arianna Huffington as “a must have guide”, and Unwin became a LinkedIn Top Voice in 2018 and 2019. Now she’s one of the founders of The Reignite Academy which helps women in the legal sector to get back to senior and fulfilling careers. Whatever the sector you work in, read Unwin’s advice below on how to get started on the road to work fulfilment – see you at the water cooler!

ARE YOU IN ‘THE FORGOTTEN ARMY’?

This was the title of a Sunday Times feature I was interviewed for back in 2017 in which I tried to shine a light on the plight of thousands of women who had taken breaks from their careers, were ready to return, but were being ignored by the recruitment industry. Since then, I’ve helped hundreds of women relaunch their careers and I’ve learnt that it all starts in your head… “I’m too old”, “The tech has moved on”, “I’ve left it too late”, “My technical skills are too rusty”, “The kids wouldn’t cope without me”, are what I hear a lot of.

Of course, it’s easy to begin with the obstacles, but put them to one side and think about your future self. Where do you want to be in three to five years. What sort of work do you want to be doing, who do you want to work with? What will that add to your life? Think about your skills, knowledge and the experience you bring to the party.

Jenni, who returned to a teaching role after ten years out, had worried that she wouldn’t be the teacher she once was – first in every morning and last to leave at night. She was right, she is now a different teacher, and a better one. She’s brought up two kids with different educational needs and she is so much better placed to help both the pupils and their parents because of the wealth of experience she brings to the classroom.

A BRAND CALLED YOU

How would you describe yourself? As Jeff Bezos once said: “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. 

Whether it’s what you say when you meet someone for the first time; in a covering letter, at the top of your CV or at a networking opportunity, get it nailed.

Here’s a clue:

“I’m Louise, I used to be a lawyer. I have two children and I’ve had a 6 year career break. I’m looking for part time work,” isn’t particularly compelling.

“I’m Louise, I have fifteen years’ experience working as a commercial lawyer for a large City firm and subsequently in-house at HSBC. I recently took a data privacy qualification and I’m looking for my next role” is much more likely to catch the eye.

Your brand isn’t your life story, it’s what you’re selling to an employer. Think Dove, Innocent, Charlotte Tilbury – all great brands with a “promise” that goes way beyond the simple product.

USE YOUR CONNECTIONS

Women often hate the word “networking”, associating it with glasses of warm white wine in stuffy hotel rooms. But your network is so much stronger than you realise – what I’m talking about here is all the people you know – those you trained with, people you worked with, previous clients, people in your social circle, everyone you know at the school gates – those connections can be invaluable. My research found that people were nine times more likely to find work after a career break through their network than they were through a recruiter.

Emma was 48 when I met her. Her boys were 16 and 18 and, as she put it “it’s my turn”. She wanted to get her career going again and had worked out that a law firm would be the perfect place for her change and project management skills. Trouble was she didn’t know anyone who worked in a law firm.

However, she knew people who did. So she set up coffees, walks in the park, telephone calls to ask for advice, which led to more introductions, more coffees, more walks etc. Nine months later she landed her dream job. She didn’t realise it at the time but what she was doing was networking.

And of course, what really helped was that she had her brand nailed before she went into those coffee houses, so that the people she met were clear how to help.

PIVOT BEFORE YOU LEAP

Remember, your next job is exactly that: your next job. It isn’t necessarily the final destination.

Think carefully about where you want to be long term and make the right choices. Ayana always wanted to return to her career in supply chain logistics but wanted to move from car manufacturing to pharma. She took a job in the local school working in the admin office. It had no connections to either supply chain or Pharma and was unlikely to help her long term ambitions.

More recently, she began work in a new role on the supply chain team of a firm supplying PPE equipment to the NHS and care homes. In this role she is also beginning to make contacts in the Pharma industry. That’s what we mean by pivoting.

BRUSH UP YOUR SKILLS

There are so many free resources available, there really is no excuse for feeling “out of touch”. Brush up your tech skills and industry knowledge, follow the relevant thought leaders on LinkedIn, check out company websites and LinkedIn pages for the latest trends, join alumni organisations or industry-related networking groups. Use resources like Eventbrite, FutureLearn and the How To Academy to find courses or talks relevant to you.

REMEMBER THE BASICS

Your CV has to sing out “This woman is perfectly suited to this job and you have to see her”. This means it needs to be tailored for every job application and the summary at the top has to describe in a few sentences why you are a perfect fit.

The hiring manager is unlikely to be terribly interested in what you’ve been doing during your career break and the fact that you volunteer for the PTA. Explaining you have an engineering degree from Imperial and spent 15 years working in pharma is going to be much more eye-catching. (If, indeed, you’re planning a return to big pharma rather than a role working in the school office).

There are lots of resources that can help – My Perfect CV, for example, has free advice and sample templates for professional job seekers.

And don’t ignore LinkedIn. You have to be on it. Potential employers will check you out there and it’s also where all the jobs are. Use the jobs listed there to research the right key words to use on your CV, check out who’s hiring and work out where you have connections who could make an introduction. And hey presto, She’s Back!

What are you waiting for? 

Reignite Academy finds opportunities for lawyers looking for the next phase of their legal career. 

Lisa and her team are running a panel session with lawyers who have pivoted their experience to find a new lease of life – it’s on 24 Feb. Register here.

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