Going back to work? Help is at hand

A company which has helped hundreds of women return to and thrive in senior positions in major corporations all over the world is now operating in Cork. AUDREY ELLARD WALSH caught up with Fiona Rawlinson of First100 to find out more
Going back to work? Help is at hand
Fiona Rawlinson of First100

A CORK woman is helping companies support talented females return to the workforce, and make the most of the crucial first 100 days in a new role.

Fiona Rawlinson, of First100, is working to support women who have chosen to take a career break, by helping companies offer flexible work arrangements and coaching support when they’re ready to return.

Established by her sister Niamh O’Keeffe in 2004, the company has helped hundreds of women return to, and thrive in, senior positions in major corporations.

Niamh has published four books including Your First 100 Days. A best-seller, the title is scheduled to be re-released globally in 2019.

“We have launched the business in the UK, Ireland and the US,” Fiona explains, “And I am back in Cork now and excited to get stuck in to new projects with some world class companies that make up Cork’s thriving business community.”

A cornerstone of First100’s mission is the returnship, a play on the word “return” and “internship” initially pioneered by Goldman Sachs in the United States.

“The core to our company is the first 100 days in a new role, and accelerating leadership performance in that critical period,” Fiona explains.

“A lot of senior positions don’t work out because people come into a real sink or swim situation.

“They are often hired from very senior management positions in other companies and are expected to hit the ground running, but often that doesn’t happen.

“The cost of losing that experience is huge.”

First100 recently completed a pilot with Accenture Ireland and PepsiCo USA with a view to a larger roll-out.

“Using a structured approach, we accelerate the performance of the returners, supporting them in their transition back, getting them up to speed in their first 100 days and ready for a permanent role in the organisation.”

While returners may have taken career breaks for various reasons, a particular focus for First100 is women returning following maternity leave, or extended breaks for family reasons.

“Childcare certainly comes up as an issue. Often it is maybe just as economical for women to stay at home versus going out to work, but some women enjoy working out of the home and being challenged in that way.

“A big issue though is that a lot of women who leave organisations, often suffer from a lack of confidence when they come back,” Fiona explains.

“You can’t expect women to come back from maternity leave and ramp up immediately. They need support.

“Women who have had children find that their whole life has changed, their responsibilities and priorities have shifted, and a lot of women who return to work, leave.

“If you can support maternity returners before, during, and after their maternity leave, the chance of them coming back to work and succeeding is much higher.”

One client’s story highlights the experience of many returning to executive roles.

“We worked with a lady in Dublin who was in her late 30s. She had two children, the youngest was aged three, and the older child was six and in primary school.

“She had only been out of work for two years but was still nervous about coming back having previously travelled a lot for work at a large company and finding that the pressures of day to day trading were incompatible with family life.

“She was particularly worried about how she was going to go back into a senior role and keep work balance in check.”

A returnship with Accenture was an ideal solution.

“We put together a three month programme where she was fully supported by one of our coaches.

“We offered her transition support, structured planning, advice on tackling role challenges, and a coach who was an independent sounding board on problem solving and helped her identify opportunities to accelerate progress.”

Fiona Rawlinson of First100
Fiona Rawlinson of First100

Fiona says that robust, results-focused support is the key to success.

“We feel that if someone is less stressed in their job, and if they are able to accelerate their performance in a role, then they will be naturally less stressed at home too.

“We work through how they will speak to their line manager about how to have a flexible day, or work at home, whatever they need. We help them have the hard conversations.”

Corporations are increasingly receptive to such initiatives, keen to stem the loss of key female talent in their ranks.

“I find it encouraging that Ireland is aware of lack of diversity in workplace,” Fiona says.

“Talking to some male business leaders out there, they say that they would love to have more women take part in boardroom discussions, but that there simply isn’t a pool of women available at senior level. They are just not coming up through the ranks.”

Fiona has first hand experience with workplace mentorship as a young graduate, and found the experience valuable.

“I did a BComm in UCC and majored in marketing and management. When I graduated I went working for Glanbia. I worked quite closely with Siobhan Talbot who is now CEO.

“I was a young graduate at the time, but remember how inspiring and supportive she always was. I felt like she talked to me like a human being.

“I didn’t feel like a lowly graduate in her presence, which you can often feel when you are starting out in your career.”

After continuing to forge her career in the UK, she considered ways in which she could make a tangible difference in the world, when the opportunity to work with First100 presented itself.

“I had always felt that Niamh’s mission was inspiring,” she explains.

“First 100 is fundamentally about improving the quality of leadership in the world, and I felt like that was work that I could be really passionate about, and would be a real way to make a difference.

“She approached me and asked if I would be interested in working with her.

“I brought the business to New York eight years ago and set up a subsidiary in New York.

“It was a risk jumping from the comforts of the corporate world to a start-up, and was a lot to think about, but I went for it and never looked back.”

Globally, female representation in higher level management positions is shockingly poor.

“Women make up only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs, and 10% of the CEOs in Ireland’s top companies,” Fiona outlines.

“I find it energising that having spent so much time in US, that Ireland seems to be further ahead in terms of an awareness of this issue.

“There is definitely a big shift and movement, and we are ahead of the curve at least, but in general, boardrooms remain predominantly male.

“At the end of the day, I could only name a handful of female CEOs in Ireland, so there is clearly more work to be done.”

Over the coming year, Fiona’s focus will be on educating and raising awareness of their mission.

“We’re very unique in our offering and I have a team working hard on communicating who we are.

“The drum that I’m beating in Cork is that women need to be supported in reaching those levels in organisations.

“There is lots of talent parked at the school gate, and that is to everyone’s detriment.”

For more see http://www.first100assist.com

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