Maternity leave coaching scheme: Keeping mum

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The business

Clifford Chance is one of the world’s leading commercial law firms, dealing in capital markets, corporate, mergers and acquisitions, finance and banking, real estate, tax, pensions and employment, litigation, and dispute resolution. It has 27 offices in 20 countries and 3,800 legal advisers.

The challenge

Clifford Chance wanted to ensure that employees going on maternity leave had the tools they needed to achieve their ideal work-life balance and increase the number of maternity leavers who returned to work. Clifford Chance engaged coaching specialists Talking Talent to develop a programme to improve its maternity policies and practices.

The resulting maternity programme included everything from childcare vouchers to creating a role of ‘maternity specialist’ within the firm, and providing its mothers with maternity coaching.

The solution

Chris Parke, founder of Talking Talent, worked closely with HR at Clifford Chance to develop a programme that would encompass the whole maternity lifecycle.

“We coached people through the three stages of maternity: before they go off on leave, as they are preparing to return, and then their return to work. We put people into groups to share experiences, which can be really powerful, and we ran individual coaching sessions for key people.”

Senior employees had a one-to-one with a coach, while other maternity leavers were divided into groups of about six and took part in facilitator-led discussions about aspects of maternity and work.

Nicola Gothard, HR manager for Clifford Chance and former ‘maternity specialist’, spearheaded the whole initiative. Her role was to be the first point of contact when a member of staff becomes pregnant. She had an initial meeting with the individual to discuss policy and leave entitlement, and to offer the maternity coaching sessions.

“When we introduced maternity coaching we wanted to make sure our employees had support throughout their pregnancy and on their return to work,” she says. “We wanted to help them get advice throughout their maternity cycle, especially in relation to the concerns about commencing and returning from maternity leave. We had around 60 individuals going on maternity leave each year, at all levels.”

After getting references from other law firms, Clifford Chance chose Talking Talent to run the programme, and discussed a number of options in terms of cost and content.

“We introduced the coaching concept by way of presentations to partners and line managers,” says Gothard. “It was felt that all employees would benefit from coaching regardless of grade or role, although the benefits inevitably vary depending on individual circumstances and range from addressing concerns through leaving a career in law to have children, to a feeling of recognising that the firm values them.”

One-to-one coaching is available to senior associates and senior business service staff, and group coaching to lawyers and all other business service staff.

The outcome

So far, 47 Clifford Chance employees have had group coaching, 32 have had one-to-one coaching, and 22 are now on maternity leave. The firm will be organising lunches for maternity leavers and also plans to create an informal buddying scheme, so that experiences can be shared.

How the coaching affects post-maternity retention rates remains to be seen, as the first batch of maternity coachees are not due back yet, but verbal feedback has so far been positive. “I have realised that I have to express needs rather than assume the team/others know how to help,” was one such comment, while another said: “It’s been very helpful to focus on specific areas which need attention/action before maternity leave and leave on a ‘high note”. These positive feelings can only have a positive impact on retention, Gothard concludes.

If I could do it again…

HR manager Nicola Gothard,who spearheaded the maternty coaching initiative, believes she could have made some aspects of the programme more formal. “The implementation was all quite smooth, but I would tailor the group sessions more, and create a group for each type of role,” she says. “What is applicable to one is not necessarily applicable to another, and therefore different conversations will be relevant as their levels of responsibility may be quite different.”

Employee perspective

Johanna Orbell, an employee relations specialist, began her maternity coaching when she was around 19 weeks pregnant, and is now at home with her new baby.

“The groups were a really nice way of meeting other pregnant women at Clifford Chance,” she says. “We talked about a variety of things – although it was facilitator-led, they took on whatever people wanted to talk about. People were worried about going back to work so a lot of it was about work-life balance, as there is quite a long-hours culture at Clifford Chance.

“We talked about the views of the individual managers, and how we thought they’d react when we came back, and whether we thought that the company would really be supportive, or whether it was lip service. We talked about things like the birth as well.

“We felt that Clifford Chance was saying that it valued our skills and wanted us to come back, as a lot of good women were not coming back,” Orbell adds. “In the run up to maternity leave, getting the line manager on board, working together and being realistic is so important. That dialogue just has to be there.”

Guide to running a maternity coaching programme in 9 steps

  1. Carry out an audit to determine the current experiences of women and their managers through maternity.
  2. Ensure that HR professionals and partners manage maternity in a consistent way across the business and know how to support the line as well as the individual.
  3. Have clearly defined procedures in place to handle each stage of maternity effectively.
  4. Think of positive ways to stay in touch with individuals when they are away from the office and agree on how often, when and how to communicate with them.
  5. Offer focused coaching or development sessions for the line manager. Give them the confidence to manage the transition instead of avoiding it.
  6. Give line managers advice on the legal boundaries and practical measures, as well as an understanding of key sources of anxiety for all concerned.
  7. Help managers understand their own apprehensions, biases and limitations. Are they looking through lenses which cloud their ability to manage maternity effectively?
  8. Don’t shy away from having conversations with returners about career aspirations and short- to medium-term career goals.
  9. Plan for the handover in a timely way. This is often left to the last minute, which leads to increased stress, longer working hours and higher risks of failure for all parties.

Source: Talking Talent

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