What should a manager be thinking about as she comes back from maternity leave? Stephanie Weeks, a brilliant mama from my Mindful Return January e-course, has some great practical advice for supervisors who also happen to be new mamas.
The advice I find most often (though still not nearly enough!) about returning to work is about managing your personal experiences and managing the expectations of your supervisor. That is extremely helpful. But what about returning to work when you are the supervisor? What’s different? What’s needed? What can you expect?
As an executive in my organization, I have the wonderful opportunity to lead a department of highly skilled and experienced creative staff. They direct themselves and work as a cohesive team. While I was on my 16-week maternity leave, one person on my team really took the opportunity to provide leadership to the group.
He was resourceful and thoughtful, making sure to only include me as much as I wanted to be included while I was out. In these ways, I had the best-case scenario to be returning to work. Even with this, I learned three important lessons immediately upon re-entry:
1. Jump into Culture
I have built great relationships with the people on my team, so I knew I would be missed, generally speaking. But I didn’t realize how my absence would really impact them. One person complimented the person who filled in for me. But she also said she thought the team felt the missing presence of their leader. She said, “You create the culture here, and we missed that.”
As leaders, we do create culture. Intentional or not, your team looks to you to know what the appropriate behavior is, from what to expense on a work trip. To how to negotiate difficult conversations. To how to distinguish good versus great. More than 80% of employees report that “their relationship with their direct supervisor has a big impact on how happy they are with their job.” (CBS, 2013).
What to do about it? Be there when you return. Really be there.
- Set aside scheduled time on your calendar to catch up with everyone on your team – not just your direct reports. Spend time drafting communications about what you are doing to dive back into things and follow that with regular updates.
- Find something to celebrate! A lot happens while you are out, so it should be easy to find.
2. Listen Carefully; Act Quickly
The reason I was able to glean the insights around culture was because I was listening. Challenges are bound to happen while you are out on leave, and the one-on-one conversations I had with team members revealed them. By listening carefully to multiple people, I was able to quickly spot trends — misfires as well as successes.
Trends are something you can act on quickly. I was able to hear their stories, diagnose, and create an action plan. More than one person told me how thankful she was for being able to talk with me directly (especially if she did not report to me directly), and for seeing action happen so quickly after my return.
How to do it? Completing the steps below within the first two weeks will set you on a strong path toward re-entry with a happy team:
- Send out correspondence immediately upon your return that you are glad to be back and will be diving in immediately to know where you can best be of service to the team.
- Set up time with a representative sample of your team (or all of them if you can!), and ask two simple questions: “What’s working?” and “What’s not working?” Put your own ideas on hold until after you talk with people.
- Make an action plan with your management staff based on your findings. Designate at least one small thing that you can do immediately to make an improvement.
- Send out communication to the team about what you learned and what you and your management team are going to do about it.
3. Relate Better as a Manager with Your New Mama Skills
One of the things I learned while taking the Mindful Return course was that I can use my new skills found in motherhood in all sorts of ways. For me, compassion is the greatest thing I can contribute at work.
As a manager and a parent, I now have a much clearer understanding of what it means to have important, non-negotiable pulls on you outside of work. I’ve been open about my new understanding of this to my team when it has become relevant.
I’ve had two employee-initiated discussions about working hard while being a parent in just my first month returning to work. Both employees were touched. And I think our working relationship has only improved. I became a more “real” person to them and they felt more understood by me.
Companies are made up families, not just employees. I have the ability and strength to make my professional contributions because of the love and support of my own family. Likewise, as employers, when we get great contributions from our team, we can recognize their support network enables them and appreciate the full picture.
And finally, a word on being a Mama and a company Leader. Statistically, women’s careers stagnate at least temporarily when they have a child and this frightens many professionally-driven women. It certainly frightened me. There are so many choices at this point in our lives. If one of those choices includes being a leader in an organization, I challenge you to talk openly about being a Mama.
Too often there is a sense that woman should go on maternity leave but then return to work just the way you were before – in other words, to not be a Mama while you are at work. If you are a Mama, be one at work. Don’t hide it. The women in your company need to hear it and they need to see you succeeding. Even when you show up without make-up and with spit-up on your suit, stand tall. You are doing this! The women in your company have someone to look to if they choose a similar path, and the men can feel confident in their decision to follow such a strong and real leader.
Stephanie Weeks is a new mom and loving every minute with her baby boy. She’s been back at work for about a month, continuing in her role as Vice President of User Experience at Blackboard, where she’s able to contribute to the new ways in which people are learning all over the world.
Need more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.