Making Maternity Leave Work for You as a Female CEO: A Year of Reflection
9th October 2023
Written by Harriet Smith
Last week it was my son’s birthday. A whole year has now passed since my first-born entered the world. As many parents will know, your child’s first year of life presents many challenges and triumphs. Throw into the mix running a business alongside motherhood, and you have a daunting task ahead. But it needn’t be that way. In this article, I will share my reflections of stepping away from my work baby for a whole year so I could spend precious time with my real baby.
Early preparation is key
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I knew that the clock was ticking before I’d be walking away from HRS for timeout as a new mum. That meant something had to give – I was working all hours of the day, feeling burnout and worried about the effects this could have on my unborn baby. It was around this time that, by coincidence, I was introduced to someone would go onto become the business COO during my maternity leave.
The COO on-boarding process started early on in my pregnancy, with them initially shadowing my duties, meeting the team/clients and familiarising themself with our systems and processes.
Structure the business so it is less reliant upon you
As CEO, a great deal of my time is spent networking and focusing on business development. Therefore, I made the decision to move one of our Senior Account Managers into a Business Development role. Much time was spent on-boarding the Business Development Lead to ensure that existing and prospective client relationships were nurtured. Around this time, we introduced a CRM system (Hubspot), so that all this information was captured in one place.
We also made sure that everyone on the team was clear of their roles and responsibilities, and that our team knew who our trusted third party suppliers were should they need support with other aspects of the business (HR, legal, IT etc.). We created a team Organisations Structural chart, so that everyone was clear on who they should report into. Regular one-to-one meetings (with managers) and a monthly team meeting were setup so that people felt supported.
Build a team of people you trust
It goes without saying that stepping away from your business for a whole year is terrifying. You’ve nurtured this business right from the start, and let’s be honest, no one is going to be able to replicate your hard work! However, the next best solution is to build a team of trusted individuals.
Careful recruitment is key. From obtaining references, to headhunting and going on personal recommendation. These are all important determinants for you building trust with your team. It’s also important to be up-front with colleagues about your preferred ways of working, methods of communication and how much input you’d like to have on business decisions. If people are aligned with your preferences, you’ll build a trusting relationship.
Wind down gradually
A few months before my maternity leave, I started to reduce my working days down to 3 days per week. This helped the team to become less reliant on myself and meant that the COO became the go-to person for day-to-day support. Thank goodness I did it this way, because my baby ended up arriving a month early!
I made it clear to the team that all communications to myself should go via the COO. My PA managed my emails for me, only filtering necessary information through to me. I made sure to always have my phone to hand for any urgent queries, but this was kept to a minimum. I also deleted work emails off my phone, which I would highly recommend to resist that temptation of getting drawn into work.
Regular check-ins are key
I met with our COO on a bi-weekly basis for a telephone call. Initially, this was enough for me to feel in-the-loop and to input on business decisions. Ensuring that the COO was well-prepared for these meetings was key, so we always had a detailed agenda to run through to save time. I would usually schedule these catch-ups during a walk in the park, with the hope that the baby would sleep and give me a few minutes of concentration – not always successful!
Plan your transition back into the business
After 10 months of maternity leave, my presence was required in the business a little earlier than anticipated. With a nursery start date a couple of months away, I setup childcare for one day a week with grandparents to allow me to transition back into the business.
Upon my return, I asked all members of the core and leadership teams to prepare short CEO presentations on my return. These 30-minute catch-ups allowed them to fill me in on their work whilst I was away, celebrate successes and for us to share and reflect on lessons learnt. From this feedback, I was able to make strategic business decisions (e.g., recruitment, team restructuring etc.) and decide where to focus my efforts when I came back to the business.
Now that my son has started nursery, I have decided to initially return to work part time (2.5 days per week). This means I can still have precious time with my baby whilst also giving my business the attention it deserves.
Go easy on yourself
A couple of months after having my baby, I was back to recording client podcast episodes twice a month. It soon became apparent that this arrangement was not feasible with a newborn. I therefore made the difficult decision to hand the baton over to another trusted colleague. However, it was the right decision and served as a useful reminder that you must go easy on yourself as a new mother and CEO.
It’s early days for me, but I hope that these reflections have inspired any other female business owners that it is possible to keep a business running (and even growing) whilst taking precious timeout with your newborn.
Harriet Smith, Founder & CEO