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Sophie’s choice

Having embarked on her ‘second career’, Sophie Rhodes tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen about her positive experience of returning to financial management after a maternity leave that lasted seven years.

People often say they can’t wait until retirement, but that’s not me. I returned from my career break motivated, energised and thinking: ‘Goodness, there’s so much more to do.’” Sophie Rhodes spent seven years away from full-time accountancy raising her four children and, far from it hindering her career, she’s now head of finance at one of the Midlands’ oldest businesses and enjoying her work more than ever before. “I came back from my very extended maternity a different person,” she says. “I was more confident, more sure of who I am. Now I encourage anybody who wants to achieve anything to have a go.”

Following an audit career in the Big Four, she’s one-quarter of the exec team steering 117-year-old Birmingham premium furniture retailer Lee Longlands. “It’s rewarding to know that what I’m doing in guiding the strategy really makes a difference to a friendly, professional company,” she says. Accountancy is in Rhodes’ DNA. “My father worked for Coopers & Lybrand, so I knew early on what it was about. My career was never in doubt.” She joined the London office of Arthur Andersen in 1997 and then, when it “all went wrong for them”, transferred to Deloitte, where she became a senior manager in audit and assurance, later taking the opportunity of an office transfer to return to her native Birmingham. “It was a great time and I really enjoyed it,” says Rhodes. “It was a great experience and I was proud to be working in the Big Four.” But she found a new life – literally – with the birth of her first son in 2007, followed by the rather less expected arrival of boy triplets less than two years later.

“I took my first maternity leave, then returned to Deloitte three days a week, and after a few months I fell pregnant again. I suddenly had four children under two – I didn’t want to go back to work then.” At that point, says Rhodes, she did wonder if her career was over. “I loved being at home, doing the mum things. It was full-on, but I savoured every second. I took my year’s maternity, and then another six years after that!” She did keep her hand in by marking student papers for Kaplan and then ACCA – a touch-point with the profession that came in handy when the children started school. “I found myself quite lonely and bored,” she recalls.

“There are only so many times you can go to John Lewis for coffee… “I’d kept in touch with some Deloitte colleagues socially and one had moved to EY and suggested I join them. I was a bit concerned, having been away for so long, but they thought it wasn’t a problem. ‘You can do things to get yourself technically up to date,’ they said, ‘and you have the same skills you had before, plus all the soft skills you’ll have developed being a parent.’ It was such an encouragement that I did return to audit. I could have gone to Deloitte but somehow that would have felt like going back to my old job. EY was a step forward – the start of a new chapter.” Things had moved on, says Rhodes, but she quickly caught up. “It does come back. The hardest part was advancement of technology – I hadn’t used Excel for years. And there were updates of standards, of company law.

“But EY made it easy. They told me ‘don’t worry about being chargeable, just spend two months shadowing people, just to get the feel back’. And they were obviously aware of the needs of my family and trusted me to do the work, so if I wanted to go to a school play or sports day, I could. They couldn’t have been more supportive. The Big Four are excellent, empathetic employers for parents.” But even the support of colleagues couldn’t ultimately keep Rhodes at EY. “In practice, you’re driven by clients – and if they’re on a reporting deadline you can be working until 8 or 9pm. If you’re on holiday you feel the need to check emails and if something comes up, you have to attend to it. And you could be working for five or six different partners who don’t know the work you’re doing for the others. “It was too inconsistent – I might be in Telford one day, or Birmingham, or working at home. I was there two years and I’m really grateful, but I didn’t want to be there for the next 20.” Rhodes saw the opportunity at Lee Longlands.

“I’d grown up with this company as part of the landscape. In my 20s I loved uncertainty and excitement, and hated the idea of a ‘proper job’. But now I have my desk, I know where I’m working, and I work until 5.30pm when everyone goes home. My team are brilliant – one has worked here 45 years and others 20. I worked four days a week at EY but happily do five here, especially as the children get older and are less reliant. “I’m doing what I love – it’s like a second career. I’m enjoying the feeling of making a difference, and really feel the responsibility to our customers and the staff. “I had a break to have and enjoy my children, thinking I had chosen that over my career. But in fact my career hasn’t stalled, which is as it should be. I feel I’m where I belong.”

The account

I like being an ACA because... It opens doors and never loses its value. How many other qualifications are still relevant after seven years?

I’m happiest… Watching my boys play cricket or football.

The hardest lesson to learn has been… You can’t control everything.

I’d like to be remembered as… Someone who encourages others. I did the London Marathon a couple of years ago and then learned I’d inspired a couple of other people to do it the next year. Go for it!

The love of my life is… My boys. Even if as they get older they’re ignoring me a bit more now.

My worst habit is… I’m an active relaxer. I’m always looking to try to squeeze one more thing in

Originally published in Economia on 4 October 2019.