The new horizon of work
April 4, 2020

The Leadership of maternity leave – dedicated to all those returning to work

“.. at least she’s going to have a lot of time to relax as she’s going on maternity leave” is something I heard someone say at a wedding last year. Of course, I burst out laughing instead of my usual “smile politely” and thought to myself about how ridiculous that sounds and yet up until a while ago I had only a very limited insight on the actual reality.

As a part of my work I mentor leaders on different levels as well as individuals starting their new career. Surprisingly often I meet a huge confidence problem within mothers returning to the job market – regardless of their previous work experience. You see, these women took the opportunity to put their career aside for a while and dedicated themselves to their children and family, but when getting closer to the new start they all had the same question: “how am I going to be attractive to any employer if I have not done anything in the last 1-2-3-6 years? “.

During my career I’ve worked with mums returning after short and long-term maternity leaves, working remotely or in the office, having 1, 2, 3 or even 4 children. They’ve helped me gain insights from the employer and colleague point of view that was a limited – sometimes critical other times respectful – view on the topic. What filled the gap is recently I had the chance to stay away from the corporate world and gain an insight to the world of maternity:

I’m a dad who stayed at home all by myself with my kids (Although they came with their instruction manuals previously written by my wife) which put all my previous experiences into a whole new perspective.

I believe being a stay at home mum is one of the most extremely challenging leadership positions that exist.

What I find really frustrating is how companies fail to grasp the relevance of the experience gained during any maternity.

Here’s why I believe it’s relevant. All of the skills below have been used and developed further during my time away from the office:

  • Multitasking
  • Time management
  • Negotiation skills
  • Excellent interpersonal communication skills
  • Presentation skills
  • Prioritisation and delegation
  • Coaching skills
  • Organisational skills
  • Strategic planning
  • Process improvement
  • Promotion of continual improvement mindset

It reads like an “about you” section of a job description for a very strong leadership position which is impossible to advertise because of the very high skill expectations.

Here are some examples of an every day use of these skills as a mother – from the moment she wakes until she finally gets to sleep at night: 

Multitasking – apparently there is no such thing as multitasking, only task switching. Please note that it is possible to service a broken car while reading a story in a way that the two recipients do not complain about the quality…

Time management – with children, the simplest tasks like putting on clothes take much longer than you’d think so the amount of time you thought you had…you don’t have. If you want to have a reasonably easy flow of the day, you have to have a plan and be flexible enough to adapt to whatever you encounter.

Negotiation skills – Command and control doesn’t work with children. Negotiation on brushing teeth results in conflict and unbrushed teeth. The first rule of negotiation: Don’t unless you have to always applies. Instead utilising an approach of making the child want what you want will produce more positive results. This is called partnering and is a tactic used by hostage negotiators around the world.

Interpersonal communication skills – There’s a lot of great courses out there on communication skills. I even wrote one of them (let me know if interested). There’s also a very good book, that should be mandatory reading for all leaders in the world, it’s called “How to talk so kids will listen & how to listen so kids will talk”, buy the book or read the free extract online, it puts into perspective things like empathy, power of silence and impact of words – key things a leader should be aware of when dealing with people.

Presentation skills – Telling a story in a way that captures and maintains the attention of the audience, especially when the audience attention span is measured by how excited, hungry or distracted they are. A good presentation is all about the story (for more on that sign up for my presentations course)

Prioritisation and delegation– Do I really need to explain this to you? If so, here are the key thoughts: enough time together and apart to have quality time together and apart, meanwhile have everything (yes everything) done.

Coaching skills – Enabling action with follow up questions and encouragement “mummy where’s my toy?” “hmm I wonder where could it be? Where do you think we should start looking for it?” instead of “give me a minute, I’ll find it for you”.

Strategic planning – You never knew that meal planning could be so challenging. It’s 3 meals, 2 snacks, balanced diet, well presented in an order that they will most likely eat all of it willingly without being bribed multiplied by 7 repeated 52 times.

Organisational skills – Going anywhere is an exercise in logistical planning. Packing the changing bag, the car, even the type of boxes you put the food into that you take with you all has to be planned in advance. We won’t get into who’s wearing what during the journey or what’s the weather like at the destination and how that can really cause an increase in blood pressure.

Process improvement – Everything you do is a process and each time you are constantly looking at how to improve that process in order to make life easier and give you more time. See point one for why time is important.

Promotion of continual improvement mindset – As children grow and develop, your skills also need to grow and develop. What worked in communication when they were 18 months might not work when they are 3 years old. You also have to consistently and constantly set a positive example to your children, which is exactly what a leader of people has to do.

I thought I knew what being a leader is, in fact I prided myself on being a values-based leader:

Values based leadership – has 4 elements:

Self-reflection – looking at myself to determine my priorities as I can’t do everything in one day

Balance and perspective – taking the time to understand other perspectives than your own

Genuine humility – everyone’s opinion matters!

True self confidence – I’m not always right, there’s always going to be someone better than me and I’m a work in progress

In reality, I know what any leader needs to learn
and whom they could learn it from
– Mothers are natural values-based leaders 
whether they are aware or not.

Next time I need to hire for a leadership position, I’ll be looking at maternity leave as relevant experience that delivers a powerful skill set and not as any sort of “leave”.

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