Manage parental leave like a boss
or, an interview with Dr. Amy Beacom, founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership
Note: I’ll be on vacation next week 😎, but will be back with a new article on March 23!
In my work preparing women for parental leave, one theme is clear: their manager plays a huge role in whether they feel supported in their transition to working parenthood. There’s a lot of advice out there for new parents about how to navigate parental leave, but less information aimed at managers directly. I knew my friend and colleague Dr. Amy Beacom would be a terrific resource to help explore this issue further.
Amy is the founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, the first full service consultancy in the US to focus exclusively on parental leave. Drawing on over 25 years in executive leadership development and coaching, Amy consults with Fortune 100 companies, international organizations, working parents, and more to transform the way our companies and our country engage with the parental leave transition. Amy is also the co-author of The Parental Leave Playbook: Ten Touchpoints to Transition Smoothly, Strengthen Your Family, and Continue Building Your Career and recently launched the first-ever certification program for parental leave coaches (which I was certified through last year).
JW: How can managers best support parents before they go out on leave?
AB: First, consider your mindset. If you are thinking about parental leave as a hassle and not as your most underutilized personal and professional development opportunity (for all involved), reach out and we can help you. Once you understand the ways in which this is true, you can begin to educate, plan, and communicate.
To start, educate yourself about relevant policies within your company, what your team is going to need over that extended time, where other resources might exist for you to fill in any gaps beyond your team members, etc. Unless managers have a huge number of direct reports, managing someone through leave isn’t something that happens all the time, so it requires a tune-up. I strongly recommend having a planning checklist that you can refer to.
Additionally, as a manager, you will need to work with your new parent direct report to create a full three phase plan that covers preparing for leave, during leave, and returning from leave. Your direct report can take the lead, but this is something that you will want to work closely with them on. We have a comprehensive three phase leave tool template that we use with clients. You can also access that template through my book.
The last thing I’ll mention is one of our favorite mottos: Ask, don’t assume. Don't make assumptions about what they can and can't do, what they want to do or don’t, how they are doing, etc. During this timeframe communication is so important—it makes all the difference. Check in to make sure they feel comfortable, and then re-check in. Create a climate where they can change their mind in the face of new information or experiences.
JW: How can managers best support parents when they return from leave?
AB: The best supported return is one that is full of empathy and flexibility, while being grounded in the underlying structure that you've created through your leave planning process. That plan is crucial because it creates a shared document that everyone can refer to. When done well, you'll strengthen your communication and your shared understanding as a team before the parent goes out on leave. And then you can pull it back up on the return and say, "Hey, does this still work? Is there anything that we need to adjust here? How are you feeling about this idea you had that you built into this way back months ago?" And those kinds of things. So, it's a lot of checking and rechecking.
And never underestimate the power of the small things. If they are coming back to the office a plant on their desk or welcome back card signed by all will mean more than you can understand. Make sure their tech is set up so they don’t spend their first day trying to get onto the computer or into the building. I talk to parents all the time who have this as their first experience back and it feels like a sucker punch—like they don’t matter any more.
The other thing is to work with the team prior to the new parent’s return because it's an adjustment for that team, as well. Asking questions like, “How's everyone feeling about handing this off? Is there anything I should know about that can help make this smoother for all of you?”
JW: That dovetails perfectly on my next question. How can managers keep morale high and prevent feelings of resentment or negativity from the remaining team members?
AB: What managers sometimes miss is that when that happens, it's a red flag for more systemic issues that should have been dealt with much earlier in the process. That’s why assessment and planning are so important. If low morale is happening for your team, acknowledge it, look for the underlying reasons, and then address those so it doesn’t happen to the next person.
Related, it really helps if the manager can explore ways to increase pay for anyone taking on extra work during that time. I’ve seen managers recognize their team with bonuses, recognize them in their conversations around their performance reviews, talk them up to people in leadership positions—all of that makes the extra work they're doing more visible and appreciated. Those are very easy things that managers can do to make this not feel like it's something happening to the rest of the team, but that it’s something that they can all benefit from, as well.
JW: It makes me think about the current landscape and people already being overwhelmed, having to do jobs of people who've been laid off. And then if a member of the team is out for parental leave on top of that, what can a manager do?
AB: First of all, it's super frustrating. Everyone—especially that manager—is overstretched. And so I think the thing that we often forget when we're talking about managers is all that work is just falling on their shoulders even more heavily, right? That's where it goes back to. And in some cases, there aren't any good solutions, so I don't want to give platitudes. But it doesn't hurt to advocate for yourself as a manager to get more support.
