Talent Retention: Investors in Parents

My guest for this conversation is Lizzie Martin. Lizzie’s business, Work Life Mother, offers return to work coaching. Lizzie will be talking to me about how supporting parents getting back into work helps both the company and the overall culture for the employees.

We got started with me asking Lizzie to tell me a bit more about what she does as a parental return to work coach and how she actually arrived at doing this role?

‘I’m currently the director at Work Life Mother and I’m also a parental return to work coach. We help companies attract and keep hold of talent by strengthening parental transitions. This is the chapter in an employee’s career life cycle where they are becoming a working parent, whether that is for the first or the subsequent time, and they’re navigating all of the change that comes with taking an extended period of leave from work and then reintegrating back into the team with the added responsibilities of small children. We do this by coaching the employees in their organisation through their parental transition. We do it through training leadership teams and consultancy where we have a look at the end-to-end process of what the experience is like for an employee in that organisation to shift from worker to parent and then come back to work as a working parent.’

What Lizzie has said in her introduction there reminds me that when I worked at Deloitte, they provided a similar service to our working parents. So, coaching for people as they were approaching parental leave as well as supporting line managers preparing for a member of their team to go on parental leave. There was also coaching for new parents as they were returning to work after parental leave and supporting them in their first few months of returning back to work. I know it was impactful for both parents and their line managers.

Lizzie added, ‘There’s a school of thought that it’s a lovely benefit to have in an organisation, but it’s quickly becoming a hygiene factor where employees are looking at the value proposition that companies have. So they’ll looking at what the employer has got for them and how easy it is going to be to be able to integrate responsibilities as a working parent. Employees are starting to look beyond just a robust policy and looking at that cultural piece and how they’re going to be supported through these particular transitions. It is always fantastic to hear about more and more organisations that are implementing these sorts of mechanisms to keep hold of their people.’

I asked Lizzie how do parents feel as they become parents and starting to raise families whilst having to navigate work and family life for the first time?

‘There isn’t a simple answer or a one size fits all response to that question. It’s important to loop back to the common characteristics that new parents have in common. They are all leaving their role, going on a period of leave and then coming back and taking back over the reins having had an identity shift of becoming a working parent and having the additional responsibilities.

The common thread that connects a lot of these individuals is that there is so much change, there’s so much newness and uncertainty. For most people, we don’t like uncertainty. We are not that comfortable with ambiguity. That can lead to a loss of confidence. It can make it very challenging to make decisions about what to prioritise. There’s often a tension between questions like, “What am I choosing here? Am I choosing to be a present parent? Am I choosing to invest in my career? Am I doing the right thing?”

This can lead to a lot of overwhelming feelings that parents have because suddenly they’re faced with what can feel like unfair choices that they have to make between being a present parent and having a rewarding, fulfilling progression-based career. Managing the change and uncertainty is a common thread, and feeling overwhelmed. A lot of people will talk about the correlation between confidence and going on parental leave. When you are spending a lot of time away from your team, you are with a small child or a baby and you are sitting with your own thoughts day in, day out, it’s a bit of a breeding ground for the low esteem and the inner critic to run havoc and to impact how you feel about your competence and your value that you bring to the organisation.’

I asked Lizzie what she thought the impact might be if more employers or organisations were doing a better job at supporting parents back to work?

‘My focus is how we can make it easier to come back to work. There are so many organisations that are already doing a good job. It is about how we can make it easier for new parents to come back and pick up where they left off whilst not having to downshift their careers. What we’re currently seeing are lots of returners coming back and either settling for a role which isn’t perhaps meeting their performance level because they want to be able to successfully manage the work-life balance. Or we’re seeing them reduce their hours when they don’t necessarily want to be shifting into part-time work. If we have flexible workplaces, supportive employers and confident returners, then we are going to see that those new parents are able to fully unlock their potential and they’re not going to have to downshift any aspect of how they are approaching their career.’

