Left holding the baby: maternity leave without a strategy

images-1According to the Economist (December 31, 1999) the oral contraceptive is ” the greatest science and technology advance in the twentieth century“. This gave men and women hitherto unparalleled access in the developed world, to widely available and sophisticated birth control.

Pregnancy now is an event that is usually carefully planned. Well mostly! It seems that it’s after conception that the planning becomes a bit haphazard. When I coach clients around their maternity leave, it tends to be to deal with a problem on re-entry to the workplace. This can be in any time timeframe from months to years. Very few women are like Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer who bounced back within a couple of weeks! However, I can count on one hand the number of times I have coached a woman prior to maternity leave.

Small print
Women, depending where they are located, could normally expect to return to a similar position, at a similar level to the one they held prior to their maternity leave. The length of time can vary between countries. Note well that the phrase does not stipulate ” the exact same job, in the exact same place, doing the exact same thing“. This small phrase can cover a multitude of possibilities.

It is important that women have put their stake into the ground with regard to their return as early as possible. This is particularly important for senior women who are more difficult to replace on an ad interim basis than those in junior roles. In these cases if organisational shifts are made to accommodate the absence, then additional attention is advisable.

What strategies should a woman consider prior to her maternity leave?
◾Understand your company’s policy and your statutory rights: Many women become unstuck simply because they fail to inform themselves on maternity leave policies and the protocol for communication in their organisations or even their legal position. There can be wide differences from one organisation to another and between geographies. It would generally be expected that you inform your immediate superior and/or the HR function, normally in writing. Initially you will only be able to give an estimate of the timeframe involved until your due date is confirmed. .
◾ Be part of the cover strategy: If you are serious about your career you will indicate that you intend to return to work. Make sure you are part of the process to find a replacement or arrange cover. You have the right to change your mind later about your return. Some women do, but this is a luxury that many cannot afford. If you are running a team you should have succession plans in place. If you don’t, now is a good time to start making them.
◾Establish communication lines: in some countries employers are not allowed to contact employees while on maternity leave. Nor do you want to be caught up in business minutiae while ” topping and tailing” your newborn. If you are a senior employee, particularly in an operational role, you will set guidelines with your direct reports regarding how you want to be contacted, the timing and frequency of the contact and for which issues.
◾Preparing for the unexpected: Sometimes events overtake everyone. Bosses are replaced, mergers and other organisational restructuring can happen in your absence. Don’t allow yourself to be sidelined in any discussions if possible, although this can be difficult if you are in the middle of giving birth and all you can anticipate is the next contraction. Before you leave make sure you have all key emails and documents relating to your own performance, job description, address book and maternity leave agreements off site or on your own computer. I have a catalogue of nightmare scenarios reported by women whose statutory and contractual rights have been ignored or abused while away from their offices in times of change.
◾Maintaining visibility: At a senior level drifting off the radar is never a good idea. During your maternity leave consider scheduling ad hoc attendance at some key meeting, or perhaps a monthly briefing call with your replacement. You need to do more than drop by with the new arrival on your arm.
◾Establish childcare support in advance: check out childcare options and decide which suits you best. Some crèches and day-care centres actually have waiting lists. You may want to set up hiring processes for nannies. Some women are also shocked at the cost of childcare and how it eats into net salary. Think of this as a strategic long-term investment in your career. Also factor in the arrangements you make with your partner about the distribution of childcare responsibilities. As Shirley Conran said “You don’t need a pair of breasts to take a child to the dentist.”
◾Plan for contingencies: Think ahead – what will you do if your baby become sick or there are other issues? Have back-up plans. Note the plural.
◾Re-entry debriefing: Prior to your return, set up meetings with key stakeholders to establish the process you are going to follow for your strategic re-integration. This could involve discussions on the future role of your replacement who will now go back to a more junior role, announcements, hand-over procedures, kick-off meetings etc.

Clear communication and managing expectations can support a smooth transition and go a long way to avoiding those unexpected surprises.

What has been your experience?



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