How CEOs Can Actually Take Maternity Leave

Soon to be mothers who manage a company may worry that maternity leave will expose the business to risks. Here's how one CEO took the time she needed and made her company even stronger in the long run.

If you are looking to put a bee in the "women in tech" discussion bonnet, just mention pregnancy and high-growth startup in the same sentence.

With the number of female founders on the rise, it is no longer uncommon to publicly discuss the challenges of raising capital while visibly pregnant, how long one can put off starting a family, or what constitutes an appropriate maternity leave plan for businesses that are not large enough to require adherence to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The underlying assumption, of course, is that the arrival of a baby directly translates into increased risk to your company. Risk can come in a variety of forms, including diverted attention away from the business, reduced speed to market, and the potential for health complications or even death. This perceived risk, let alone the demands of running a business, often lead the female founder to avoid the subject until a later date and trust that modern medicine will allow her to "have it all" a little later on.

And yet, as a founding CEO, I discovered an untold benefit of pregnancy: It made my company stronger. My pregnancy acted as a natural forcing function to mature our staff, develop deeper ties with our clients, and ultimately reduce traces of "founderitis," which can be the downfall of even the most promising startup.

There is never an optimal time to have a baby. If you are working on a startup, raising capital, growing revenue from $5 to $10 million, looking to sell, this cycle will continue until you retire or die. So, while there may never be an ideal time, I discovered that there are ways to minimize risk presented by pregnancy for your company, your clients, and your investors.

1. Encourage agility.

Pregnancy and babies are incredibly unpredictable, so throw out the requirements document and become more agile. At the close of my first trimester, I informed my team and largest clients that we had a "new project," of which I would be the scrum master. I outlined the anticipated hurdles we would face and included a pilot exercise to allow for adjustments.

2. Hire people smarter than you.

My pregnancy happened to coincide with a major growth spurt for our organization. The imminent arrival of a baby meant that I needed to hire fast, but smart. In addition to identifying a second-in-command to take the reins while I was out, I accelerated the hires of people who could hit the ground running.

3. Invest in knowledge transfer.

From client history to passwords, my staff immediately recognized the first hurdle—the company was too reliant upon my brain to answer daily questions. By creating formal structures for delegation and knowledge sharing, we reduced the risk for our clients and increased the staff’s ability to deliver.

4. Pilot your leave.

Three months before I was to take maternity leave, I went on a two-week vacation and dropped out of sight. While senior management knew how to reach me in an emergency, everyone else, including our clients, was to operate as if I were on maternity leave and completely unreachable. This pilot exercise surfaced gaps in the initial knowledge transfer plan, which we addressed later.

5. Embrace the boundaries.

During early pregnancy, the hard and fast boundaries around eating and sleeping taught me to set expectations with others and work smart. My leave also had boundaries; I wanted to be fully apprised of all activities, but my formal work would be limited to only the most critical decisions only to be made by the CEO. In addition to my regular email checks, I read a weekly "maternity journal" provided by management to keep me apprised of key accounts and internal operations. Closer to my return, I met with team members over coffee, which helped with the transition back into a full workday.

There is nothing easy about simultaneously building a business and physically bringing a new life into this world. And while I was fortunate—my baby was not colicky, my complication had a relatively easy recovery—my organization’s approach was to prepare for any outcome. In this sense, de-risking pregnancy not only protected the company; it yielded positive externalities in the form of longer-term agility, leadership, and maturity required of every scalable business.

Sara Holoubek is the CEO of Luminary Labs, a strategy and innovation consultancy. Find her on Twitter.

[Image: Flickr user Phalinn Ooi]

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