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Managers, how to retain your high performers through pregnancy and parental leave

When it comes to navigating parental leave, as both a senior leader and parent, Merav Bloch knows two sides of the same coin. The US-based mum-of-two shares her powerful insights for managers who will go all out to champion workplace equity and put their employees’ happiness at work first.

In May 2017, I was 16 weeks pregnant with my first child when our company CEO, Eric, scheduled time for a 1:1. Opendoor was ready to expand into new markets, he said, and how would I feel about building an expansion team from scratch? I desperately wanted to accept the role, but hadn’t yet told anyone about my upcoming new arrival.

I decided to share the news, and Eric’s response was, in my view, ideal: “See how far you get before you go out, make sure you’ve trained someone, and then pick up when you get back.”

As leaders, the way we navigate the ‘big moments’ in our teams’ lives matters enormously. That principle applies to pregnancy, illness, bereavement, marriage, and anything else that may be going on. Getting those moments right can build tremendous trust; getting them wrong can be disastrous.

I wrote this post as I wrapped up my second parental leave in June – my second child was born in February 2020, and had at this point spent his entire life social distancing. In the last 18 months, I’ve managed a team member through parental leave, and been managed through parental leave, so my perspective is informed by ‘both sides’ of the conversation.

This post is addressed to managers and offers guidance on how to navigate a team member’s pregnancy and parental leave in a way that maximises their chances of remaining happy and engaged at work. I haven’t addressed what your parental leave policy should be, since I assume most managers are working within an existing policy. The guidance in this post applies to all parents: women and men, birth parents and non-birth parents. (I use the terms ‘expectant parent’ and ‘new parent’ to include anyone welcoming a new family member.) I write from the perspective of someone working in tech startups, where jobs tend to be full-time, and leave periods tend to range from 10–18 weeks (which I acknowledge is unusually generous here in the US).

Some guiding principles

In thinking through how you manage an expectant parent, there are a few guiding principles worth keeping in mind.

Assume the rest of your team (and the company) is watching. At any moment in time, there are likely multiple people on your team who are expecting, trying to get pregnant, or contemplating having children down the track. All of them will be watching how you handle an expectant team member. Without you knowing it, they will be drawing conclusions about how they would be treated, and whether parenthood is compatible with their current role.

Be empathetic, and human. Something I like to tell first-time managers is at least 50% of being a good manager is genuinely caring about your team. If in doubt, think from first principles about how your decisions will impact each person on your team, and apply the golden rule (“how would I want to be treated?”).

In the case of an expectant parent, there is often worry on both sides: the expectant parent may worry about losing career momentum, about leaving their team, about juggling work and a new baby when they come back from leave. As their manager, you may worry about how you’ll cope with a temporary gap on your bench. Remembering you’re both feeling anxious can help build empathy.

Avoid any parent weighing up time with a child they love, against a job that is only ‘meh’. Ideally everyone on your team feels motivated and engaged at work. This becomes critical when a new child enters the picture. Your best chance of retaining a working parent is if they see themselves as leaving a child they love for a job they love, rather than a child they love for a job they feel indifferent to.

10 tips for retaining high performers through pregnancy and parental leave

With that, here are 10 concrete tips based on my experiences as a leave-taker and leaver-manager, ordered roughly chronologically. Everyone is different, and I’d love your feedback on what should be added or culled from the list.

Tip 1: When the person shares their news, express your happiness for them. That’s it.
At the point the expectant parent is telling you about their new arrival, they have likely agonised over when to tell you, in what setting, and over what will happen next. Put any fears to rest. Tell them how happy you are for them, and check in on how they’re doing.

A good rule of thumb is to respond as you would if a friend was telling you the same news.

You’ll probably be feeling a little anxious about how to cover the person while they’re on parental leave. Don’t let it show. Now is not the time for leave planning; it’s time to celebrate, reassure, and to show you care. If the expectant parent asks about leave planning, a great response is to tell them how important they are to you personally and to the team, and that you’ll figure everything out together closer to the time.

These probably go without saying, but a few things you should definitely not say:

  • How long have you known? (Not your business, and can come across as accusatory.)
  • Was it planned? (Again, not your business.)
  • I thought you were showing! (Eek.)

Tip 2: Ignore the upcoming leave until four to six weeks out. Especially as you plan promotions or org changes.
The more a person loves their job when they go out on parental leave, the more likely they are to come back engaged. Remember also that 10–18 weeks goes by very slowly, but also very fast. Over the four to six months you run your business before an expectant parent goes out on leave, do your best to ignore the fact of their upcoming leave. Certainly don’t withhold any opportunities you would otherwise offer them (this is potentially illegal anyway). Back in November, my boss Julie tapped me for a new role while I was in my third trimester and a few weeks away from being unable to travel. She was playing the long game, and it is something I will always be grateful for.

Tip 3: Don’t sandbag. Instead, create space for the expectant or new parent to protect themselves.
This one applies both before the expectant parent goes out on parental leave, and once they come back. Your job is not to protect the expectant or new parent, but to create space where they can protect themselves. Sandbagging can happen in ways that are big or small, and usually come from a place of good intentions. If you find yourself saying things like: “I really don’t think you should travel for work” or “are you sure it’s not too much for you right now?”, stop.

