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Returning to work? Make sure you answer these 5 questions first.

Sheryl was right: it's a jungle gym, so you'd better be prepared.

Sheryl Sandberg famously wrote that women’s careers are more like jungle gyms than ladders. She was right. We climb, we fall off, we leap, we slide and very occasionally we reach the top.

If you’re one of the many women who got stuck on a rung, jumped off in frustration or perhaps was even pushed and you’re looking to get your career back on track, here are five important questions to consider:

  1. How far do you want to get? Think about where you want to be in five years, in ten years.

You know those climbing frames that look like this – what’s the plan? 

Are you happy to keep messing around on those bottom rungs or is the ultimate aim to reach a higher point. Angela, who recently came to one of our Career Reignite bootcamps, put it very nicely

“The recommendation to focus on where I want to be in ten years was a real lightbulb moment. I realise since I returned to work 4 years ago, I’ve had a “job” and that I’m now ready to make the leap to “career”.

2. What’s the way in? 

Imagine you’re in a playground with all sorts of exciting equipment. A jungle gym that has slides, ladders, a sand pit, a water feature, ropes, a trampoline. Everything a girl could want. So why are you sitting on a swing in the toddlers’ area.

My colleague Stephanie Dillon, who came up with the name “Reignite” talks about being clear where you’re reigniting from. So, for example, if you’re a lawyer and ultimately might want to return to a City career, that’s going to be a lot easier if you’re moving from a role working in a small local law practice than trying to return after four years working as a school admin assistant. 

3. Do you know where the connectors are?

They could be bridges, could be rope swings, ladders, whatever – but what are the pieces of equipment that connect one part to another.

When it comes to your career, these are people. In the first instance they are people who can connect you with the right opportunities, who can make introductions to people who might be looking to hire someone just like you. But it doesn’t end there. Once you are in work, and back on that career track, you’ll need to keep your eyes and ears open to new connections and new relationships. Making the right ones can turbo charge your return. 

4. How are you going to limber up?

Jungle gyms are not risk free. Accidents happen and, worse still, some bits are designed to be challenging. So prepare. 

Ask yourself what the challenges are likely to be and figure out how to prepare. For our first cohort of Reignite Associates, getting back up to speed with the law wasn’t really a problem. They are lawyers and used to learning. What was more tough was getting used to an open plan environment, wearing headset and talking to a computer rather than into a phone, getting used to new document management systems and office dress codes. 

Whether it’s finding a mentor or buddy to help, doing an online training course, attending an industry or professional association workshop or spending time reading up on the latest trends, there is an awful lot you can do to prepare yourself. And thanks to LinkedIn, Google, Youtube, Eventbrite and the like, most of it is easily accessible and, often, free.

5. Where are the safety harnesses and crash mats?

Whilst it might feel like this is a journey you’re undertaking alone, you’re not. No-one operates in isolation. Think about who are your metaphorical crash mats. Who can help you cushion any fall and propel you back if you fall off or miss a step. 

Your family, obviously, need to step up. This is a team game. Be specific about what your partner (if you have one) can do to support, get your kids to take on more responsibilities for themselves. It will be good for them (bearing in mind they’ll have their own jungle gyms to navigate soon enough).

And of course there’s your tribe. All those women who will step up to the plate and have your back. Steph tells a story of feeling totally worn out recently, work, family, life … all just exhausting “

I dropped my son off for a two hour play date. The mum took one look at me and said “mate, he’s staying the night, pick him up same time tomorrow.”

She went home and slept the sleep of the righteous (and the stressed, harried, fatigued working mother). Find your tribe and use them. Very few people reach the summit alone (and if they do it’s not very much fun when they get there).

So …. you’re clear on the aim, you know your way in, you’re worked out who’s going to help, you’e all limbered up and you have plenty of people who have your back. Now go enjoy it.

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