Women have long struggled with how to simultaneously start a family and move ahead in their careers. The two often feel at odds with one another, but for Ann Cairns, president of international markets at MasterCard, the two have gone hand-in-hand. Not only was Cairns promoted while on maternity leave, she’s taken an active role in sponsoring and supporting other women who find themselves in the same work-life balance conundrum.
For starters, Cairns’s career trajectory hasn’t followed the typical finance executive’s path. She’s now second-in-command at MasterCard, managing the company’s international growth and overseeing revenue across more than 200 countries, but she started her career as a research scientist for British Gas. Her job involved blowing up pipes and setting liquid natural gas plants on fire at far-off rigs in the North Sea. Finance was the last thing on her radar until she noticed that the people at her company getting promoted to senior executive roles tended to have one thing in common: finance experience.
Cairns, who studied math and science and didn’t have any banking experience, considered getting an MBA. Then she spotted a Citibank advertisement in the New York Times: The bank was looking to hire people from outside the industry. Cairns was one of 25 people recruited from across Europe to join the investment bank in London.
By the time she was 37, Cairns was head of sales and pregnant with her daughter. She knew she needed a job change, because she couldn’t be on the road five days a week with a newborn at home. What she hadn’t expected was that 12 weeks into her maternity leave, her boss would offer her a promotion, moving her from running sales to overseeing the company’s payment business in Europe–a considerable leap in seniority.
Cairns spoke with Fast Company about what helped her get ahead in her career at a time when most women worry they might fall behind.
It’s easy to view having a baby and stepping away for maternity leave as a major hurdle in moving ahead in your career. But when you look at the big picture, it shouldn’t be, she says. Of course, having a child changed Cairns’s life fundamentally, just as it does for anyone starting a family. But she stresses that reframing your perspective is key. Taking a few months off after having a baby is just a small footnote in the course of a long career, and no cause for a major derailment.
“I really think we’ve got to put things into perspective,” she says. After having her daughter in 1987, Cairns took 14 weeks off for maternity leave. In the context of what will amount to a 40-year career, those three and a half months are close to nothing. “In the scheme of things, it’s not that much time,” she says.
Cairns says that some of the best career advice she’s received was: “You’re only as good as your boss thinks you are.” When she went on maternity leave after having her daughter, Cairns was confident her boss was supportive of her career. Having that kind of encouragement and sponsorship from your boss or someone in your company or industry is critical. If you don’t have it? “Either change your mind or find another boss,” says Cairns.
At the end of the day, if you work hard, have a supportive boss and are excellent at what you do, your time away on maternity leave will only underscore how sorely missed and badly needed you are at the company. But having that support is key. Today at MasterCard, Cairns tries to do the same for other women in the company who worry that taking time off after having a baby might hurt their careers. “Somebody has to talk to these women and tell them to take risks and have confidence,” she says. “I do not just mentor people, I sponsor them.”
Working in a supportive environment with a boss who helps you move your career forward isn’t always easy to come by. But if you’re constantly picking up new skills and deepening your experience, you’ll be demonstrating that you’re not just a valuable employee, but one who gets stronger and more adept with time.
Cairns has treated her entire career as an opportunity to continuously expand and build on the skills she has–taking risks in the process to get to new milestones in her responsibilities. When she made the leap from engineering to banking, she knew it was a risky move, but the transition, which included a 10-week training program akin to a mini-MBA, helped give her the skills she’d need to work in banking.
In 2008, Cairns switched from banking to restructuring, taking a job managing the European team that oversaw the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy during the financial crisis–a role that eventually led her to MasterCard in 2011. “It can be a successful strategy to change your career a lot of the time,” says Cairns. Even after her daughter was no longer a baby, moving to restructuring gave her new skills that enabled her to step into a more executive role down the line.
Cairns has often heard women express the fear that having a baby will change them in some fundamental way that will make them less suited for their careers. “They have this question in their brains of, ‘Am I going to become stupid?'” says Cairns. “You will become a different person. But you probably will become broader, more mature, and more experienced than before.”
The way Cairns sees it, having a baby gave her a career boost. “I wasn’t going to all of a sudden change overnight because I had a child,” she says. “My capabilities seemed to expand. My career really accelerated after I had my daughter.”
And she isn’t just talking about the promotion she got while on maternity leave. “I was much better at time management, and I was much more empathetic with people,” she says. “Becoming a parent can really improve you in the business world.”