Daunting. That’s the word I often hear from women who are planning to return to work after a career break.  

Some feel the expectations of others about how quickly they can reintegrate into a team are unrealistic and fear that they will fall short. Others express concern at the negative reaction of colleagues, and this can lead them to catastrophise and imagine a lack of support or resentment. Many worry about their skills being out of date or no longer relevant. These issues are compounded by commitments at home and anxiety about how to fit it all in.

Such thoughts can corrode self-esteem, reduce confidence and sap resilience at just the time when they are needed most. It is exhausting. The cruel irony is that worrying about the negative things that haven’t happened can feel as bad as experiencing them in real life. What can be done about this?

A good start is to gain perspective by stepping back from the situation and recognising “F.U.D”, that is Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. When unhelpful thoughts plague your mind, ask yourself ‘what evidence do I have to support this way of thinking’? It is a great self-coaching question which can enable you to assess what is really going on and equip you to deal better with situations.  

While you can help yourself by naming the fear, it is not easy to face it down without support. The idea of creating a support network isn’t new. It is an incredibly powerful concept, especially during times of transition at the different stages of our lives. Why not take the idea of developing a support network one further stage? Think of it like this. You are the CEO of your life. Great CEOs build personal support systems, recruit talented people to their team and develop links with external experts who can help them to excel. Why not apply the same approach to your situation?

How do you go about doing this? One of the best strategies I know of is to create a personal board of directors who will guide and encourage you. Start by considering who you already know and what they might be able to contribute to your board. These people might be friends, family, work colleagues, business contacts, social connections, fellow alumni from your school, university or previous job. The chances are that you will find they hold a range of different skills that will aid your successful return to work and sustain you beyond. You might also find that they can make introductions to others with further skills that might help you.  

Imagine how you might structure such a board of directors. First, consider the skills and types of support that might assist you. You will gain so much more if the members of your board do not have to guess what you need from them. As this is a virtual team, you can be creative. Here are some ideas:

  •   The Cheerleader: someone who will remind you of your strengths, believes in your potential and may also be an exercise buddy.
  •   The Wealth Protector: someone who will help you navigate financial matters.  Choose someone who is professionally qualified and independent in their approach.
  •   The Knowledge Hub: someone who will guide you on what it takes to update or upgrade your skills.
  •   The Promoter: someone who is great at networking and is happy to make introductions for you.
  •   The Provocateur: someone who will challenge your limiting beliefs, help you uncover your blind spots and encourage you to step outside your comfort-zone.

Then think about who you know and what they might contribute to your board in one or more of these guises. There are no rules as this is your board and it is perfectly okay to create, say, the ‘marketing director’ from a composite of two or three people.

Keep a notebook and jot down the questions you’d like to ask of your board and to record their suggestions. Use this to reflect on how you might apply the learning to your situation. Don’t forget to give something back such as sharing an article that you have seen on a topic of mutual interest. Maybe offer to be on their board of directors?

And who says they must be personally known to you? What about taking inspiration from role models that you admire? Scan their blogs for ideas, find out what challenges they have surmounted and how by reading their autobiography. Allow yourself to think: ‘what would he or she do in this situation? How would they advise me right now’?  

There is a famous African proverb which says ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, meaning a child has the best ability to become a healthy adult if the entire community takes an active role in contributing to their rearing. The same philosophy applies to us as adults. Start today, create a virtual board of supportive directors. You will be amazed at the difference it will make to your ability and will to succeed.