Interview with Jessica Chivers, host of the Comeback Coach podcast

Jessica Chivers is the host of Comeback Coach, the podcast for people riding the return-to-work rollercoaster, whether that’s from maternity or another work break.

Every fortnight Jessica releases either a ‘comeback’ or a ‘coach’ episode. In ‘coach’ episodes the listener gets to eavesdrop on a one-time coaching conversation Jessica has with someone returning to work.

The podcast is part of Jessica’s Comeback Community™ employee experience designed to keep people feeling confident, connected and cared for when they take extended leave from work.

What’s your career background?

Aged about nine I asked my mum whether “woman” was a contraction of “womb” and “man” and why women couldn’t have a name of their own. She delighted in my thinking but didn’t have an answer!

Fast forward a few years and I was watching TV perhaps other parents wouldn’t have deemed suitable (my mother was a socially liberal teacher, divorced from my father and raising two strong-willed children by herself…) including LA Law, Dynasty and hard-hitting documentaries. It was at this time I decided I was going to become a lawyer in the US representing women on death row for killing their abusive partners. 

I didn’t go to university to read law because it became clear I wasn’t going to get 3 A’s at A-level and my aunt (a Partner in a law firm) said it would be better to go and do a different degree and then do a law conversion. I went to read psychology instead and that was the beginning of the work I do now…

Where did the idea for your business come from?

Having my son Monty in 2006 and seeing lots of women downgrading their careers after having children and feeling very pissed off about the injustice of it all.

That was the impetus for writing my book Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work (which hasbeen dubbed “THE book employers should giving all their women returners” by Professor Karen Pine).

How did you move from idea to actual business?

I was working as an associate coach for a learning and development company called Mind Gym on a freelance basis alongside my private coaching practice (private = coaching women paying out of their own pocket).

I decided I could blend my corporate experience with my coaching and start pitching to employers to pay for coaching to support women coming back from maternity leave. This was in 2012, a year after my book came out. Having a book is a really strong basis for many things.

What’s your USP?

I think the way we blend a rigorous evidence-based approach with incredible warmth is what clients like about us. Style and substance!

We really do love the clients we work with and demonstrate it through the way we care about each individual coachee and the HR team. We have five dimensions to our brand personality and the first one is ‘heart’ which we define as ‘we bring warmth and humanity to everything we do’.

Who’s your target audience?

We’re a B2B, working with organisations rather than contracting with individuals (B2C). We’ve got clients across a range of sectors and our biggest sector is financial services (asset management). I have three ‘user personas’ pinned above my desk: Ashmi, Rachel and Alex.

Ashmi and Rachel are our ‘end users’ (the type of women we’re likely to coach – we think about Ashmi and Rachel whenever we post on our @comebackcommuk) and Alex represents our target client (HR). Alex is pretty cool!

How do you spread the word about what you do?

Great question – how long have you got? I could do an hour-long interview on this one! We’ve been going 10 years and in that time we’ve experimented with a whole host of ways. I always keep in mind the idea of adding value and being helpful, never salesy. Here are some of the things we’re doing now:

