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6 policies that make it easier for CEOs like Marissa Mayer to take parental leave

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced her intention to take just a few weeks leave after the birth of her twins, many observers worried that she’d be setting a bad precedent for women—and men—in high-level positions. If the boss is too important to be away more than a short time, what message does that send to employees who intend to take most or all of the 16 weeks Yahoo provides for biological mothers, or the 8 weeks for non-birth parents?

Others thought Mayer had no choice. Running a large company is intense work and Yahoo (YHOO) is in a critical moment. Besides, no one raises these questions about a male CEO. Mark Zuckerberg, whose wife is expecting, also made a public announcement—without saying a word about his leave plans. No flurry of media stories followed.

The question is: Can people in powerful positions take reasonable leave?

The answer, of course, is yes—as long as these components are in place:

  • A collaborative approach to work, ensuring wherever possible that no one person is the sole repository of any particular knowledge or relationship. Some staff may have projects that require intense commitment, but a team approach and a strong bench of leaders can lessen the numbers of times and duration of such engagement.
  • Cross-training so that other staff are prepared to step up. An executive’s leave then becomes a developmental opportunity rather than a temporary loss of a key employee.
  • A transparent system of holding supervisors accountable for the ways they manage leave. “Contributing to work-life imbalance” should affect pay and career advancement. Employees should have an impartial channel to report any problems.
  • Conducting audits to ensure that leave-taking is never used as a reason to deny a promotion, and highlighting examples of people hired and promoted while pregnant or after taking a leave.
  • Utilizing company communication tools to share stories of what leave means to high-level staff—male as well as female—and the ways it strengthens their bonds with family (parents as well as children).
  • Ensuring policies apply to all levels of staff. A company can’t create a narrative of valuing families if leave policies exclude hourly or part-time employees.

Each person has the right to make his or her own choices about spending time with family. But whatever decision CEOs make, they need to be proactive in communicating to their employees that the company leave policy isn’t just words on paper—and they need to point to systems in place to back that up. The same applies to schedules. Many corporations have a reputation for hard-driving cultures that demand long hours and the need to meet, move or travel at a moment’s notice. That makes it hard for anyone to sustain an engaged family life, especially lower-paid staff who are forced to work long hours simply to keep food on the table.

Designing work environments with tools like these can lead to high-quality products and services and high-quality lives—even for CEOs.

Susan Wojcicki at YouTube is an example. She’s taken maternity leave five times and wrote about it in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. Not only did the company manage without her, but she says she came back with:

“a broader sense of purpose and a better ability to prioritize and get things done efficiently. It also helped me understand the specific needs and concerns of mothers, who make most household spending decisions and control more than $2 trillion of purchasing power in the U.S.”

Wojcicki pointed out that the expanded leave policy of Google, (GOOG) YouTube’s parent company, was a smart business decision—it cut turnover among new moms by 50%. She also called for a national paid leave program, recognizing that for most Americans, the only choices available are lousy ones: Go back too soon, with serious consequences for your own health and the well-being of your child, or take leave and wind up on a financial cliff. Right now an appalling one in four pregnant women in the workforce go back within two weeks of giving birth, according to a study done for the Department of Labor, mostly because they can’t support a family with unpaid leave.

CEOs should set good examples. Above all, they need to ensure a corporate culture that encourages and supports leave-taking. And they should speak out for making leave affordable for everyone in the U.S.—no matter where they work, what job title they have or what state they live in.

Ellen Bravo directs Family Values @ Work, a network of coalitions in 21 states working for policies like paid family leave.

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