10 March 2016


Our Views

Keeping All Doors Open

In December 2009, after a blissful, tumultuous, emotional year’s maternity leave, I was certain I wouldn’t be returning to work. Absolutely not. No way. Never.

With the arrival of our son my life had changed immeasurably and I couldn’t see a way to balance my old working life and my now busy home life. As a Strategy Consultant for KPMG, work meant long, unpredictable hours, frequent travel with little notice, and punishing deadlines. After nearly ten thoroughly rewarding but exhausting years, and now with a little boy to care for, I decided enough was enough.

Thankfully my partner, Lloyd, supported my decision. But he also made one prescient suggestion that had profound consequences for me and my career.

‘Keep all doors open. Go back to KPMG and talk to them. Don’t assume that doors are closing on you.’

Many conversations with friends and family followed. What would I do? What could I ask for? How would this be received? What if, what if, what if?

Shortly after, feeling somewhat nauseous, I found myself meeting one of the partners in the office. I set out what I wanted: three days a week of stimulating, challenging work; travel was okay if planned in advance; and an understanding that my new priorities wouldn’t allow me to work around the clock anymore.

I wasn’t expecting him to be particularly supportive. It’s one of the surprisingly consistent feelings that returning mothers experience: anxiety about asking for necessary flexibility, and doubt that our needs will be accommodated. Imagine my amazement when he immediately suggested I work with him, supporting him in his European leadership role.

When we got into the detail of what that meant, I quickly realised the job description was too broad and unwieldy. I went home and slept on it, but I knew that it wouldn’t work on three days a week. I’d end up doing five days work – but being paid for only three – and completely frazzled as a consequence. I didn’t need a challenge of this magnitude right now, particularly as I didn’t feel particularly capable after all that time off, and I didn’t want to feel any more exposed when I was already feeling vulnerable as a new mum. And so I tried to turn the role down.

However, this partner, a man I’d never worked with before, who I knew of only by reputation, was to become the unlikeliest of my supporters. His response to my decision?

“Don’t turn this down. Come in and try. We will make it work. Trust me”.

Roll forward three years and I was pregnant again and looking back on what had been a brilliant experience – despite all my assumptions and doubts. It wasn’t all plain sailing, but it took just one individual in a firm of 13,000 to listen to me, believe in me, and be creative and flexible enough to make it work for both us. Thank goodness I kept the doors open and someone like him was on the other side to encourage me back.

Returning to work after our second child to a different role, I had the confidence to be clear about what would work for me, and how KPMG would benefit. I was certain, bold even, about what I could do, and knew I was capable even with a busier and more logistically challenging home life. Once again, I found a supporter and together we planned how to make it work.

In my work today as a maternity coach it’s very clear that every woman considering their return to work has a different experience, with different needs and different characters involved in the process. Often there is a common thread; a series of assumptions made both by the returner and her various stakeholders in the process, and a lack of communication from both sides which mean these assumptions quickly become facts. With this in mind I would encourage any new mum who is contemplating her return to work to consider the following.

Keeping all doors open: what to consider:

  • Spend time getting clear in your own mind how you would like to return, why this will work for your employer and where and when you are prepared to compromise
  • Identify a supporter/sponsor in your place of work. This may turn out to be the unlikeliest of individuals. Ask them for help.
  • Ask, and ask again. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  • When back in the workplace, keep the lines of communication open. Be honest with your team/boss about how you’re settling in. Speak up if it isn’t working and be ready to listen to feedback from your employer on what is/isn’t working for them – ask, don’t wait to be told!
  • If you feel you need a little support, request some coaching early on to help you transition back to work. Good coaching will save you and your employer time spent assuming and worrying, mis-communication and, potentially, the financial loss of a non-returning employee.
  • Acknowledge that, whilst your personal life has experienced a seismic shift, the rest of your life and your professional ambitions do not have to be put on hold.

And if, like me, you need a bit of a nudge, if you’re not 100% convinced it will work, I’d say give it a go. With the right support and good dialogue you’ll find your way of making it work for you.

So keep those doors open. You never know who or what is on the other side.

Helen Cowan is a an Executive Coach whose passion and focus is maternity/paternity coaching, and career coaching for senior professionals who are looking for support as they realise their full potential. Helen is a coach both within KPMG and also with other professional service firms and large corporates.