Broad Experience Shorts: Going on Leave

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

In this mini show we’re talking about parental leave – or really navigating any extended leave.

“…a really big challenge around leave and flexibility, is that people who aren’t going out on leave feel very overburdened when work is just dumped on their plate. And that’s another place where resentment can build up.”

That’s Rachael Ellison. She was one of the guests on my last show about delegation. When I interviewed her, she told me delegation is key to a successful leave – but more than that, a successful re-entry.

We got onto this topic while we were still mulling over delegation. She told me her female clients have a hard time handing off work.

“It’s so much easier for them to take on more work time, than thinking about how could I structure this differently. When we think about why flexibility is hard for companies to implement and when we think about the challenges around leave, parental leave or any kind of family leave and what’s challenging about that, a lot of it is about how you change the workflow and delegate, and we’re not set up to do that. We don’t know those skills.”

That is so true. After last week’s show I heard from a friend of mine – and she really crystalized something for me about this whole delegation thing. She said look, I am terrible at delegating. I admit it. I would love to be better. But she said delegating requires being organized in the first place. You have to strategize and think things through.

Rachael says for companies who’ve never even thought about leave before, ramping up means putting in some time. She tells the story of a tech startup in Pennsylvania – the CEO had never had a pregnant employee before, or the spouse of a pregnant employee who wanted to go on leave…

“He had a young workforce, when his first employee got ready to go out on leave they spent 50 hours with her breaking down the different tasks she had and thinking about how could we hand things off, and what’s the process we’re gonna use, when not just you but anybody has to leave the office for any period of time for whatever reason. I spoke to a dad at that company who when he had to go on leave and needed flexibility, there was a very clear process for, “this is how you hand your work off.”  And often that’s just not explained, it’s not detailed, no one knows what to do. And if you’re not explicit about it, the delegation is not gonna work.”

AM-T: “Well yeah, talk about this work you’re doing around parental leave and how delegation or lack thereof plays into a difficult transition.”

“Yeah, so you know, I’ve been coaching and consulting around parental leave for quite some time and I’m working with the Center for Parental Leave Leadership. And one of the things I’ve noticed when working with folksis the enemy of success in the process of leave, in the transition to ‘out for leave’ – we think about the three phases of leave, preparing to go, being out on leave, returning from leave…is the ambiguity – without outlining what the expectations are explicitly for how work is going to be handed off, and how it’s going to be picked up…what the communication timeline should be, how and when should people be expected to respond to communication from the office? There will be automatic resentment and confusion and conflict between managers and employees, between team members. It happens every time, particularly on the return.”

She says women often come back from leave to find some nasty surprises…

“So I’ve had people who are partners in professional services firms who have lost clients, the clients – no one ever planned for it to come back to her, so she didn’t have that client any more. There are just so many ways in which things are not spelled out. And it’s not spelled out according to the employee’s wishes, it’s not spelled out according to the manger’s wishes, so it falls apart and there’s resentment.

So one of the things I’ll say before I talk about the tools that we use is that one of the reasons parental leave is an important transitional moment, it’s one that comes up a lot in workplaces, it’s an opportunity for managers to learn skills about how to support someone personally and professionally in the workplace, it’s an opportunity for employees and managers to learn about how to create more clear communication aroundwork re-organization and delegation and it can transform the way people work going forward.”

Maybe you’re listening to this in the UK or Canada or Sweden – or somewhere else where women get a year’s worth of leave, or more. I’d be so curious to know if this stuff resonates with you or not. Because in the workaholic US you’re lucky if you get 4 months off after you have a baby. So maybe in other countries they just do leave better? Maybe none of these problems exist in countries where leave is a bigger part of the culture.

Rachael says she and her colleagues at the Center for Parental Leave Leadership use this tool called the next step action plan: she says it lets people think clearly and specifically about what projects they have on their plate, what tasks are involved, who’s gonna be affected by the handoff, who is gonna take on responsibility when that person is gone. She says there’s also a communication plan, you know, will you be in contact while you’re away? If so, how often?

“There are contingency plans, right, what if you have to go out on leave earlier? What if there are unexpected changes that are required? How can you plan for those? And when you come back, how exactly are each of those projects you outlined before going on leave going to be transitioned back to you in a specific way? How do you make sure not only are you clear on what you want, your manager is clear, your team members are clear. It also gives the employee who is delegating the work an opportunity to be aware and conscious of who is taking that work over and how to reward them and thank them for stepping in when they needed them to – which is a really big challenge around leave and flexibility, is that people who aren’t going out on leave feel very overburdened when work is just dumped on their plate. And that’s another place where resentment can build up. So this is about intentionality, this is about thinking through delegation in a way that’s proactive and productive as opposed to an afterthought.”

She says the best way for people to plan their leave is to plan their return.

“They feel prepared. I think the overwhelm of thinking about how to suddenly combine work and life in a different way can cloud their thinking on some of these practical pieces that they need to be considering.”

And of course it helps a lot when you and your company are working in tandem to plan this leave, so everyone knows what to expect…

“Too often I’ve heard from clients before planning in this way, I’m not sure what’s gonna happen when I come back, what are they gonna expect from me? What are they gonna say about me? So many questions that are not just about the work itself but the expectations of their performance and the judgments they’re assuming are gonna come. This process of planning seems to wipe all that out.”

You can find out more at I’ll also put a link on the website. And if you have had an experience around leave you’d like to share, go ahead and post a comment under this episode at The Broad or on the show’s Facebook page.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.