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Yahoo’s CEO missed her chance to rethink parental leave

September 11, 2015, 9:00 AM UTC
Chief Executive Officer Of Yahoo! Inc. Marissa Mayer Joins Key Speakers At Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity
Bloomberg Photo Service 'Best of the Week': Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer of Yahoo! Inc., looks on at the Cannes Lions International Festival Of Creativity in Cannes, France, on Tuesday, June 17, 2014. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Simon Dawson — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Over the past week, blogosphere and Twittersphere have been alive with commentary about Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy and her plans to take a limited two-week maternity leave — much less than the eight weeks of paid leave she gives the rest of her employees. The news flurry came at a very interesting time for me as I’m coming to the end of my second maternity leave.

I agree that Mayer missed a wonderful leadership opportunity to frame her choice about maternity leave and to create options for many other parents-to-be. Like many, I wish she had couched her announcement with the caveat that this is what works for her, and that she is proud that Yahoo (YHOO) has the generous parental leave policy it does (which she helped create).

That said, Mayer should absolutely do what she thinks works best for her, her family, and her company (and her shareholders and investors). If she thinks two weeks at home works best for her, then I salute that.

After all, we can work from wherever, whenever. So why are we so rigid about our choices around parental leave? We must remember that we now have the power to be more agile than ever before. Everything—from our smart phones to our grocery delivery services to our health care to our lattes—can be customized. All too often, new parents follow the “prescribed” leave policy rather than thinking through what is in their best interest and what works best for them as a family. Parents should be given the option to design what works for them without criticism or complaint.

I am the CEO of my own company. Granted, it is a very small company, but it is still a company that needs leadership, guidance, and my presence at the top. I absolutely love my work. But I also absolutely love my children. I had to work exceptionally hard to conceive and carry them, and I am crazy in love with them. I want to be with them every minute of the day, but I also love my work and have a business to run. I am fortunate that I have a tremendous amount of flexibility and agility about when and where I work.

My advice for parentstobe: consider what is right for you. What is your ideal time off? Is it together? Is it separate? Is it based on when family can help you? There are so many choices you can make on your own behalf. For example, right after birth, babies are still super sleepy (they call this the fourth trimester). Maybe you would want to take leave after the baby’s first six to eight weeks, when you can travel more comfortably or when your newborn is more alert.

Think through different scenarios. Think about your preferences. Think about your options. And remember that there is a new boss about to arrive on the scene—your baby. You don’t know what her temperament will be; you don’t know how your delivery will go; you don’t know how your body will respond; and you don’t know what your new boss’s schedule will be. That said, dare to dream. Dare to think about what might work for you. Know that rarely are we given license to design and create optimal situations, so try to create the solution that works best for you.

Learn from others who are great parents, have great careers, and are people you admire. How did they do it? What leave did they take? Find success systems and copy them. And ask for help and advice.

Now, for companies, you have the right to put parameters on parental leave that work for your organization. Once companies establish the parameters, parents-to-be and their supervisors can explore agility within this. For example, teleworking: What work can be done remotely? What can be done from home?

Companies should engage parents and parents-to-be to help them think through and decide what works for them. This will increase engagement, retention and commitment to your organization.

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And don’t forget to engage your employees after they return from leave; what they think works before leave might be very different from what actually worked for them after the baby was born. The ideal parental leave will be different based on many scenarios, including the family situation at home; the child himself; the projects at work; market demands; life stages; seasons of the year. There are so many variables that it makes sense to be as flexible as possible when it comes to parental leave policies. Sometimes your best-laid plans get tossed out the window, so agility is key.

Take my two children. Baby number one was very, very complicated. At 30 weeks, 75% into my pregnancy, I was on total bed rest, in the hospital. My baby’s health was a clear priority, so I cancelled keynote speaking engagements; delayed deliverables; and found replacements. He was delivered six weeks early, and then he spent four weeks in the NICU. While he was in the NICU, I actually went back to work a week after he was born. This kept me sane and intellectually occupied during a very stressful period. Plus, the NICU team covered the night shifts, so I was able to rest and recover very quickly.

UnknownCourtesy of Nicole VonDette

Baby number two was not complicated at all, but based on my experience with baby number one, I didn’t book engagements, talks, or anything client-facing in my third trimester. And wouldn’t you know it, the pregnancy was easy as pie, and she arrived a week late. So many people had warned me that baby number two would be a nightmare, especially with a two-year old at home, that I spent months preparing my house and freezing meals. But this baby is so easy I am taking six weeks off and then a very slow return to work, and I am enjoying every minute of this time with her, my son, and my husband. This is a much longer leave than with my first, but it works great for me, my family, my clients, and my business.

Going back to Marissa Mayer — yes, she is held to a different, higher standard than most CEOs and most women in the working world, given her high-profile career. Parents and parents-to-be must cultivate awareness about what works for them and their family, and anticipate that this might change. They should tap the wisdom of parents they admire and ask what worked for them. Parents need to savor this special time in the way that works best for them.

Companies should set clear parameters and then allow individuals to create solutions that work for them. Companies should think outside the box to engage, retain, and inspire their parents. If everyone—from parents to companies—keeps agility and flexibility in mind and makes decisions based on what is best for them, parental leave can work for everyone.

Camille Preston is the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership.