Paternity Leave? Paternity Stay! - Lessons From The Trenches
I read Gay Gaddis’ article titled “How this CEO keeps her employees coming back after maternity leave”, a few weeks ago in Fortune and I just had to talk to her.
From how the story read, I knew to expect a strong-willed and intelligent woman and I was sure I could learn a lot from her experience. While companies talk and chew over maternity and paternity policies, she’s running a successful business where parents feel welcome to contribute while also being able to take care of their young children.
We connect over the phone, and though she's a very busy woman, Gay is friendly and warm but also direct and logical, which makes our conversation flow so easily.
Gay’s story starts about 20 years ago when she was running at a speed of 100 miles per hour, growing her advertising agency. She was handling a major contract from Dell and found out that 4 key members of her team were pregnant. Two of them were not going to return to work. Scratching her head for solutions, she decided to let her employees bring their newborns to work with them. Her lawyer of course objected (“but the liabilities!!”) but she took the executive decision because she knew it was the right thing to do.
This decision later evolved into a formal program with strict rules, which let parents remain productive, save some money on daycare and also be able to bond with their babies in the early months of their life. More than 90 babies have gone through it by now. Aside from boosting morale and employee loyalty, she is convinced that the babies benefited too because they got this chance to spend time in a more interactive adult environment. They ultimately ended up doing exceptionally well in school.
Gay notes that fathers also benefited, highlighting a story of a male-employee whose wife was a high-end diesel car mechanic who couldn’t bring the baby to work, so he did so instead!
When I hear Gay’s story, I think to myself – “This is so simple, why can’t other major companies follow suit?” but as she keeps laying out more arguments, I can start hearing the stereotypes of the naysayers inside my head.
“But don’t think we’re some mom-and-pop group of people working from home. I am not weak. I run a serious and professional business, serving Fortune-500 clients. I wouldn’t make these decisions if they didn’t make financial sense.”
“Some people thought that this initiative would reduce productivity but the real experience proved the opposite, because parents who committed to the program knew the expectations from them were to perform and get results. “
“Companies are afraid of taking the chance and then having to deal with the risk of rolling back the policies having to deal with the impact on employee’s morale.”
When I ask her about bringing up these issues with men leaders she signs. “I don’t want to come across as some whining woman. The discussion should be about TALENT. Talent comes at premium and recruiting and retaining these individuals is costly, so why not work with the needs of women at this challenging, yet fairly short bump (pun intended) down the road? When I evaluate a person, I could care less how many babies they have, all I think about is the value they bring to the organization.” I bring up the point that this view is challenging because there are many cases when women don’t get evaluated at par with men or deemed aggressive for acting in the same manner as men. She chuckles in agreement. There are many biases we still have to overcome.
We talk about maternity / paternity leave policies. Gay believes that 6 months is way too much if you’re working in a high paced job, especially in the technology industry. You lose out and come back disadvantaged. This is why she thinks the approach of being able to bring the babies to work is much better. She has been promoting this approach through her writing, TV appearances and even through contributing a chapter for a group of Boston professors’ upcoming book about work and life policies. Some companies followed suit. She notes that oftentimes those are women-owned entrepreneurial firms, who have easier time making these bold decisions.
I can imagine how Gay’s personal story shapes her judgment. When she had her first child, she had the option to stay at home but she cared a lot about her career and didn’t want to give it up. She went through the blood and sweat of convincing her company at the time to let her work part -time for the first 9 months. They didn’t want to but since she was bringing so much revenue, they had no choice!
Talking to Gay reinforces two of my core beliefs:
1) A company’s culture and approach to managing talents are key to retaining and developing successful women leaders. Maternity / paternity should serve as enablers, instead of hinderers, to their contribution.
2) Nothing can stop a motivated and talented woman from achieving her vision. The cost of losing such a woman is much higher than the cost of retaining her in an organization.
Much work ahead.
Gay Gaddis (@GayGaddis) is CEO and Founder of T3, the largest woman-owned independent advertising agency in the country.