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Planning for maternity leave when you run a services company

(This post is a little off the beaten path as it’s not about analytics or optimization per se…but I think my readers will find the approach data-driven enough that it’ll be of interest.  Babies, planning for maternity leave & data – you say?  Yes!)

I am writing this post now because a professional associate recently asked me to lunch to ask me this very question:  how do I plan for maternity leave when as the founder/operator of a successful services company?  She said she had Googled and not found much that was particularly useful or practical.  So, I decided to put fingers to keyboard!

A few years ago when I owned my own services company, I was caught a bit off-guard by a somewhat unscheduled pregnancy (don’t ask me to define “somewhat” here).  I didn’t know how to tell my team, what to plan for, what to expect (at work and at home!), how to talk with our clients, what to put on hold and what to hire new staff to do, and so on.  It was so important to me that my team felt confident, led, and calm about the upcoming future.  It was also really important to me to have the time I thought I’d want with my new child.  I didn’t know how to answer all those questions.  They say it’s lonely at the top, but it’s really lonely at the top of a services company that was still somewhat in start-up mode…as a woman…as a woman of color…in the high-tech space.

The first question is “when to tell”.  If your belly is coming out at 8 weeks, you had better deal with it.  Your team will notice.  They’ll notice SOMETHING.  (And I think I’d rather they know I’m pregnant than wonder about how fat I’m getting…but that’s just me.)  I wanted to wait to hit the proverbial (superstitious?) 3 month mark, and luckily my weight was distributed enough that I could wait until then.  But I didn’t want to wait too much longer because a) I needed my team to partner with me on navigating the ship and b) who the heck can hold on to this kind of news??    3 months it was.

The next question was “how to tell”.  Do you do a company meeting?  Do you tell just your team leaders/executive team members?  There is no straightforward answer here – how much regular (daily) contact do you have with all your team members?  Do you have team leaders who will be naysayers or full of anxiety?  Do you need your team leaders to do some work/thinking before everyone knows?  etc.  I decided to tell my whole team at once at a company meeting.  It fit in with my management style (I talk to everyone all the time), and part of it was because we were small enough that I thought team members who found out later would feel bad.

The next question is “what to tell”.  This is the biggie.  It’s where all my framework-creating, data-driven, analytic skills came in to play.  I sat down and delineated line by line everything I do.  Then I added metadata about each item:

  1. Is it something that only I can do? Or, is it something we can hire someone for, something we can stop for a few months, or make a process change that trains up another team member?
  2. Depending on the answer to the above, then I forecast training or hiring time, steps to achieve that training or hiring, and KPIs to measure success of the solution prior to baby’s arrival.

So what did that give me?  A Powerpoint with a few slides of tables.

But I couldn’t just stop at what we were going to do before the baby arrived.  I knew that one of the most critical factors to manage team anxiety is proper expectation setting.  So I set up breaking my purported 4 month maternity leave into chunks.  These 4 chunks were comprised of the following:  first 4 weeks, second 4 weeks, last 2 months.  Having had a best friend who had two children while working at Google, who generously gives 4 months of maternity leave, I had a good sense of how far you can often come in new motherhood in 4 months.  For each of those chunks, I listed out what of those duties, especially those that we put on hold, I thought I would take on – and what exactly I expected to be able to do with respect to those duties.

So what did that give me?  A few more Powerpoint slides with tables.

I’m happy to report our company meeting was all positive and people were enthusiastic at the chance to have more responsibility.  I think having such a strong plan proposal really helped.

Then you go about making the plan happen!  The  most important thing is to have regular (monthly worked for us) checkpoints on that plan, the KPIs, etc.

One of those items:  when/how do you tell clients?  There is no one perfect answer here.  In a services company, it’s all about relationships.  And sometimes, as the owner/operator, you have long-standing relationships with clients who don’t really need to have you as their “account manager” but want to because they are used to you.  You have very young relationships with clients who seem like they are going to be huge for you.  And everything in between.  My advice on this is to a) focus on transitioning the clients who really shouldn’t have you as their strategist or account manager to your team members (that should have happened already anyway) and b) come clean with your clients yourself.  It’s a mix of “hey, I’m here for you” and “hey, I know you get it – people have babies” and “here’s the specific plan I’ve created for managing your account” and so on.  It is easy to get freaked out about telling your biggest clients.  At the end of the day, if they can’t weather the time period with you, or figure out how to best service their account with you as their partner, then that tells you something about the relationship.  One thing – make sure they  know they have your cell phone number.  I can say the net effect of my strategy is that a couple of clients were mad because  some things got bungled.  I tried my best to make up for it after, but that didn’t work perfectly.  The vast majority were understanding, cooperative, and oh yea – happy for me!

Pregnancies and maternity leave are wonderful catalysts for making your business more scalable and sustainable.  And for identifying weaknesses that you either didn’t know about or have been purposely ignoring.  Believe me, sure as that baby will come out, so do these weaknesses.

The end result for me?  I’d say a lot of things worked out well.  I could NOT believe how much my team rallied to make things work smoothly for our clients – especially while I was on maternity leave.  I am so proud of them to this day.  I think that our clients actually got serviced better!  My child came two weeks early (which, by the way, was NOT planned for as a line item in my Powerpoint!).  All I had to do was text my project manager within a few hours of delivery, and that maternity leave machine was rolling!   That’s not to say I didn’t take more client or team calls while nursing my kid than I would have liked (praying with all my fingers crossed that she wouldn’t let out a cry while we were not on mute), but all in all it was good.

But some things didn’t work out well either.  My one piece of advice to prevent you from making my mistake is this:   if you have, as one of your pre-pregnancy duties, something that you have never hired a person for in your life, and your decision is to hire someone to do that work while you’re gone, then spend a lot of time seeking out advice and expertise on how best to hire that person.  I didn’t know a thing about how to hire a particular role;  I didn’t recognize what I didn’t know; and it was a big big BIG mistake for my company.  It wasn’t the person’s fault – it was just a bad fit.  And that is ultimately my responsibility.

So to my fellow women leaders out there…have fun with your pregnancy, your company, your team, your baby…make plans, and know they will have to change.  Gather up the data about what you do, what is needed to be done by you, what can be hired out, and so on.  This will make planning for maternity leave a lot easier.

Your job at the office is to project confidence but also admit there might be some failures.  And by the way, that’s not bad advice for embarking on motherhood as well!



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