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Parental leave: it's the most intensive development programme organisations have never invested in.


The world has, thankfully, moved on for the better when it comes to parental leave. In particular, the opportunity for shared parental leave has helped in rebalancing the role, contribution and career pathing of both Mums and Dads who want to spend vital time with their babies and progress their careers. Let's acknowledge that organisations need to be encouraging more fathers to take parental leave and proactively asking if fathers need to alter their working pattern as well as mothers. That's a whole different article. I want to talk here about the perception and language in organisations of deficit versus gain.


Whether your organisation is leading the way or still at the starting blocks when it comes to parental leave/return support, there is an important shift to be made in how we talk about it. And for those of us making the return, there's an equally important shift we can make in our thinking.


Parents are not returning to work with a deficit. Working parents are so much more than they were before.

 

Here are 3 simple but vital changes in how we think and talk about the return, both for organisations and parents.

 

1. Talent doesn't decrease


Organisations:

Your returning parents have no less talent and you're not accommodating some kind of loss that's developed while they've been away. They are naturally going to need a bit of time to acclimatise at work and learn the best ways for them to factor in their new responsibilities. Who wouldn't? Transition time is not the same as being less good. In fact, they return with more to offer (more on that below). At both ends of the spectrum, if we pretend returning to work isn't a huge change for individuals or we labour the difficulty so much that they wrongly hear "we know you can't do what you used to" we miss the opportunity to support and possibly cut them off at the knees.


The fact is any human being navigating this change is going to find elements testing. New working parents are digesting all that's changed at work while they were away performing a different, difficult job (keeping small humans alive). For example: new technology, new clients, changes to the team, different strategic direction, new acronyms, new ways of working, different priorities.


Organisations can pay lip service to the above, watch from afar murmuring "that looks difficult" and count down the weeks until it seems acceptable to crank up the pressure....or lean in both before and when parents return by asking what would be most helpful. And by asking we also avoid the well-intentioned but frustrating event that opportunities are taken away from returning parents. Not everyone is the same or feels the same about the return to work.


Parents:

Cut yourself some slack. If you catch a sense of rising panic that you don't feel in the swing of things yet, ask yourself how realistic it is to be expecting to feel 100% at one with work when it's only working-day 14 since you got back. No-one feels like a rockstar at work from the get-go. You need some time to assimilate, to listen, observe and learn (much like you would when you start a new job) and work out how things will run best at home.


See above re: talking to your manager about what you need.

 

2. More than they were before


Organisations:

Imagine the most testing secondment or assignment you've ever worked on. It's not disimilar to parenting a small child. The secondment involves an unpredictable stakeholder, a steep learning curve in both knowledge and experience, last minute urgent u-turns, complex logistics, demanding behaviour, high pressure and relentless project management. Add some sleep deprivation, emotional stretch, life and death situations (real or perceived) and little or no recovery time. You grow an incredible amount through this experience.


Your talented people (now parents) have been learning new skills and discovering strengths at an express rate while they've been away from the workplace. As a small sample: prioritisation, learning how to manage themselves and others more effectively, communication under pressure, building resilience, maintaining relationships, learning not to sweat the small stuff, delegating, forward planning, emotional intelligence, leading alone and in teams.


You're going to see these newly developed strengths come to the fore at work numerous times as your returners navigate and perform in their roles. It's the most intensive development programme you've never invested in.


Parents:

Ideally before, or just after you return to work, spend the time listing what you've learnt while you were on parental leave. What are the strengths you are bringing back to the workplace that mean you are even more than you were when you left? Reflect on how you've dealt with all the challenges, what you've gained in experience, ability and mindset that will be relevant to work. Factor in the joy you've experienced, the clarity you've found on what's important and how this will serve you well as you return to work.

 

3. Confidence dips are not terminal


Organisations:

It's true that confidence can take a huge hit when people return from parental leave; the practical and emotional challenges can mean the inner critic is on over-drive. Thoughts such as, "I'm not good enough at home or at work", "I am so out of the loop and others are further forward" or "how on earth am I going to do all of this?"


In my experience coaching countless working parents, it's to be expected. Comparison may be the thief of joy but we all fall into that trap. With the right support, that inner critic can return to its box and confidence will build back. Don't panic if your star performer seems to be doubting themselves or they voice uncertainty about their readiness for a project. Help them focus on their track record, their kudos in the firm, the strengths you and others see in them. If you can, give them a neutral, independent place to take the most vulnerable thoughts to such as giving them access to a coach for parental returners. It's not a remedial activity; it's the fastest way to help someone reframe their perspective and get to their most effective thinking.


Parents:

This is not you forever. Reflect on how you are more than before and acknowledge what you're doing is a big deal. It's a transition period, it's also a learning period and you don't have to be on top of everything from week 2.


Find someone safe you can share your doubts and feelings with because:


1) it's going to make you feel much better and help you process things more quickly

2) the echo chamber of your own mind will reinforce the negative voice in your head. You need compassionate disruption to hear different voices and see the thinking traps at play if you are going to move forward effectively and with pace.

3) why not ask if your organisation will fund a coach who specialises in parental return coaching or even part-fund it? You'll reap the benefits of a safe, independent space to think with a skilled professional who knows how to help you with this. Your firm will see higher retention, more positive engagement and a robust and diverse succession pipeline.

 

We need to talk more about the benefits of having working parents back in the workforce rather than making it sound like we're patronisingly helping the poor working parent limp back to work and achieve a fraction of their previous capacity.


We need to get real that 75% mothers are at work and 90% of fathers are at work*. This isn't a side issue or a line in the EDI action plan. It's about mobilising a huge percentage of the workforce to be as effective as possible.


Pretending nothing has happened or, worse, assuming that parents have been off on a long holiday means organisations are missing the potential to be inclusive and smart about how they reach their strategic goals. People have babies, people have jobs. Let's take our heads out of the sand and start recognising what a huge benefit that is for us all.



 

Georgie Rudd is an ICF accredited Executive & Leadership Coach. She runs Rudd Coaching Ltd, splitting her time between 1:1 coaching, group coaching and facilitation of leadership development programmes. Georgie specialises in coaching for professional services. She works with clients at key career moments of truth to help clients enjoy long term sustainable success. These big moments include promotion, how to succeed once you get promoted, return from parental leave, playing to your strengths and stepping back from the brink of burn-out. She is also co-founder of Think Perspective (www.thinkperspective.com), running the Listening Lab to help people and teams to unlock innovation, build trust and generate greater autonomy.


Contact georgie@ruddcoaching.co.uk for more information.

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