When I was working at Deloitte, I definitely saw some real benefits. There was the huge confidence of parents preparing for their parental leave. Then when employees returned after parental leave, they were confident about being able to get back into their role balancing their work and family responsibilities. The work that we were doing supporting managers was also important because we had to dispel a lot of myths with managers, for example, around whether people could work flexibly or not. It was as key to support line managers as it was for parents returning to work.

Lizzie said that she has learned that managers want to do the right thing. ‘This isn’t an opportunity for us to create an us and them narrative. I spent ten years being a mid-level manager when I worked for John Lewis at Waitrose. They have got their employee’s best interests at the centre of the decisions that they’re making.

If employers don’t know what good looks like or don’t feel confident in their decisions because they’re worried that they might get something wrong or they’re nervous that they could end up in unemployment tribunal, then sometimes they will take no action. They might feel as though the best thing to do is nothing.

For example, if you’ve got somebody on your team who’s on maternity leave and you are their manager and you are not sure about whether they want you to contact them or not, you’re probably not going to contact them because that feels like the safest option. We need to be making sure that managers feel supported, that managers have got a safe place where they can go and ask questions without there being a negative repercussion for them. So if they do make a decision and perhaps it’s not the right decision, or maybe they are finding it difficult when saying yes to flexible working, it’s important that the wider organisation supports them.’

My next question to Lizzie was, ‘Could you give us some examples of progress that’s been made by clients or organisations you’ve supported?’

Lizzie replied, ‘The foundational progress that a lot of organisations are making is getting under the skin of what it is like to be a new or expectant parent in their workplace. They are starting to gather quantitative and qualitative data. For example, they’re measuring figures like the retention of their working parents and listening to the stories and real-life experiences that their employees are having. This is something that we help them do. We enable focus groups, listening circles and feedback mechanisms so that they can get a handle on what is it currently like. That informs the strategies and the next steps that they can then take to improve from their starting points.

Smaller organisations don’t necessarily have loads of people taking parental leave, so it’s quite difficult to say that you’re going to take an approach that looks at statistics if you haven’t got a lot of that data. Owning that curiosity and vulnerability to be able to say, “We know we’re not doing the best we can. If we start to understand where the gaps are, we can have a clear picture of what needs to change.” That means supporting the organisation in talking to the returners and the new parents as well as talking to the managers to understand what they need so that they can strengthen the transition point. Then they can start thinking about, “Where do we need to be focusing our attention? Do we want to be doing something at a policy level?”

More and more organisations are now equalising their parental leave. They are giving mothers, fathers, people coming to parenthood through adoption or through surrogacy, the same amount of paid parental leave, allowing them to be present and involved in the upbringing of their child.

Whilst this is all part of how they keep hold of their people and attract people into their organisations, is it also something more at a human level and not so much about policy. Putting mechanisms in place such as coaching for the returners; creating a working family’s employee resource group and setting up a mentor matching or buddy scheme internally into the organisation so that there is that place of belonging. Then there’s a place employees know where they can go if they’ve got any questions or need to feel seen and valued. It’s important for employees to know that, “It is going to be possible for me to work in this organisation as a working parent,” and that their organisation sees the longer-term benefits of making the workplace a more inclusive space.’

I asked what advice Lizzie has for line managers when supporting returning parents to work?

‘As managers, we’re used to finding solutions and fixing problems, so I think the first thing is to not put pressure on yourself to have all the answers to all the questions. If you are working with somebody who is navigating something like parental leave and whether you have or haven’t experienced it yourself, you don’t need to have all of the answers. What that person wants from you is compassion and understanding that you are going to stand alongside them and support them with the challenges that they’re facing. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself to be a leader that takes a compassionate approach.

Your role is to listen and to assure them that you are there to support them. So focus on building trust with them. Don’t put pressure on yourself by thinking that you need to have all the answers to all the questions.

The second thing is to not make any assumptions if you do think you have the answers. I think often people will say, “I really want to have a manager who’s also a working parent because they’ll get it.” Or, “My manager’s a working mum, so she’ll understand.”

