I’ve taken parental leave twice in my career as a company leader. Both times, I constructed a leave plan that allowed me to take 12 weeks of paid leave, just like we offer our employees. But I found that saying you’ll take 12 weeks off work is different when you’re a business owner.
There’s no perfect “how to take leave from work” manual. However, the lead-up to your parental leave can help you navigate the inevitable snags that will occur along the way. It can also allow you to become a role model for all the other new parents and parents-to-be in your organization.
So, what are my top parental leave lessons learned through my experience of bringing two wonderful kiddos into the world?
1. Review your organizational structure.
Before I had my first child, about 10 people reported to me. That wasn’t feasible for the three months I’d be gone (and, to be honest, it wasn’t feasible even when I wasn’t on leave). Fortunately, we promoted an employee to COO before I left. She took over management during and after my leave, meaning only four people reported to me when I returned – a much more manageable number.
Before you get too deep into planning for your own parental leave, look at your organizational structure. Are too many people reporting to you? Are you planning to give away responsibilities to someone with too much on their plate already? The last thing you want is to overburden team members. I met with our COO and director of HR multiple times before giving birth, so we were prepared for most contingencies, and I had full confidence that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed with the responsibilities I passed to them.
2. Give your employees autonomy.
Micromanaging is antithetical to a rewarding parental leave. You have to empower your co-workers to make decisions without you. I was lucky because I had a strong, seasoned leadership team. Even so, I documented what they were permitted to do while I was gone without consulting me, including making any necessary hiring and firing decisions.
This worked so well that when I returned, I realized that I didn’t want to take certain tasks back. They had been thoughtfully delegated and aligned well with the team’s existing strengths and responsibilities. I trusted the new system, so it wasn’t necessary to revert to the way things had been.
3. Know that things will happen that you can't foresee.
I swear I planned for everything in my first parental leave plan. But because the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with my first parental leave, I felt compelled to return part time to focus some time and energy on all the tough decisions and conversations that only a business owner could tackle.
Micromanaging is antithetical to a rewarding parental leave. You have to empower your co-workers to make decisions without you.
I was still glad I had my original leave plan, though. Despite having to come back to work after the first two weeks of my first parental leave, I only had to work about 20 hours per week – even with all the unpredictability that comes with a pandemic. All in all, my first parental leave wasn’t the one I planned for, but the leave plan still provided a supportive foundation that made it easier to deal with the pandemic and its related upheaval (and made it easier to plan for my second leave).
4. Allow yourself to have low-touch touchpoints.
Are you someone who would stress if you weren’t somewhat tethered to your office during parental leave? I felt the same way, which is why I set up low-touch touchpoints with my team. For instance, I read our weekly companywide email and had one standing meeting with our COO every week.
Being informed shouldn’t be the same as working, though. You can’t let yourself get too roped into anything, or it will be impossible for you to adequately unplug and take full advantage of your leave. Harness the power of saying “no.”
If you absolutely don’t think you can live without being available to your team, include a very short “call me for” list in your leave plan. You gave your team members the authority to make decisions and the autonomy to do the right work in the way that works best for them. Don’t be the kind of leader who says one thing and does another.
I want to be fully transparent: The only reason I was able to make my parental leave work for me in the midst of the stress of the pandemic is that my husband also received ample paid time off for parental leave. Had he not been given that time off, our situation would have been much more difficult to manage.
I enjoyed the privilege of having a partner who could take time away from work, but I recognize that not all leaders have that option. Or even if they do, non-birthing parents may feel less supported to take parental leave. If your partner has parental leave benefits available, I would recommend taking full advantage of them to bond as a family and have more capacity to support each other throughout this big life transition.
Parental leave isn’t something you should eschew just because you’re the boss. Give your leave plan plenty of attention to get you and your team through to the other side.