And sometimes that really is making the case for getting temp staff coverage because it’s just too much work. Especially in states where paid leave is covered by a state level policy, that leave is not an extra expense to that company. So use that pay to hire someone while they're gone, or train up a junior person, or pull somebody who is from a different team. Then you can really cross-pollinate and get some creative and fun things to happen in the organizations.
JW: What about when the manager goes out on parental leave? What tips do you have for a smooth transition?
AB: The most successful managers that I've worked with are the ones who plan as if they’re not returning (even though they are). That means that they target the people on their teams they would want to take over their role, and train them up. Identify the people, and it's usually a number of people for different parts of that role, and really use their leave as a skill development opportunity for their team to rise up and show what they can do.
Most managers that I work with deepen their relationships with their direct reports when they go on leave, because it's the first time the manager is being vulnerable with that direct report. They're needing something from them that is beyond a work task but is personal, and that's when we create stronger bonds with each other. And so the managers that can do that, that can say, "Hey, can I rely on you?" in a way that is deeper than “Do this task”, they come back to stronger teams that they've created through their leave.
JW: Moving to a systems-level perspective, what are some innovative workplace policies you've seen that support working parents?
AB: The most effective policies are the ones that really consider the individual and what they're needing in that moment. We hear about flexibility all the time, but that means different things to different people. So true flexibility looks like an organization and a system process that adjusts to the individual need of that person within certain parameters.
One of my favorite things that I'm seeing some very forward-thinking organizations do right now is having people receive their full pay upon their return but work part-time for a certain amount of time as they stagger back in. This allows them to onboard in a way that is human and sustainable as they adjust and modify, because it really is an adjustment for everyone.
Another best practice is having coverage teams that are either part of a local temp agency or are internal to that organization that move around where that work is needed. An example of this is school systems and the “sub” model. This is important because it's not just for parental leave. It can be for other types of leave—when somebody's out for cancer, when somebody has to adjust to their parent with dementia moving in, etc. These types of pools within organizations that can cover work more broadly are going to be part of the future of our work just because of the nature of flexibility and types of leave these days.
Another consideration is looking at commissions, pay structures, and bonuses to make sure that the person going on leave is not penalized in any way for becoming a working parent. That can be as simple as making the new parent’s bonus dependent on the number of months they were in the office, instead of a full 12 months.
Taking us back to where I started… The most important thing is that we start thinking about parental leave as a personal and professional development opportunity instead of a ding. That's really the change that needs to happen. It’s not a crisis, but a normal and predictable part of the career lifecycle, a process that 80% of people go through at some point in their career. And, instead of it being this thing everyone's having to deal with, it becomes this experiential learning opportunity that can really be harnessed by the organization.
Favorite spot to vacation with your family… Ten Sleep, Wyoming, which is a small town my family was part of creating years and years ago. It has about 300 people and we still have an extended family working ranch there, and we try to go back for the 4th of July rodeo and Main St. parade every year. I would encourage everyone in this country to create regular time where they are physically outside their comfort zone. My city kids moan every year, then love it.
What I wish I knew when I took maternity leave... Goodness! Everything I've spent the last 16 years creating at the Center for Parental Leave Leadership!
And also, I wish I'd known to stop and notice how freaking miraculous my kids were. That's the one that brings tears to my eyes because that's my sole regret. I was so overwhelmed and so drowning that I wasn't able to notice and be present in the moment with them. And my entire body of work over the last 16 years has been so that more parents get to be present because all of this stuff is handled better. That's the root of it. I look back at pictures of my kids and I'm just like, "I had no idea. You were so cute." All I saw was the tears, and the things I was doing wrong, and the fresh little screaming faces, and the need. And I didn't get to notice what they brought.
Best advice you've received as a working mom... Time is our most precious commodity—take it and guard it that way. That sounds so cliché, and I hate saying this to anyone who's not a parent. But you can't understand how fleeting a year is, how fleeting three years is, how fleeting five years is until you're 16 years in and you realize your work wasn’t as all-important as you thought. Time with our loved ones—and getting to know ourselves—is the true gold.
I think about it right now with my teenager who is so deeply concerned with his grades and how he's got to get an “A-plus” in every single class. I was the exact same way, but looking back, I don't remember any of those—none of those grades matter anymore. Work is the exact same thing during those first years of your children's lives, I look back and I don't even remember why I stressed or cared so much about work.