How I changed my career and changed my life

As I carried my screaming toddler to the school gate to drop off his big sister at breakfast club, him screaming and kicking, me worrying about the meeting I was going to be late for (again), I knew something had to change.

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For years, I’d been trying to convince myself I could do it all: hold down a senior leadership role with a large retailer as well as managing all the childcare for our two young children (due to my husband’s job which involved long hours and time away from home).  When my eldest started school, the ‘double drop off and pick up’ every day was a killer, and I was very conscious of arriving at the office a couple of hours after my colleagues, and having to sneak out early too.

At work, I had finally reached the level I had always aspired to, and we had a very comfortable lifestyle with lovely holidays and a beautiful home; on paper (and on Instagram) we ‘had it all’.  But behind the scenes, we were tired, stressed and surviving rather than living.

So when the Digital Mums ad kept popping up in my Facebook feed, it felt like fate (as opposed to a well targeted marketing campaign)!  The promise of flexible work that I could fit around my family was too tempting to ignore, and making money from spending time on Facebook sounded too good to be true. The more I found out about the course, the more it just ‘felt right’.  So, after an honest chat with my boss, I applied for a career break and signed up for the Strategic Social Media Management course.

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I loved the idea of ‘Real Learning’ which involved working with an actual client and applying what I was learning in real time.  Having sat through many corporate training sessions over the years, this felt exciting and different, and having some concrete experience to put on my CV at the end of the course was a definite draw.

After working my notice for 3 months, the buzz I felt when the course finally started was immense – I remember getting the contact details for the 4 other mums who would become my ‘peer group’ and being told that they would be my support network during the course.  What an understatement!  The only thing I can equate it to is NCT classes, where you’re thrown in with a group of complete strangers and end up becoming really close friends because of what you go through together.  It was the same with my DM peer group – although we’ve never actually met ‘in real life’, our weekly ‘Hangouts’ and daily WhatsApp chats kept me going when the going got tough.  I knew they were my kind of people when they suggested in our first conversation that we should arrange a spa weekend to meet up – and this is now in the diary!

The next milestone was getting our ‘Programme Partner’ – the client we would be paired with, to manage their social media campaign.  When I found out that I would be working with The Return Hub, who help women return to work after a career break, I couldn’t have been happier!  As a card carrying feminist and big advocate of diversity and women’s rights, it was a perfect fit.

For the next 6 months, I learned all about social media strategy, and how to create an effective campaign.  Although I had several years’ marketing experience, social media really is unique, and I quickly realised that there is a lot more to running a successful social media campaign than doing a few posts on Facebook!

When I left my job, I had visions of spending all my free time doing yoga, or visiting country parks, or finally clearing out the garage…however those plans were short-lived when I realised that the course really did take 10-15 hours a week, and I’d also agreed to work a couple of days a week as a Marketing consultant to keep some money coming in.  I came to realise just how short the school day is when you have work to do!

Working from home was very different from the big office environment I was used to, and I was worried I’d get lonely, however I actually found it really liberating.  For the first time, I could pop out to the local shops at lunchtime, and I actually had time to talk to people, rather than rushing to pick the kids up or to get back to work.  I remember one day, the sun came out as I was chatting to my local greengrocer, and I actually felt as though I’d re-joined the land of the living.  I had been surviving on autopilot for so long, I’d forgotten what it felt like to interact with other people.

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This was a lesson which would prove to be useful for my social media skills too, where engaging with others is a key part of a successful campaign.

There were times when the coursework felt never-ending, or when I felt like I had no idea what I was doing (my first Tweetchat was definitely in that category), however the support and encouragement from my peer group and the Digital Mums Captains gave me the confidence to try new things.  

My campaign #ReturnStronger focused on giving women who’d been on a career break the tools & confidence to relaunch their career.  Identifying with my target audience wasn’t a problem as I was in the process of doing the same myself!  I loved running the campaign, even if it meant I was glued to my phone for a few weeks, and particular highlights were getting a Retweet from Dermot Murnaghan and a ‘Like’ from Martha Lane Fox!!

The ex-buyer in me loves the analytical side of social media, and producing my weekly report for my client every Monday morning wasn’t that different from the sales reports I used to create in my old job.  I also like being able to measure the impact of what I’m doing, so having KPIs to benchmark against was really useful.  Seeing the increase in impressions and followers throughout the campaign was really rewarding, and my client was happy too as they’ve asked me to continue working for them after my course finishes.

As I complete my final report and embark on a new career as a freelance social media manager, my life feels very different from this time last year.  I pick the kids up from school every day, accompany them on their school trips and I haven’t missed a single assembly since my youngest started school.  My plans of going to the gym 3 times a week haven’t quite materialised but I’m not sure I can blame Digital Mums for that…

It’s not all Instagram-perfect; there are still mornings when we’re late, despite the extra hour to get ready, and there are times when I’m working after the kids are in bed, but it’s a trade-off I’m happy to make to have flexibility when I need it.  

Now that the sun has come out and Spring feels like it’s finally here, I might just give myself a long lunch break and make up the hours later.  I really have found #workthatworks for me.

Michelle Chandler

www.rocketsocialmedia.co.uk