Tomorrow I go back to work after six months of maternity leave. To say I have mixed feelings about this would be an understatement. I am excited, nervous, sad, and determined all at the same time.
Most of all, I am enthused that I have new challenges to go back to. Being able to have driven one product launch and hit revenue targets for another product while I was on maternity leave, now gives me the opportunity to set bolder targets for my team and work towards them.
Driving my maternity leave conversation
When I became pregnant, I realised I needed to figure out how I was going to manage my team during my time away. I also wanted to make sure I did not lose touch with my professional life. Often, organisations focus on generous parental leave policies, but do not plan or prepare for how employees can stay in touch with work or what happens when they come back after this professional break. In startups and high growth companies that are lean, it is even more tricky, especially if you are managing teams. As the first woman leader going on maternity leave in my organisation, there was no playbook that I could follow. It was up to me to decide how I wanted to handle it.
Before going on leave
A major portion of your plan needs to be put in action well in advance of your actual leave. Below are some of the key things that I focussed on.
1) Starting early
I decided to start around my fourth month of pregnancy, and put together a checklist of the things I would need to take care of, in preparation for my leave.
2) Proactively having a conversation with my boss
I started by informing my boss. Knowing fully well that every employer’s biggest question is whether you are going to come back to work, I made it clear that I plan to come back, and that I needed his full support to ensure my team is able to operate smoothly during my absence.
3) Preparing my team
I planned out how my day-to-day responsibilities would be covered by different members of my team and started including them in relevant conversations that would help them ramp up for the time I was away. The best part of this was that I could create the opportunity for them to rise up to new challenges and grow in their own careers. They were able to have a seat at the table with senior leaders in the organisation and contribute beyond their usual responsibilities.
Side bar — I couldn’t be more proud of how well they have performed and the ownership they have taken during this time. I am really thrilled to go back and work with them.
4) Getting support and buy-in from stakeholders
As someone who had to work with different stakeholders across the organisation, I needed to assure other functional leaders that my team was prepared, and had to build their faith in those who were standing in for me. Additionally, I helped my team engage with alternate mentors for the different projects they were working on, if at all they needed any extra support.
5) Communicating how I wanted to be involved
I made it clear to the senior management as to who the go-to people in my team would be for different things, and that I would be involved in the big decisions. It can be tricky for organisations to understand how and when to engage with the employee during this time. It can vary from person to person — some people may choose to drop off the radar completely, some may choose to stay on top of everything, and a few others may want to be involved only for big decisions. Removing the guesswork and making clear how involved I wanted to be avoided any awkwardness.
During my maternity leave
I started my leave a couple of weeks before my due date so I could ramp down and make some time for the new changes that were coming. During that time, I also planned for a few things to do over the next few months.
1) Regular check-ins with team
I had regular check-ins scheduled with my team, and let them know how and when they could reach out in case they needed help or wanted to discuss something important.
2) Regular catch-up with boss
This was equally important. I got a pulse of what was going on in the organisation, and ensured my team had the support they needed if there were any big changes.
3) Be there for my team
Sometimes, there may be important developments in the organisation that need more than just a regular check-in. In my case, we were rolling out a new product that needed more of my time and effort. To make sure we did not miss our timelines, I worked from home full-time during the months leading up to the launch, and was able to support my team on the ground to rally and release the product.
4) Be prepared for unexpected changes
In spite of all the planning, there were several unexpected changes that I had to work through, and it was not easy. With some support and flexibility from my company, I was able to deal with them. In one instance, I was suddenly left with no designers for my team at one point but was able to get help from another team temporarily. In another instance, I spent way more time than I had planned on hiring, and so one of my colleagues helped out in hiring for my team.
In this entire process, the most important thing I did was to trust my team to do an amazing job, and allow them to trust me to be there for them when they needed it.
Thinking about my maternity leave in advance and putting together a plan has helped me continue to move forward at work during the biggest change in my personal life, and has given me the confidence to jump back in and pick up where I left off. It helped to keep in mind that no matter what I planned for, a newborn could always throw my plans out of the window and that I might end up needing a whole new plan to suit my new situation.
I do want to acknowledge that my experience comes from a place of privilege — I live in a country where six months of maternity leave is mandated by law for birthing mothers, I have a partner who is equally involved in childcare, I have both mine and my partner’s parents living in the same city, and willing and able to help us out. I work in an industry where a big portion of my work can be done remotely and I have a boss who has been supportive throughout this process.
These past few months have given me a new sense of empathy, and I hope it makes me a better manager to those who may be going through big changes.
I officially go back to the office tomorrow, and am going to miss my daughter terribly while I am at work. But I am also looking forward to getting back, taking on new challenges and starting a new chapter in my career.