Making it to the corner office is an achievement for any man or woman. Adding a baby to the equation is also a great accomplishment, but not one without complications, especially for soon-to-be mothers.
As a CEO, I get it. Being in charge of the whole nine yards puts a new set of parameters on the new-parent project—and the leave that typically follows. I am unbelievably excited to adopt a baby this fall, and as a first-time parent, I expect to be overwhelmed in several dozen ways at least. While I can’t 100 percent anticipate or control my experience of new motherhood, there’s one thing I can plan for: taking the time off I need to bond with my baby.
I know I’m not alone in facing this challenge. Maybe you’re expecting a baby and planning for maternity leave, or you’re a soon-to-be father in the position to take paternity leave. If you’re a senior manager, or a CEO, clearly you, like I, love your career and take it seriously. You aren’t in a position of authority by accident—you worked hard, made plans, saw opportunities and made it happen.
That is exactly the mindset needed when dealing with the transition from being a CEO 24/7, to being a parent 24/7, and then back again—as both.
Female leaders in particular bear the brunt of this duality, usually with remarkable equilibrium. Former president and CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, famously announced she’d been hired for the position the same day she announced her pregnancy. In fact, most female chiefs at major U.S. companies do have children. Douglas Branson, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and author of The Last Male Bastion, did an analysis several years ago that showed 90 percent of these women are mothers and most have two or three kids.
Which is why things could get tricky, if there isn’t a plan in place.
Let’s break down what an extended-absence plan looks like for a manager. There are three phases that need to be addressed: the announcement, the actual time out of office and the transition back into the office.
Announcing the Big News
There are two major considerations with this: who and when. Determining the best order to tell people depends on the impact of the news on their lives.
I strongly suggest that the first person you tell (after family, of course) be your right hand, the person who will assume many of your duties while you are away from the office. This must be a face-to-face conversation. Be prepared to tell her your initial thoughts about time out of the office, and which responsibilities will shift. That’s a lot for a first conversation, but she will absolutely want to know how this shift will affect her. Remember, the responsibility of covering for a manager, or unclarified definitions of authority, can cause concern.
The rest of your immediate team (if they weren’t part of the first conversation), comes next, also in person. You are going to need their support and back-up during the transition. Like any change, they’ll need time to get used to the idea and come up with creative ways to manage. If you have a board of directors, they too need to know.
At Pacesetter we are a family, so I handled things a bit differently. After telling my executive team that we were adopting, I shared the news at a corporate huddle with our associates. I did not want it to be a last minute surprise. I believe, strongly, in transparency—especially when it’s going to affect our team.
If you have clients, customers or key suppliers that rely on you specifically, they should be told once your plan is clearly defined. Let them know who will be acting CEO in your absence and if anything will change because of it. While I am involved with both customers and suppliers, my soon-to-be acting CEO is as well. It has been very easy to share my plan because he already has relationships built and credibility with many of the same business partners I do.
Parenting journeys are as varied as families themselves. With adoption, there was no nine months to prepare. I had to determine who to tell that we were adopting, and who to tell when we received a match with birth parents.
I shared the news about the decision to adopt with my team, then with others when we got a match and there was a more definite arrangement. Who you tell, and when, is highly personal and depends on your relationships. I suggest you make sure that those whose lives will be impacted the most have the most advance notice.
Creating a Plan for Your Absence
Like any good plan, start by setting the basic parameters, like timeframe.
With standard, uncomplicated pregnancies there’s typically a specific date when you go into parent-mode. In other circumstances, like adoption, there’s less certainty of a start date. This kind of uncertainty can be difficult for everyone, so the clearer your plan, regardless of timeframe, the better.
Whether you have an exact date or not, you’ll need to:
Delegate, delegate, delegate. You work with great people so now’s the time to let them play to their strengths and take some of the responsibility off your shoulders. You have ongoing duties plus problems that crop up. Who will handle each best?
Ask your team, if necessary, what they rely on you for the most and find ways to fill those needs, internally or externally.
Also, it’s important to make sure that key positions are fully staffed (with the right people) so you and your team can delegate as necessary.
I calendered time with the executives who were taking on new, or variations of previous, responsibilities. We reviewed what I did, and why, focusing on the actual objectives and decided what tasks they would handle and which decisions they would make.
Set up a communication plan. Who can be in touch and under what circumstances? Do you want weekly check-ins via email, or Skype? Should you only be called for absolute emergencies? If you’ve gone on vacation in recent years, the basic communication plan is probably in place. Work from that model and expand it to cover things like your new schedule, probable fatigue and desire to bond with the baby.
Create a stable holding pattern. Unless it’s completely unavoidable, now is probably not the time to launch a new product or move your business to another city. It’s important to have realistic expectations about what can and can’t be done minus a manager.
While far from ideal, my absence is falling during the time of year we make plans for the future of the business. So the majority of that project is now falling on my executive team. Luckily, we started early and have a process built. Communication, for alignment, is planned along the way and there’s a solid process for integrating my thoughts and ideas.
Our ability to be flexible and schedule, and reschedule, dates for developing our 2018-2020 plan, and then change the entire process when we finally received our match, showed me the agility of our team. It has me excited to see the company plans that come out of this revised planning process.
Test the new processes. In business, it is vital to test a new process before adopting it fully. The same is true in the case of managerial absenteeism. As it gets close to your time of absence, start handing off some of the responsibilities that you uniquely handle. This way, if there was lack of clarity in the education process, it will be highlighted and you can retrain. I did this with a few key projects and responsibilities and we did find, and fix, some blips along the way.
Even if you aren’t planning leave, this is a great exercise. At any time, we can have an unplanned absence. Someone should know the key things you do each day.
Returning to Your Job
When, and how, do you plan to re-assume your responsibilities? It’s not a rhetorical question.
The “when” or more likely the “how long” should be determined before you leave, as best you can. But the “how” depends on a multitude of factors. For instance, will you work remotely for several weeks, then go on site in a part time capacity? If you travel (which most managers do) at what point will you resume those business trips?
How will you handle the inevitable shifts that have occurred? For instance, if you delegated a particular task to the CFO, and they’re really good at it, will it remain part of their job?
My heart is so full preparing for motherhood and all that comes with it. I’m so blessed to be in a position to work and parent, and the fact that I am speaks to how great my team is. It also shows that worldviews have shifted to support women in leadership roles who also want a fulfilling family life.
As ever, all CEOs and managers must chart new paths and lead by example. Creating an effective game plan shows coworkers, colleagues, and future leaders that time off to take care of a new baby is more than do-able. So take a deep breath and enjoy every minute.
Aviva Leebow Wolmer is the CEO of Pacesetter, an innovative flat rolled steel service center that is committed to providing bottom line value to its customer partners.