Once you’re over the initial transition period of returning to work, you will be starting to think about your career over the long-term. When thinking about “career success”, it is worth considering what it is that “success” means to you personally. It is typical for parents, particularly women, to tell me that their success definition has changed after having children. In our careers’ early stages, we can often be incredibly achievement-orientated, constantly looking for the next big project or promotion. In the mid-phase, where we often find ourselves in the post-parental leave stage, other factors may come to the forefront, such as finding work-life balance or work that chimes with our values. That’s not to say that achievement isn’t still significant; it’s just that the relationship with it, or perception of it, may have changed.
Upon reflection, you may find that the relative importance of achievement, balance, and meaning may have shifted when you think about what success means to you.
In the early days after returning to work from parental leave, it is easy to get caught up in firefighting (at work and home) and prioritising the urgent over the important. Sometimes it can feel as if aiming for long-term success has taken a back seat. However, I believe that it’s possible to have a content home life and a fulfilling career – this just requires a bit of planning and strategising!
A Model For Career Success
This model for career success was developed by ECC (Executive Coaching Consultancy) using research from occupational psychologists. You can use it as a handy tool to start getting proactive about creating success. I will explore each section of this model, starting with how each segment relates to “career success”. Then, I’ll move on to some more practical tips.
At the heart of this model is purpose. Successful people know why they get out of bed each day and go to work. For sure, money is a motivating factor. But those who anchor themselves to a working purpose are those who are more fulfilled in their working lives and, as a result, more motivated and successful. Anecdotally, we found during the pandemic that those with a coherent “why” at work derived job fulfilment even when home working. Those who primarily benefited from the socialising aspects of work found themselves sinking when taken away. In other words, their work lost too much of its meaning and value.
I’ll offer myself as a quick case study here. Before having children, I focused on achieving Managing Partner status in my company and I got that promotion when I was pregnant. After having my eldest, I found myself entirely unmotivated to return. After a bit of careful reflection, I realised it was because I had been solely motivated by achievement. My priorities had now shifted towards wanting a role where I now wanted to do something that was more in line with my purpose of supporting other people. Having that clarity about your definition of ‘success’ is the first crucial step towards achieving it. Of course, you don’t have to leave to find new meaning and purpose in your work. You can pivot internally to a role that suits you better, or you can build in new elements to your existing work to ensure it’s more fulfilling.
Finding Your Purpose
Spending a bit of time thinking about this can be hugely beneficial and I’d suggest talking to friends and colleagues or even a coach about it. Ask yourself what it is that you love about your current role. What lights you up? What part of it could you not bear to give up? It is also worth projecting yourself into the future. If you can think that far ahead, what would you be most proud of in three or five years? If you are able to articulate your purpose, then that’s brilliant. But don’t turn this into another stick to beat yourself up with. If you can briefly express why you go to work and what you enjoy about it, that will suffice and help wonders. We often develop our purpose rather than find it. It’s a process of trying out different things to help carve it out.
2. Awareness and Authenticity
People who feel fulfilled in their careers have a high degree of self-awareness and can ‘be themselves’ in the workplace. The most practical application of this is that they play to their strengths. Do you know what your core strengths are? We find when coaching individuals that many people are either not able to do this or are a bit embarrassed to ‘blow their own trumpet’. We also know from research that when you play to your strengths, you are more likely to love the work you do and you’re also more likely to stand out in the workplace. So, recognise your strengths and be proud of them!
Developing Awareness of Your Strengths
Spending a bit of time getting clarity on this can be hugely helpful. If you don’t know, then ask people around you what they think. Sometimes, our most innate strengths are the ones that come so naturally to us that we wouldn’t even call them strengths at all! There are many free tools online you can use, such as the VIA strengths survey, to help you to figure these out.
3. Energy and Flow
Many increasingly understand that managing your energy rather than your time is vital. Think about it. Your time is finite. Your energy is, theoretically, infinite! And, yes, we know it doesn’t feel like that when you’ve been up half the night with a teething baby. Finding your flow is that ephemeral state that we achieve when we’re wholly absorbed in what we’re doing and enjoying it without distraction. When you’re in your flow, your energy seems to expand, so it’s critical to learn how to manage your energy.
