Startups, investors and corporates are looking at parental leave all wrong. In an attempt to build more inclusive organisations, leaders have become too obsessed with who is taking parental leave. Instead, leaders should be talking about what parental leave can teach parents.
If they truly want their employees — both men and women — to take leave, they need to sell it as a chance to learn key skills that can turbocharge their abilities as leaders when they return. Framing it as something that can support career growth instead of setting employees back will improve uptake, and in turn, make it easier for employees of all backgrounds to thrive.
The link between parental leave and professional development
The modern workforce — often remote, often working asynchronously — requires what are often referred to as ‘21st Century Skills’. We need to be able to communicate and collaborate well, and have the ability to work autonomously. Crucially, these are skills that we often learn not at school, but from personal experiences like caring for a loved one or parenting.
As startup founder Hélène Guillaume, who made parental leave both equal and compulsory at her company Wild AI says, “Adoption leave, care leave, time off sick, starting your own business that ultimately fails… all those things are learning”.
With 40% of the UK workforce a working parent, businesses are missing a huge opportunity to promote and celebrate these skills. Studies show that senior professional working mothers who identify the skills and alignment between their roles at work and their roles as mothers are also more likely to stay in their jobs. That should be true for men as well, through the experience of parental leave.
The personal stories of business leaders who have taken parental leave read like assignments in leadership training: relentless care work for greater empathy, spousal conflict and toddler tantrums for communication and negotiation skills, constant crisis management for powerful decision-making, having to deal with higher living costs to sharpen focus on commercial targets and taking time off for parental leave to role model humble leadership.
James Reichman, of Investec, one of the UK’s top-rated employers for working fathers, tells me his paternity leave rewarded him with “a different level of empathy and care”, convincing him “that the growth and learning many parents go through can help them develop emotional intelligence and become better people leaders as a result”.
Caroline Vanovermeire, global director of talent at Dentsu International, suggests that parents can “decipher and read people and create the conditions in which people thrive”.
For Simonetta Rigo, chief marketing officer at wealth management group Tilney Smith & Williamson, the biggest insight gained from maternity leave has been how to manage the resentment of her loss of control and develop a trial-and-error, “scientist mindset” instead.
During her second maternity leave, Reshma Sohoni, founding partner of VC fund Seedcamp learned the art of being “hyper-present” and to exercise powerful decision-making during crises.
Charity CEO Helen Undy returned from nine months maternity leave and found the charity was “strengthened in important ways”. Her absence showed the organisation can operate without any one key person.
The future of recruiting is skills
Framing parental leave in the language of learning and skills acquisition will also be key as hiring moves towards a more skills-based approach. LinkedIn is already piloting ‘Skills Path’, a new, skills-based way to recruit on the platform with ten organisations, including Gap, TaskRabbit and BlackRock, says Jon Addison, vice president, EMEA & LATAM at LinkedIn.
But we’re still at the beginning of that journey and some challenges exist. People should be able to take parental leave without having to justify whether it benefits the business. Furthermore, “there is not really a language around the skills that are associated with parenting”, as says charity executive Jack Orlik who took shared parental leave and has been researching skill-based career pathways.
As Orlik suggests, we need a shared, widely-accepted language that translates responsibilities outside of work to work-relevant skills, so that hiring managers are clear about how to recognise and assess them for their specific work. It also makes it easier for job seekers to translate personal experiences into work-relevant skills and not feel that they have to justify ‘CV gaps’ like parental leave. That's not an easy task at all, but an increasingly important one for the future world of work.
Normalising leave will also make it easier for other employees to take different kinds of career breaks, including those who choose not to have children. Studies show that 84% of millennials expect to take a significant break in their careers to care for family, but also to travel and gain new skills.
If parental leave is presented as ‘eating your broccoli’, we’ll never see uptake. Only when leaders reframe parenthood as complementary to a career will we see truly people-first, future-fit workplaces that successfully develop and retain top talent.