Rachel Farhi has worked almost 20 years as a careers counsellor. Now she is striking out on her own and modelling her work around her life. Mandy Garner talks to her.
The mother of a 14 year old, her new job is going well and she has already been on LBC radio station a few times. Because she is her own boss, she can work from home and be very flexible about where she meets clients.
This flexibility means that she can still put her family first. “Instead of bending my family shape to work I can shape the work to my family,” she says. Rachel has always worked for the not for profit sector giving careers advice. Most recently she was head of careers at a further education college in Westminster, working full time. She says it was “a lovely job”, but juggling a full time job, commuting [she lives in Hertfordshire] and a family was very stressful. Her asthma returned after eight years and she says her body was telling her “this is not right”. She is still doing work with the college and has got other business through word of mouth from satisfied customers there. Rachel is dedicated to providing advice that is tailored to the individual. “It’s about giving people mature careers advice that is not like they remember it from school,” she says. “The old type of careers advice is out of date. I want to jazz it all up and work more holistically.”
She says there is no typical careers session for her. Instead, she uses a basic structure to guide a careers conversation and takes notes. She asks questions about their personal and career path, inquiring not just about the jobs they have done, but also about life experiences that have affected them, such as having children. She is interested not just in their skills, but in their passions, what drives them. “A lot of people go into careers that do not quite fit them,” she says, “or there are in a job, but their life circumstances change and the job no longer fits their life.”
She adds: “One of the joys of this work is that people sometimes come in and are quite low and you can see the glint has gone out of their eye. When you probe them and ask if you could wave a magic wand, what would you really like to do you give them permission to dream and they go back to when they were about 15 and suddenly you see a little spark come back. Their eyes light up. We then look at how that dream might still be possible or something linked to that passion.”
Rachel says that at first they start looking at the obstacles to doing what they want to do. She focuses their minds on the positives, for example, the skills they have acquired through having children. She looks at their values. She asks what they would do and also what they would not be prepared to do and at their bottom lines, such as on minimum income or hours. She talks about issues like childcare and asking for flexible working. “When you talk with women returners about fitting their work to their lives it can be quite liberating for them,” she says. “When people state that their family is a priority so work is there to pay the bills and express their unique talents you see their negativity starts to shift. When they understand their own motivations for doing things, things become possible and they start thinking more flexibly.”
After the session Rachel produces a written action plan for clients which is a summary of what has been discussed plus some follow-up suggestions. “It’s like a prescription,” she says. She gives them three different areas to research, for instance, if they want to work in a museum they could check out valuable work experience opportunities, look into networking possibilities and research a particular museum activity . “It’s about giving people the courage to take the next step,” she says.
The feedback she gets is very positive. She reckons she has helped hundreds of people in the course of her career.
In addition to careers advice, Rachel also offers one to one sessions giving tips on writing cvs or what she calls “your personal marketing document”. “Its purpose is just to get you through the door,” she says. She tells people not to send out a general cv, but to tailor it to the specific job you are applying for. “You cannot have a one size fits all approach and blast it off like a machine gun to every job you go for,” she says, even if they are in the same sector. She reckons recruiters look at a cv for no more than 30 seconds so the secret is to highlight your relevant skills and experience. It must look good and be succinct. A traditional chronological approach is good if you have had no career gaps, but for women who have been out of work for a while, for instance, it is better to present a skills-based cv. Talk about things like multitasking and organisational skills and give evidence, says Rachel. “More and more people are having portfolio careers so many people’s cvs are not that straightforward. It’s not just for women returners,” she adds. “You need to show that you are an interesting individual who has something to offer the organisation.”
Rachel knows well about the pitfalls of returning to work after having children. She worked full time until her daughter was five, going back to work when she was only six weeks old because, at the time, there was no legislation compelling her employer to take her back and she was the only wage earner in her family. Her daughter went to a childminder full time until she was five. Rachel says she felt a bit afraid of being at home with a baby on her own all day. “I was so used to being in control at work. I understood the world of work. Being at home was very isolating.
I was very glad to go back to work quickly,” she says. But one day she saw her childminder in the street with her daughter, the childminder’s mum and a little boy. “It was all I could do to stop myelf from running over and taking my child home,” she says. “I felt people were thinking that my daughter was her baby. I panicked. I felt guilty. I couldn’t focus at work. I felt I might be missing important things like her first steps.” She is well aware she says that as a result of having children your personality develops in different ways. “I am a different person to the one I was 15 years ago,” she says. “I am more patient, I have different values. My family comes first, but I can also work. Society has changed in that time. It has been dragged kicking and screaming into seeing that work has to be family friendly.”
She thinks the recession will be good for part time workers. “Recessions are always good for part time workers,” she says. “When things start to recover employers will be cautious about brining people in. Part time people will come first.” She advises people to be upfront about wanting flexible hours and to sell the benefits to the organisation for both them and you. When she was thinking about starting up on her own, she went for two jobs and she was able to set her terms for both of them – she wanted to work term time only and she had a minimum salary she would work for. In both cases the employer agreed to her terms. “That was in the middle of a recession,” she says. In the end she didn’t take either, but she says it proves that if you ask for flexible work and sell the benefits you might be surprised.
Would you like to win a free advice session with Rachel Farhi? If so send a short paragraph outlining why you would benefit most from it to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Rachel click here. Rachel is joining the Working mums expert panel. To send her a question, click on the experts page under Career Coaching.