managing working parents

One of the best ways I’ve seen this play out is during a meeting I was having with a global legal firm leader and her boss before going on parental leave.

He said:

“Please take a blank piece of paper. Write on it whatever you want and when you return from your second parental leave, we will make it happen for you. Whatever you want. You can have whatever responsibilities it takes to make you happy and fulfilled in the broadest sense when you return. No time pressure at all to decide.”

Now I suspect this may seem an extreme, even unachievable, approach to many. I was stunned myself. However, it gives you an idea of what’s possible. I also acknowledge that this manager’s take on his direct report’s parental leave took confidence and bravery. In today’s complex and demanding business environment, it’s perhaps more common for managers to be constrained by thoughts of the disruption parenthood might bring to their team. They can make assumptions about their working parents’ needs and aspirations and avoid conversations about parenting pressures and work.

What was the manager in this example doing? He was exercising his emotional intelligence as a leader. He was matching good business skills with the social and emotional skills to lead in an inclusive way and get the best out of his team member.

So, what can you do to keep your working parents’ careers on track?

1. Properly LISTEN to Your New and Prospective Parents

As some of you will know, having a young family is both an exhilarating and exhausting time, and that’s when everything goes broadly “to plan”! I can vouch for this myself being a father to three young daughters. It’s all too easy for people leaders to apply historical generalisations to their team members’ expectations and needs. It’s also easy for managers, to apply their personal world view to their team member, e.g., “we did it this way when this happened to me” or” this is the way I suggest you handle the situation you’re in.”

The most important thing you can do is to listen to your colleagues. Create a climate where your team member can share thoughts, feelings and aspirations openly. Be curious and listen without judgment, playing back to them what you’ve heard to show you are hearing and help them gain clarity in their thoughts.

Things change, so check in regularly and let them know that they’re in charge of what they want and that you’ll flex where you can to help them. In this way, you are more likely to motivate and retain them.

2. Get the Balance of Support and Challenge Right

A manager’s support might also come from providing encouraging feedback, helping their team member play to their strengths, helping them build their career networks, and celebrating with them the small and big wins.

Constructive challenge can make a significant difference too. It is common to hear women (and increasingly men) to choose to pull back from workplace commitments or opportunities, such as high-profile projects or overseas assignments. They often scale back their ambitions in this way as they assume that they cannot balance those new responsibilities in the workplace on top of home life. If you notice this happening, encourage them to talk about it and work out what you can do together to help them keep their ambitions AND make their home life work.

You may challenge them (and others) on what a successful career path looks like in practice. There are many successful career paths, not just the traditional linear one. Less direct options, which may or may not take longer, can provide a diversity of roles and experiences. The best leaders create environments in which employees can work flexibly, for example; part-time, sabbaticals or allowing them to change roles and specialities, and adopt different working models, all while keeping their career plan intact.

3. Proactively Manage Senior Level Stakeholders in Your Department and Wider Organisation

Managers need to have an ongoing dialogue about career motivations with all individuals in their team. Perspectives on life can change when becoming a working parent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that career ambitions wane.

In one of my coaching conversations with a talented young man, he shared how desperately uninspiring it is at his global firm. None of the senior men played an equal or significant part in their children’s lives. There were simply no role models telling stories about how important it is to play a full and active role as a parent. I can say with a bit of sadness that from my experience, I think it’s a more challenging job to be a parent than a leader at an organisation!

If you believe you are doing the right thing by your employee and the organisation, be prepared to say just that with stakeholders. Recognise that it might be unpopular with some stakeholders. If you’re wondering whether senior leaders can change their long-held views on careers and working parents, just remember that before COVID19, many senior leaders didn’t believe that working from home could be productive.

4. Recognise All Working Parents Are Different

Each parent’s decisions and feelings and their ability to lead, contribute, adapt, and focus on their careers and work will be different. Your role is to create the right conditions in your team for everyone to thrive and do fantastic work whilst having the time and energy to support their family. You play a crucial role in influencing this and you might ask yourself:

If you did one big or small thing this year to help keep working parents’ careers on track, what might it be?

If you had a magic wand, what would you do to help keep your working parents’ careers on track?

What would you like to be known for as a developer of talent?

When you’ve thought about what you can do in partnership with your team member, with their permission, tell stories together inside your organisation to shake up people’s beliefs of what’s right and possible. In the 21st century we should only be constrained by the limits of our ambition to create an inclusive, high performance culture that is conducive to sustainable long term careers.

Additional Resources:

Harvard – How your organisation can support working parents

Forbes – Top regrets of mid-career professionals

Fast Company – Tips for supporting working parents in the workplace