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Returning To Work: Sarah Totham

Case Study: Sarah Totham, Director of Talent and Organisational Development, Legal & General

What was the reason for your career break, and how long was your break?

I took a break from work after my eldest daughter was born.  I had intended to take a full year maternity leave however she was starved of oxygen at birth and developed cerebral palsy as a result.  The first year involved a huge number of appointments and a lot of research on our side to investigate therapy, equipment and support options and to begin a long legal process.  I was working at AXA Investment Managers at the time and they were incredibly supportive.  However, despite allowing me to extend my maternity leave for a further six months, it became clear that in order to give my daughter the best start in life I needed to focus on her and take a longer break from my career. In the end I took three years out, however, it was open ended at the time and I only returned when it felt right for me and my family.

Returning from a career break, what was most important to you when considering a new role / company?

I did, at first, consider a career change.  I studied and qualified to be an executive coach thinking that this would be a more flexible career that I could manage around my family commitments.  However I found that I was missing the things that motivate me most; working as part of a team and contributing to the success of a large organisation. So I realised that I needed to find a team that I enjoyed working with and a business that I felt passionate about.  Having been very lucky to have had inspiring and supportive managers in the past it was also incredibly important to me to find someone who would be understanding about my family life as well as help me to progress with my career.

How did you search for a new role, and how would you describe this experience?

I reached out on LinkedIn and talked to a lot of contacts from my previous role as well as individuals who were recommended to me.  This was a useful step back into the world of work and just seeing how willingly people gave up their time for me was a confidence boost.  My experience with head hunters and recruitment agencies was not so positive.  I wasn’t lucky enough to know about companies like Sapphire, who I now know would have had a very supportive approach.  The people that I spoke to told me very clearly that if I was looking for a part time role I would need to take a step or two down from the level that I had been operating at previously.

In the end I found out about the role at L&G through a friend who runs her own headhunting business.  It was a full time role that I would not have applied for as I could only commit to three days a week at that time, but she pushed me to talk to them informally.  I was incredibly lucky that my boss and the Group HRD were open minded enough to offer me a part time role. 

What attracted you to the investment management industry?

I was attracted to L&G as it was a business with ambition, with an appetite to change which presented a great opportunity and challenge.  It was values driven with a clear sense of purpose which aligned to my personal values; wanting to make a difference to society in the long term as well as achieving financial and business success. I was impressed by the people I met during the process and their openness to be personal as well as professional.  The positive, supportive culture was a clear signal that I would be able to achieve a balance between work and family.

How would you describe the support you received when you returned?

I was given a lot of support when I joined, though I have to say it surprised me how easily I adapted back into the working environment.  Interestingly – I found starting a new role after a significant break much easier than returning from a subsequent, shorter period of maternity leave.  I received a lot more support as a new starter and could carve out my own role.  When I returned from maternity leave someone else had been doing my role which I found quite intimidating.  Everyone just assumed that I would slot back in when, in fact, my confidence was low and I found the whole experience quite challenging. 

Has your career developed since?

My career has progressed significantly since returning.  I am very lucky to have had some wonderful opportunities to broaden my role and take on additional responsibility.  During this time we have been lucky enough to have another beautiful daughter, we have successfully won our legal case for clinical negligence and we have bought and adapted a house so that my eldest daughter can have as much independence as possible.  She now attends mainstream schooI and is thriving.  I  have chosen to gradually increase my hours during this period, though I should stress that this has never been a prerequisite for promotion opportunities.

What advice would you give to individuals considering returning to work?

Spend time being clear about what you can offer and what you are looking for.  Use and develop your network.  People are more generous with their time than you may think and often really enjoy helping others.  Be ambitious; don’t listen to people who tell you something is not possible.  Talk to people who are open-minded and supportive.  Be creative; you don’t have to go back to what you did before but equally, don’t rule it out as a possibility – even if it means doing it in a different way. 

Work out your ideal working pattern / arrangements but don’t let them be the focus of your initial discussions.  Sell yourself on your skills and experience. Once people have bought into that then you can discuss the practical side of the arrangement.  And bear in mind that flexibility is best if it is two way.  Asking an employer to be flexible is easier if you can offer some flexibility back. 

I firmly believe that part time and full time labels are often the blockers to people returning to work.  More and more we will move away from a 9-5 (or 7 to 7!) with much more autonomy and flexibility as to how, where and when we work.  Find the progressive managers or organisations who already see this happening.

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