What It Takes to Successfully Transition from Returner to Full Timer

By Cathie Ericson

Returnship programs, which are typically hosted by top financial services firms eager to mine the talent pool of employees who took a career break and want to jump back in, have been the focus of several banks in the past few years. The programs, which heavily recruit women, represent a win-win for all participants: Returning employees gain an onramp back into the high-powered world of full-time work, while firms benefit from the experience and maturity they offer.

There have been early versions of programs that let women (and men) re-enter financial services after a career break. There was robust development of programs around the time of the financial crisis, with now-defunct Lehman’s Encore program and Goldman Sachs’ Returnship program – often cited as one of the first forays in 2008 — to continued new launches like JP Morgan’s ReEntry program which launched in September 2013.

Wall Street firms have been backing these programs with money and access to top executives. So how have the returners faired and how have they succeeded in making the transition? We talk to women who have participated to give you the low down.

Goldman Sachs’ Elyse Goodman participated in the firm’s Returnship program in 2010 and has been successfully employed at Goldman ever since.

Goodman had taken a hiatus from Wall Street to spend time with her family and to reassess the hectic pace of work and hours she was putting in at her wealth management position. Her break of 18 months gave her the clarity to see that she needed the intellectual stimulation and dynamic environment of working with other people. “I wanted to get back into my game and bring my talents to an organization that needed them.”

A more recent returner, Lorri Ahl, who is now vice president in the Executive Wealth Group of JP Morgan Private Bank, had taken 11 years off after a successful career in M&A in the telecom space.

When she heard about JP Morgan’s just-launched re-entry program, she was intrigued because of the firm’s reputation for a family culture with impressive women role models, including several senior women who were fellow parents at her child’s school.

Both Goodman and Ahl agree the programs themselves set participants up for success, but agree other personal tactics can be important to making the integration back into a company as well. They shared the top tips to getting the most out of the program and becoming a returner star.

Why the Returnship Program Builds More Successful Employees
The returnship is about more than just bolstering industry knowledge and skills. Here are three intangible qualities the group fosters:

Confidence: Taking a break can often mean missing out on the latest skills development, and the fear of that deficit can be a real barrier to returner’s success. One of the first benefits of returnship programs is the dedication to allaying that fear by introducing and training the returners in the current industry techniques. In fact, the most important asset most women cite from the program is the confidence they gain. “You realize someone is interested in your skills and they are still very viable,” Goodman says.

Networking within the Group: Participants underscore the collaboration and camaraderie that group participants form. “When we told them on Day 1 it was our goal to place 100% of them, you could see the mood and demeanor in the room change to one of relief,” says Gordon Cooper, who helped design JP Morgan’s returnship program. “We wanted them to know that this program was all about candor – they were not competing – and it really made a difference.”

“You develop a network of people like you, reacclimating to work/life integration,” Goodman says, emphasizing that these are still the women she approaches when she needs support.

Networking within the Company: A key facet of the programs is the facilitation of lunches and meetings with decision makers – senior level people who can help guide the returners as they transition to full-time work and beyond. These women met more executives in 10 weeks than many employees do in their whole career,” JP Morgan’s Cooper said.

Taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the program is a clear-cut way to set yourself up for success. But these opportunities are available to everyone. How do you set yourself apart from your peers and gain a competitive edge on an individual level?

How to Smooth a Re-Entry
Here are three potential barriers that threaten to derail re-entry – and how to combat them.

Tame technology: The workplace is known to be a constantly changing world in terms of technology. In addition to the training the program offers, Goodman found a strategy that has not only made technology less daunting, but has helped create more synergy with her colleagues. If there is something she doesn’t know how to do, she’ll ask someone known to have those skills to take the time to teach her. Often as that relationship grows, she will then in turn mentor them in an area of her expertise. Not only does this help close the skills gap further, but also encourages a stronger professional network..

Be willing to be flexible: Embrace the opportunity to hone new skills and pursue new interests, but don’t rely solely on what you’ve done in the past. Re-entry can be a time to redefine your capabilities and assets. Being open-minded about where your talents can be used can open up opportunities you might not have thought of. For example, Goodman feels the firm took the time to really evaluate her skills to see where she’d fit, and ultimately she was tapped to build out a client services strategy in the operations division. Her direct experience with client service offered her a unique understanding that they recognized, and she welcomed the opportunity to create something strategic.

Own your return: “You don’t have to justify why you left or why you’re back,” Goodman says. “You left of your own volition, and now you’ve made a conscious decision to return. It’s important to focus on the skills you acquired and how to leverage them in a new role.”

Ahl knows other women who have returned to JP Morgan through other routes, and appreciates that the returnship program provided a vital launching pad they didn’t have access to.

“Women sometimes tend to underestimate their abilities, but the fact is that the skills and judgment that made them successful are still intact and come back quickly,” Ahl said.