Get Re-Curious: Alexa Shoen On How To Get Back To Work After Kids
Alexa Shoen is kind of a whirlwind. I met her at The Ham Yard Hotel after she’d just flown in from Berlin. Or maybe she was just leaving for Berlin, or just back from San Diego. It’s kind of hard to keep track of her. She’s a woman that doesn’t like to sit still - physically or metaphorically (unless there’s a cocktail to be enjoyed) and it’s this boundless energy that buzzes around her that’s taken her to where she is today.
A southern Californian native (she hails from San Diego), Alexa thought the UK would be her spiritual home and no one was more surprised than her when it turned out to be Germany. Although she’s living a fairly peripatetic lifestyle now, she still considers Berlin her spiritual home. It’s always hard to define or label the magic you feel about a place, but maybe it was because it was where she founded Entry Level Boss - her heavily subscribed service that helps graduates get jobs in a world where competition is heavy and everyone has a degree.
I’ve known Alexa for years, and when I wanted to write an article about the difficulties regarding returning to the workplace following maternity leave, she was the first person I thought of. She’s a guru when it comes to writing the best CV you can (you can download The Resume Cure here) and doesn’t hold back when it comes to pointing out where you might be going wrong when it comes to choosing the jobs you apply to, getting noticed, executing the perfect interview. I’ll be honest, if you want a softly-softly approach from your mentor, Alexa probably isn’t your girl but if you fancy some straight-talking, fast-acting advice then there’s no one like her.
When I asked her about the genesis of Entry Level Boss she replied that it happened just as she was emerging from the claws of her quarter life crisis, “I was obsessed with the job search and I got so fed up of going into offices and seeing, what I called ‘the real grown ups’, making fun of all the resumes. No one was sending rejection letters, or giving feedback. They were just happy to sit on the inside and shit on these people who were giving it their best shot.”
In this day and age, with more and more people grasping degrees and less and less for employers to distinguish people by, graduates have never had it harder when it comes to getting a job. The markets are flooded and, if you’re a woman returning to work after a four year hiatus while you raise your kids, it’s even harder. At least a graduate’s knowledge is fresh and shiny and new. Women, who take a break from the workplace, are at a disadvantage.
We can debate about the fairness of that and the reality that women’s careers are affected in a way that men’s aren't but that’s not the point of this discussion. If we accept that as fact, I asked Alexa, what can women do to make themselves competitive in the workplace? Surely they’re still valuable? Surely they still have a place?
“Yes - of course. First of all they bring fresh perspective and every company can benefit from that. There isn’t a company in the world that can’t see the wood for the trees on some level, so fresh perspective is valuable, but it’s not enough.”
Alexa argues that it’s also not enough to rely on your experience from four years ago. Sure, you might have been great at your job, the best even, but time has passed, things have almost certainly moved on. You have to show that you’re interested in your industry.
“Don’t overcorrect. Don’t go full steam on learning a whole new skill. Just update your current skill set. And, speaking with a tonne of extrovert privilege, 2019 has never been a better time to be an introvert, so lacking in confidence or being shy, or not having much extra cash isn’t an excuse. Get on the internet, read an industry book, look at YouTube. You don’t have to commit to whole courses or even night classes - every man and his dog seem to think they need to learn coding right now (they don’t) - just prove to any employer that you are taking a fucking interest in your job. Get re-curious about it all over again.”
Once you’re applying for jobs or sitting in interviews, Alexa says we’ve got to stop trying to be everything to everyone. “The biggest assumption we make - and this isn’t just women or graduates but everyone - is that we cannot make the choice about our own careers. That it’s all at the mercy of someone else. It’s a super unhelpful position to be in, not just for your own self-belief, but also for employers. You need to get specific about what you want to do and what you can offer them; don’t say, “I’ll do anything, whatever it takes, I’m open to it all.”’
But isn’t that what we’ve been taught? To be a yes person with a can-do attitude?
“It’s going to feel really counter-intuitive but you owe it to your employers to show them exactly what value you can bring. Don’t wait for them to tell you.”
Which brings us to the importance of actually knowing what you can do for what company. It’s going to be different in every interview, with every potential employer but doing your research is really important.
“There are only two reasons anyone is going to hire you,” says Alexa. “Either you can make them money or you can save them time. Show them how you can do either or both of those things in the interview. It’s not enough to say, ‘I can do this, and this, and this…’ Tell them what the results of that will be, be clear about how you’re either going to save them time or make them money.” Also, Alexa says to avoid phrases like, “I want an opportunity to learn again. “From an employers point of view, that sounds expensive."
Expense is a key issue when employers are deciding who to hire. Without doubt, hiring and firing is the most expensive process in a business and retention is key in every employers mind. Alexa suggests subtlety when it comes to reassuring your employer that you’re in it for the long haul. “Use those Jedi mind tricks. Tell them how you see your role developing or the visions that you have for 6 months or a year down the line. If they think you’re in it for the long haul, that’s really attractive.”
But Alexa is also keen to point out that interviews are not just a one way process. It’s easy to get caught up in the notion that you alone are being judged but actually, you are judging them too. “I love to compare finding a job with finding a partner. It’s like dating. You have to see if you’re both vibing off each other. They may love you, but do you love them? Is the culture right for you? Are you expected to be at drinks on a Friday night? That’s not going to work if you have to be home to pick up the kids from school.” It makes the interview process less stressful if you remember this - it’s as much you judging them as the other way round. “Look in the mirror and tell yourself, THIS ISN’T A TEST,” says Alexa.
But what if you can’t even get interviews? What if you’re finding yourself sending out hundreds of CVs with no return? Is there a magic solution? As mentioned before Alexa has a pack available for sale on her website, designed to deal with this EXACT issue but in general her top tips are:
Ditch the corporate speak. Be you, be natural and be clear.
There’s no CV police. No one is checking or cross-referencing the CVs you put out so make sure each CV is tailored to each job and each company.
Just like the interview process, use your CV to tell them how you can make them money or save them time.
Content is king. Fancy CVs are nice but the bulk of your time should be spent on making sure the content is 100%
It’s easy to lose confidence when you’re out of the workplace for a while, especially when you see younger, cheaper, more up-to-date versions of yourself up for the same job. It’s easy to tell yourself that you belong at home and that you can make it work without two incomes, but if you want that job and you want to get back to work, it’s more than possible.