My four-year-old daughter recently told me that she “didn’t want to be a mommy” when she grew up. When asked why, her response was matter-of-fact in that irrationally confident, four-year-old way. “Because I want to be an animal doctor.”
Despite having two working parents, and knowing that “mommy owns her company and is her own boss,” somewhere along the way our daughter got the idea that she would have to choose just one—parenthood or professional pursuits.
Though the push and pull between kids and work is real, many CEOs have chosen both. We raise families and build businesses, often at the same time. Rarely is this balancing act more delicate than when welcoming a new baby into the mix.
In many sectors of the American workplace, parental leave is not an assumed or simple practice. Working mothers are often met with pressure and guilt around maternity leave. And 76 percent of men are expected back to work a week after a birth or adoption.
While these challenges hold true across the workforce, it can be particularly difficult when applied to a company’s highest office. How do we, the CEOs—the vision casters, decision makers, and organizational leaders—pursue parental leave? What do we need to do to carve out the space needed while also creating a dynamic in which we (and those who rely on us) can feel confident?
Fortunately, as a leader, you have the ability to help normalize the concept of leave, set a positive and empowering example for your workforce, and make your time away successful for both your business and your personal life.
The task of handling parental leave as CEO may feel daunting at the outset, but isn’t that true of all the business initiatives we lead? Through my years as an executive coach I’ve worked with hundreds of high-performing leaders, many of whom are devoted parents. Through supporting their experiences, and through having navigated two parental leaves personally—one very recently—here are some best practices to make parental leave a success.
- Expect—and accept—the unexpected. Whether it’s your first child or your fifth, your world can shift in an instant around the time of a birth or adoption. The best-laid plans may dramatically change. Your child could come early. You could have a colicky baby. Your partner may experience significant postpartum challenges. Your business brain will want everything planned and accounted for—but be prepared to release some of that control.
- Start planning early. You can never start planning too early for your parental leave. Begin with getting clear on your priorities. Be ruthlessly realistic with yourself and those around you. What are your non-negotiables? What does your ideal look like (recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and no “correct” form of leave)? Get specific. Talk to other working parents and CEOs about the challenges they faced, and begin processing how those things may look in your reality. Sleep? Time with other children? Crucial business decisions? Identify goals and boundaries you want in place during your leave to give yourself and your team guideposts to plan around.
With big-picture priorities and boundaries identified, you can start to create a plan for your leave:
- How much time are you going to want to take off?
- What does that time look like? Will you be completely offline, or will some team members have special access to you?
- Do you still want to be involved/aware of certain projects? What does that look like?
Once you have clarity on what you hope your leave will look like, you can reverse-engineer how to make it happen.
- Create systems to support your time away. Think through each key business process that you are typically involved in, and make sure that process can function clearly and effectively in your absence. Commit your plans to writing. Create or revise standard operating procedures as needed. Make sure decision-making authority is clear. Hire, train, or simply empower your existing people to make this all possible. Your goal is to yourself as irrelevant as possible for the short term. (You may be pleasantly delighted with what this makes possible upon your return as well!)
- Communicate your leave plans thoroughly. Think through who is vital to the success of your business. What relationships and/or business functions will be impacted by your time out—staff, partners, the board, key accounts, strategic alliances, vendors, etc.? Once you have clarity on your priorities and plans, be proactive in communicating with all identified stakeholders so they know what to expect and can (hopefully) be supportive of both you and your business as you take the time to welcome your newest addition.
- When you return, re-evaluate, and maintain flexibility. Stay present, honest, adaptable, and communicative as you transition back. You may want to consider a “phased in” return, where you don’t come back all at once. However you come back to work, check in with yourself first. Do the plans you crafted before your leave still feel like the right ones? If not, what needs to shift? Check in with your teams: How are they feeling/doing? What support do they need, and what support are you realistically able to give? Take the pulse on the systems and processes you put in place. How are they functioning? Transparency is a huge helper in this reassessment stage, so encourage your team to be boldly candid with you—and do the same for them. Seek to own the reality of the situation, whatever it is.
My own recent return to work required a lot of reassessment and flexibility. When COVID reared its head shortly after the birth of my daughter, our childcare plans shifted suddenly. Instead of coming back full throttle, I trickled back in. I began taking key meetings, but always with an expectation of audio only, no video, so I could multitask with the baby. At the start of each meeting I let colleagues know that my new favorite coworker (my newborn) would be joining us, and may, at the very last minute, decide the meeting time was untenable (see: crying unstoppably). In those cases, the meeting got pushed. Everyone in my professional orbit was amazingly supportive through this time. With clarity and a little flexibility, we were able to prioritize and work effectively within the shifting realities of my parental leave.
In sum, parental leave can be whatever you want it to be. There are many “right” ways to do it. As a leader, you’re used to being in control, taking action, and making decisions. Letting go for an extended period of time may make you feel uneasy. But you can use the same executive skills that you apply to your business to ensure your leave is just as successful. The key is thoughtful preparation, clarity of expectations, and a healthy dose of compassionate, tuned-in flexibility.