Optimising Your Energy and Your Flow
Get more strategic about how you use your energy. Do you know how your energy fluctuates day to day (or hour to hour)? A helpful exercise here would be to track this for a week and use this going forward to mark out the times when you’re typically lower or higher in terms of energy. Can you plan your weeks around this? Do you have tactics up your sleeve to re-energise yourself when you are feeling lower? I know that I have more energy in the mornings and recognise that I often ‘waste’ this time with organisational tasks that need less energy. I usually have an energy slump after lunch, which I may battle with caffeine when a more sustainable tactic for me is to schedule some exercise here.
Being clear on what you want to be known for and with whom is important. Often our sphere of influence shrinks as a returning parent. It’s critical to expand this base of who is aware of your work as quickly as possible – both internally and externally.
Proactively Building Your Reputation
The questions for you to mull over here are: What reputation do I want? And, with whom? Often knowing your purpose and strengths can be a fantastic way into what you want your reputation to be. Ideally, your reputation is aligned with what you know to be true about yourself. Then consider the ‘who’ part of reputation. Who else could be within your sphere of influence? What can you say yes to that will gain you meaningful exposure to these people? Think projects, meetings, and conversations and consider how you can build your reputation using social media tools such as LinkedIn. Many people feel they don’t have time to ‘waste’ on LinkedIn when they’ve become new parents, but it’s a handy tool to help you stay connected and in the loop. Follow key people and get into the habit of commenting on conversations that are relevant to your work.
5. Connections and Networks
Returning parents have been telling us for a long time that it’s harder to build those informal networks when you are working a less elastic day. Equally, if you are working from home, you will miss those informal, so-called “water-cooler” moments. Thinking proactively about how you reconnect with your previous network and expand it moving forwards is critical. This period is the phase in life when you may notice how well you and your friends seem to be doing in your careers. You realise you’ve got a powerful network in several different spheres. By ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’ work that your circle is posting, you are doing them a favour. One that, in time, they will reciprocate.
How to Expand Your Connections and Networking
For many people, the word ‘networking’ is itself a turn-off. Yes, there is a place for events explicitly designed to network, but we’d encourage you to think more broadly than that. Simply having a virtual or real-life cup of tea with someone can be helpful. We find that women often want their networking to be ‘authentic’. It’s worth re-framing networking, so it’s more give than take. This approach gets you out of that uncomfortable mindset where you are just trying to wring what you can out of a connection. Curiosity and open questions can be your best friends here.
6. Sustainable Growth
Finally, we come to sustainable growth. There is no point engaging in all the career success tips mentioned above if that leaves you exhausted and drained. When you embark on a journey to a successful career, ensure it’s a sustainable one. You are no use to anyone – at work or home – if you are burnt out.
How to Achieve Sustainable Growth
It will sound simple, but trust me, I know how hard it is to implement. You are going to need to be ruthlessly strong at executing your boundaries. Everyone’s notion of “what’s okay” and “what’s not okay” will be different, and no-one else is going to police those boundaries of yours. It can be beneficial to write them down. For example, ‘it is okay to work one evening a week’ and ‘it is not okay to work past 4 pm on Friday’. I would recommend that you do this for your life outside of work too. Include things such as, ‘it is important to me that I go to the gym once a week’ and ‘It’s not okay for me to miss special events at nursery’. Work out where you’re comfortable building in a bit of flexibility and where you’re not. I’d also look at where you’re prioritising yourself in all of this. It is easy to put work and family first constantly, and, in my experience, if you don’t also practise a bit of ‘self-care in there, you quickly become fed up and exhausted. What’s the one thing that’s solely for you that you will ensure you make time for each week?
To conclude, I think this model is incredibly useful in helping you get a bit more strategic in planning for your career success. If it all feels a bit overwhelming, do one segment at a time. Or think, ‘what is the one small thing I can do this week in each segment?’. As I said upfront, I wholly believe that it is possible to have a happy home life and a fulfilling career. It’s certainly not always the easiest route, but it is rewarding, fulfilling, and 100% worth the effort in my own experience. Making sure that you prioritise the important over the urgent is a wonderful place to start.