  • The podcast – and at the start and end of each episode I’m sure you to tell listeners about how the podcast fits into our wider offering and I’m direct about asking them to introduce us to their HR teams. Hopefully buy listening to the podcast they get a sense of our quality and if they like it, they’ll be confident about doing this.
  • Our free monthly ‘Comeback Conversation’ events for people preparing for/returning from leave – these are time-consuming to do but they’re a part of our paid-for offering so although they’re time intense, it’s no more effort to make the remaining spaces available to anyone. So this is essentially something we’re already doing doubling up as a marketing vehicle.
  • Instagram – we’ve got two accounts. One @comebackcommuk is aimed directly at people returning to work so everything on there is aimed at giving a ton of free help and support to people who are doing just that. The other is @talentkeepersuk which we’re not as active on and that’s aimed more at HR Directors and women who want to make the case for bringing us into work in their organisation. WE share bits of research and articles on our main website,
  • LinkedIn – because I’m very comfortable talking to a camera (or the webcam on my laptop…) I frequently record very short films (around 1 minute) about our upcoming events and new podcast episodes. They’re always recorded in my office with our Comeback Community™ banner on the board behind me so we’re reinforcing the brand. Also, familiarity breeds liking and repetition and consistency are key to successful marketing.
  • Direct approaches to organisations we’d like to work with – we’ll get in touch via LinkedIn or e-mail and share our events so we’re being helpful “Here’s something your Parents & Carers network might like to know about…we’re working with X, Y & Z companies… (name drop names that will resonate)”
  • Paid for PR – In the 10 years The Talent Keeper Specialists has been going I’ve never paid for PR or advertising. I’ve been listed as a media contact with the British Psychological Society and so journalists ring me asking for quotes fairly frequently which I’m always happy to do. However, at the end of 2021 a great conversation with my very smart and savvy mate Nadia Finer (author two cracking new books about shyness) I decided it’s time to pay for a bit of proactive PR. It’s mainly to increase the listenership for the podcast to help with sponsorship so I’ve engaged the fab Natalie Trice from Devon Trice PR and we have the best voice memo relays on Whatsapp!

I’ll just finish by saying there’s a whole host of stuff we’re not doing that we could be – and perhaps we should be. We’ve never had a stand at a conference or paid to speak at an event and I sometimes wonder whether that might be a good investment.

I’m also aware we don’t ask our clients to introduce us to other HR professionals in their network as often or as proactively as we could. Just writing that makes me think I need to act on that.

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

When it’s come to new business development I think the free ‘return to work’ workshops I held around my kitchen table for a couple of years in 2016 and 2017 (I think if memory serves) were great.

I asked the women who came to take word back to their HR team and we got a few clients from that. They got picked up for a story in the Guardian and I had one woman travel all the way from Fife as she’d read my book and told her employer she was using a KIT day to come. Love that!

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

I think there are a few:

  • Lack of business development skills – I think I’m well on my way with this one having done a lot of reading, experimenting, listening to podcasts, talking to friends etc.
  • Fear about investing money in things – this is still with me.
  • Fear about the business growing bigger than I think I can handle or want – I’m getting more comfortable with this.
  • Actually not wanting to spend all my time in the business – but having time to devote to the challenges my kids have had (my eldest has ASD and ADHD) which has meant trade-offs.

And your proudest moment?

Getting a sponsor for the podcast from the get-go felt absolutely brilliant. The sponsor is an award-winning family law firm called Rayden Solicitors and the first office they opened was in St Albans where I live. There’s been mutual admiration between our two organisations for years and they’re sponsoring season three which starts at the end of April 2022.

Why is your work so important to you?

It goes back to the injustice I was aware of in the world as a child. I’ve created a working life for myself that plays so well to my strengths that every day is a day I am truly looking forward to. My mum loved her work as a teacher and always wanted me to have work that didn’t involve Sunday night dread. I have succeeded in her eyes!

Who inspires you?

People who unapologetically ask for what they want and say what they think.

You spin many plates, how do you get balance into your life? 

I don’t believe in balance. Some weeks I want to do more of one thing than another. I’m really clear on what my role is in the business, what my personal values are and where we are trying to get to as a business.

I have a carefully time blocked week (blocks of time to do the different parts of my role including coaching) which my PA is ace at supporting me to achieve. I also have a “Jessica’s fortnightly movement and wellbeing plan” that’s like a bingo card with things for me to tick off over the two weeks (things like ‘solo walk’ and ‘netball X 2-3’ and ‘meditation X 7’. When something’s on a list it will get done!

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to set up their own podcast? 

  1. Listen to lots of podcasts – if you don’t love listening to podcasts yours won’t be as good as it could be.
  2. Know why you’re doing it and who it’s for.
  3. Work out that bits of the process you like to do and outsource the rest.