That’s a very dangerous misconception. Just because somebody else has entered into parenthood, it doesn’t mean that they know what it’s like to stand in your shoes. Challenge the assumptions and biases that you might be bringing into those interactions when you are working with somebody who’s expecting or who has had a baby.’

I really like the point Lizzie has made. When we talk about inclusive leadership with our clients, the number one behavior that keeps coming up is empathy and taking the time to understand where somebody else is coming from. Taking the time to understand what their current situation is and what they’re currently feeling rather than assuming how they might be feeling or even trying to become the rescuer.

As a manager, particularly when we’re under a lot of stress and pressure, we might go into rescue mode. This is where we feel like we have to salvage a situation or go to somebody’s aid.  If anyone reading is interested into looking into this rescuer behaviour further, do look up the Drama Triangle. Then explore the Empowerment Triangle which is the flipside of the Drama Triangle. There are some really interesting articles and illustrations online. In these situations, the best thing you can do is create a safe space for people to breathe and do that exploration with them.

Lizzie endorsed this perspective. ‘When you look at those dynamics of the drama triangle and find yourself slipping into rescue tendencies, the advice is to step into coach mode. This isn’t about trying to fix, rescue or save them. Instead, think about how you can show them that you are going to collaborate with them to navigate whatever the gnarly, tricky situation is.

We talk about being empathetic and taking a coaching approach, but that can feel really ambiguous for lots of people. “How do I go to work tomorrow and be more empathetic?” It’s quite intangible. If I was going to break it down into a couple of pieces of advice, the one thing that has been coming up for me recently is challenging yourself not to ask “Why?” questions.

We’re taught that asking a question that starts with why makes us sound curious as an individual. However, if you ask somebody a question that starts with why, it can actually put them into a threat mode, and they may become very defensive and might feel like they have to justify their decision making.

For example, “Why do you want to come back earlier than you planned at the end of your maternity leave?” can sound judgmental. Whereas if you say something like, “What has led you to make that decision?” is much more collaborative. So, do reflect on how much silence, space and listening you are doing as a compassionate, empathetic leader, but also what language you use to frame questions. Think about if that is enabling the person to open up when they’re with you or is it actually closing them down?’

I’m really glad Lizzie mentioned the “Why?” question because when I was doing my executive coach training, I learned that it could come across as quite judgmental. Even how we couple the question with the tonality of voice, means we can get very different meanings from the same question.

The vast majority of how we communicate is through our non-verbal cues. That can be hard to do, particularly as we’re in a more digital world, with people working online and remotely. We often can’t benefit from seeing those visual cues if the camera is turned off or out of focus or not in the frame of the camera. It’s tricky.

For my final question, I asked Lizzie, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘I thought it was going to be quite straightforward to answer, but it’s not. The first thing that came to mind for me was how inclusive growth for lots of people is probably quite an uncomfortable thing to embrace. For me, it’s about doing things differently. If we are going to achieve inclusive growth, then we need to do things differently. We need to be taking a long-term approach to how we choose to operate as individuals and workplaces. In my world, inclusive growth is about every individual having the opportunity to progress and be a present parent. This is a big shift away from the existing battle that many are faced with, which is either progressing or being a present parent. It’s about putting “and” in the middle of those sentences rather than having an “or”.

I believe that when organisations grow more sustainably, they will open their minds and eyes to a broader range of innovation and diverse thinking that will in turn improve lots of those bottom-line targets that we’re aiming for. It’s going to be a more sustainable route to navigating the responsibilities of business growth with the human experience that is so integral to that.’

To get in touch with Lizzie Martin she recommends reaching out on her LinkedIn page where she’s very active. Alternatively, visit her website at worklifemother.com.

If you need any support to develop your organisation’s inclusive culture, then feel free to reach out to Toby and his team. The best place to start is either through their website at mildon.co.uk or just drop the team a line on LinkedIn.


Talent Retention: Investors in Parents - Mildon