Starting a family is an important decision for anyone, and true for senior professional women. So says Melany Green, CEO of “Great Expectations”, a company that specialises in coaching moms and dads through the parental transition.
“Preparing for parental leave and returning to work while keeping your career on track takes careful planning,” says Melany. “This phase of life can be fraught with anxiety and negatively impact retention of female leaders. The coaching we do focuses on empowering women personally and professionally to navigate this transition.”
The business case for this type of coaching is clear. “Loss of female talent as result of this transition, comes at a high cost. Women, returning as “working mothers” are often perceived to not desire promotion or challenging work. Research indicates that this is largely untrue. “Line managers can make the mistake of assuming a new mother does not want the same challenges she’s had before starting a family. When women feel under-valued or unsupported, they could make career decisions that might not be in their own or the firm’s best interests.” Mel warns.
According to Melany the critical element is open, clear and regular communication between line manager and employee, from a platform of a trusted relationship. “It’s not a one size fits all,” she explains, “Line managers should be curious about what the employee needs in terms of flexible working hours and flexi-place and clarify mutual expectations in terms of output and performance. A good mantra for the line manager is always ask and consult, never assume”.
In response to my question whether she has seen a difference in the way that male and female line managers approach the situation, she laughs. “It is interesting that female line managers who have had children themselves can be more guilty of making these assumptions,” she says. “It’s almost a situation of what worked for me should work for you, but we know that every individual is different. It can come from benevolent bias – trying to make it easier for the employee without first asking what the employee needs. This can be avoided by having that honest conversation.”
Through their work, according to the experience of Great Expectations, they have seen a systemic shift in recent years, with firms implementing changes to make the workplace more parent-friendly e.g. flexible working and facilities for breast-feeding women to express at work. “We don’t aim to ‘fix’ the women,” she says, “we are influencing a change in the system.” In fact, she has found that where organisations support women returning from maternity leave, they get intense loyalty and additional discretionary effort from them. And we know that more engaged employees translate to a better bottom line.
Melany suggests that women take accountability for both their departure and their return when they plan their maternity leave. “A lot of women we coach experience intense anxiety about what being gone for six months will mean for their careers, their teams and their managers,” she confides. “Sometimes just getting it out of your head and onto paper is a great first step. In this way you can communicate the plan to your team and your line manager, and everyone has peace of mind and a plan to make it work.”
Sometimes women also get caught in the trap of “still working” while they are on maternity leave. “I’ve had instances where women commit to responding to email or coming in for meetings while they’re on leave, only to find that they regret not having protected time with the baby. This is particularly the regret of second- or third-time moms.”
As an expectant mother, ask yourself what you want from your maternity leave. Communicate your plan to your team and your manager and empower people to run the ship while you’re away. As a line manager don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations and don’t assume that you know what is best for a new mom. It could be very different from what you think.
Melany insists that it’s all about coaching the women to lead change from the inside out.