When I came back from my first parental leave, my manager at the time, Megan, called me with a message I now repeat to everyone on my team who goes out on leave. It was exactly what I needed and wanted to hear. “I know you have a lot going on right now, and you should feel completely comfortable setting boundaries and saying no. I won’t stop offering you opportunities, but you should feel comfortable saying no. You should also know that saying ‘no’ now won’t stop me from offering you other opportunities down the track.”

Print, save, repeat.

Tip 4: When leave-planning, be wary of creating temporary layers.
If the expectant parent is an individual contributor, you can usually distribute their responsibilities among other members of your team. If the person is a manager, you’ll need to figure out how to cover their team while they’re out.

Be wary of elevating one of their direct reports over the others and creating a temporary layer.

One of my favorite business maxims, which I repeat frequently to my team, is “don’t solve day one problems by creating day two problems”. This is a great example. Temporarily elevating a team member over their peers creates awkwardness for that team; it also creates awkwardness for the expectant parent when they come back and attempt to reclaim their role.

Depending on your bandwidth, it might make sense to lead the team yourself, giving them opportunities for ‘skip level’ exposure. Another great option, and one we’ve used for both of my own parental leaves, is to find a peer from elsewhere in the organisation who can temporarily lead the team. In both cases, I’ve discovered that having a peer lead my team from a similar ‘altitude’ created amazing learning opportunities both for my team and for me. (As the parent on leave, it’s a rare opportunity to see how another smart person does your job.)

Note 1: If you and the expectant parent think one of their reports is ready for an expanded role, great! Make the change permanent, and ideally do it well in advance while they have the full-time support of the expectant parent. There may be rare cases where it makes sense to create a temporary layer, for example where there is a clear difference in seniority among team members, but in general it’s a better idea to find a permanent leadership role, or an interim role which could potentially lead to permanent.

Note 2: Whoever is covering the team, make clear the situation is temporary. If the temporary manager makes a play for the role long-term, guard it vehemently for the person on leave.

Tip 5: Before the person goes out on leave, invite them to specify things they want to be looped into while they’re out.
Some people want to be completely offline. Personally, I wanted to be consulted on any decisions involving personnel. During my first parental leave, a high performer on my team was promoted into a new role without me knowing about it – it was a promotion she deserved and which I supported wholeheartedly, but it would have been helpful to know I was coming back to a significant gap on my team that I would need to backfill quickly. The team was blameless – I hadn’t been specific about my expectations – but I learned from the experience. Before my second parental leave, I had specific conversations with my manager, my team, and the person covering me about my expectations and availability while I was out.

My friend Aarati found it useful to document her coverage and leave plan in a transition document to help clarify expectations all around.

By definition, most expectant parents are first-timers, and, like me, may not think to have these conversations. As their manager, invite the discussion.

Tip 6: Don’t let the leave-taker be out of sight, out of mind.
Whether the person wants to be completely offline or looped into business decisions, let them know you’re thinking of them! Phone calls or texts are the best channels here, to avoid unconsciously setting the expectation the person is checking their work email or Slack. During both of my parental leaves, I loved getting text messages from my team, my peers and my manager, sometimes telling me about funny things happening at work, sometimes just telling me I was missed. And, I apologise publicly for all the baby spam I sent in response.

Tip 7: When the person comes back from leave, ask about their kids… but don’t ask only about their kids.
Some people feel more strongly about this than others. I personally love talking about my kids at work and invite discussion by keeping photos on my desk and frequently sharing photos and anecdotes in team channels and meetings. (Yes, I’m that mom who assumes everyone is interested in my children.) But, I have a number of mom friends who have struggled with being asked repeatedly about their kids. “Do they just see me as a mom?” asked a friend recently. I think the answer here is, like it is to many things, balance. Ask about their kids… but don’t ask only about their kids.

Tip 8: Be patient as the new parent ramps back to work, and give them license to contribute less than 100% to start.
Babies tend not to care when their parents go back to work, and don’t magically start sleeping through the night. On the contrary, Murphy’s Law virtually dictates the baby will wake up every two hours the night before a big presentation or meeting. A new parent returning to work after leave may be sleep-deprived, distracted, or struggling to adjust to their new normal. Give them space to define their own ramp-back plan, and license to contribute less than 100% on day one if that’s what they need.

Tactically, this might mean a four-day week or a five to six-hour day, or might just mean loosening your expectations to start.

Most importantly, avoid drawing conclusions about the parent’s go-forward productivity based on their first few weeks, even months, back at work. Babies do tend to eventually let their parents sleep through the night.

Tip 9: Observe a 30-day time limit on welcoming the person back from leave.
There are people who wish you “happy new year” through the end of February, and there are people who welcome you back from parental leave for an equivalent period. I recall walking into our Dallas-Fort Worth office in November 2018, and having someone welcome me back from parental leave (I’d been back for nine months). It was undoubtedly well-intentioned, but I wondered how long they thought I’d been out, and who they thought had been making decisions in my absence. To the extent possible, try to observe a 30-day time limit on welcoming parents back from leave.

Tip 10: Tell them their baby is cute.
Always.

Written by Merav Bloch. Operations at Opendoor. Merav thinks about building systems, managing people, raising grateful kids, and the Eurovision Song Contest.

This article was originally published at Medium

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