Management lessons from maternity leave

Patricia McDonald
Patricia McDonald

Mommy tracked. Leaning out. The industry has been talking a lot in recent months about welcoming women back from maternity leave.

Creative Equals launched its "returnship" programme in late 2016. Mother New York recently launched "The pregnancy pause", a way of de-stigmatising gaps in women’s CVs. As a mother of two currently on leave with my youngest it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot.

Without question it’s an important issue. Research by Creative Equals shows that 60% of young female creatives believe they couldn’t stay in the industry with a young family. The rates at which women drop out of the industry at the most senior levels are well documented, with just 30.5% of leadership roles in creative agencies filled by women.  

However, if we think about welcoming mothers back into the industry purely as a nice and altruistic thing to do, we’re missing the point.

Some of the most important management lessons I’ve learned have come from taking time out to juggle a sleepless newborn and a growing toddler. As agencies, we are in the people business. We are responsible for creating an environment in which learning, kindness and experimentation can flourish. The difference is that children give the clearest feedback you will ever get on how you’re doing. There is no filter. The needs and anxieties we learn to disguise as adults are out there in the open. That’s why spending a sleep deprived year with porridge in my hair has made me a better leader.

A snapshot of my management lessons from maternity:

"I’m the leader"

At least once a day my daughter takes charge and announces "I’m the leader!" This is usually harmless. Occasionally, however, a determined toddler charges into the unknown only to find she doesn’t know the way and no-one is following. Lesson the first: if you don’t know where you’re going, the odds are no one is following you. If no one is following, as my three year old will tell you, you’re not the leader.

"There’s a dragon in the shower"

I often wonder how often any of us are really listening at work, as opposed to thinking about our next meeting, or waiting for a chance to speak. I often ask my little one four or five times to brush her teeth before finally asking "Are you listening?" Chances are, there’s a dragon in the shower, which is way more interesting than whatever mama’s on about.

As an agency leader, it’s easy to assume people are hanging on your every word. Or at least hearing them. But sometimes it’s worth stopping to ask yourself if people are really listening. There might, after all, be a dragon in the shower. 

"I do it myself"

Every leader needs to balance empowerment versus development. Get the balance wrong and teams feel micro managed or under supported. As a recovering control freak, the "toddler putting on shoes" dilemma is a lesson learned. Ferocious independence coupled with developing motor skills is a heady combination. Lesson the third: swinging in to take over doesn’t help. Give space, give quality feedback, and step in only after you’ve established that more hands on help would be welcome.

"I’m drawing on the baby"

Attention is currency but it is also self-perpetuating. Simply put, the more attention you give something, the more it happens, whether that’s drawing on the baby or ferocious late-night tweeting. In leadership teams, it’s easy to burn time and energy focusing on problems. While we can’t ignore the issues, focusing attention instead on the behaviours we want to see more of – great work, great relationships, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible – helps them flourish.

"I’m so proud of me"

How often do we (particularly women) deflect praise? Responding to positive feedback with "oh, it was nothing", or "it was a team effort really". Nobody likes a show-off, after all, something ingrained in girls from an early age. Not yet, however, in my daughter. Her accomplishments are met with a round of applause and the cry "I’m so proud of me". To her credit, she’s also unstinting in her praise of others.

Try it next time you receive a compliment: "Yes, it went well, didn’t it". I haven’t tried it yet myself. I imagine it will feel hideously uncomfortable the first few times but I think it’s worth a go. On the flipside? Be generous in your praise of others. 

I’ve talked here about maternity leave and motherhood because that’s where my focus is today. But I think the principle applies to any career break or external passion. Time away from the office is not time wasted. While it must be acceptable to leave work on time to pick up your kids, it should also be acceptable to leave because you have theatre tickets, an art class or a reunion with an old friend. Because while we are in the people business, we are above all else in the ideas business. And interesting people have interesting ideas. 

Patricia McDonald is the chief strategy officer at Isobar

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