Ways of keeping mum

The latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics in December revealed that fertility rates in women have undergone an historic shift. More women between the ages of 30 and 34 are now having babies than women in their late 20s.

The changing demographics have forced an increasing number of employers to look at how they retain senior staff in this age group – and one approach that is gaining popularity is to offer coaching for women returners. A number of City institutions now offer coaching for senior women during maternity leave in a bid to hold on to talent. Many also offer support for working parents.

At law firm Allen & Overy, for example, head of HR support Sasha Hardman is planning to introduce optional maternity leave coaching for fee-earners.

“For those who have been off for a year and are coming back into a corporate environment, it offers confidence-building and helps them to position themselves correctly when they come back,” she says. “It helps them to think through work-life balance issues.”

Challenging perceptions

Heralded as the UK’s fastest-growing personal development tool, coaching is a way “of holding up a mirror” to the recipient, says Geraldine Gallacher, managing director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy.

“Maternity leave coaching reflects back to the coachee their changed perceptions about themselves and their employer,” she says.

Gallacher offers her subjects a series of two- or three-hour structured conversations before, during and after maternity leave. She encourages clients to think about what their lasting legacy will be in their absence, how to delegate and how to network.

Women make up 50% of the graduate intake for firms such as Allen & Overy, and often have babies when they are seven or 10 years into their working life, says Hardman.

“It is hard to generalise,” she says. “But for senior women, maternity leave usually clashes with a high point in their careers.”

Employers also need to weigh up the cost of coaching against the risk of losing an employee. Hardman says the cost of maternity leave coaching is minimal compared to losing a senior lawyer.

At high street retail group Arcadia, HR director Kim Morton is offering maternity leave coaching to head office managers and senior executives.
Morton also balances the cost of the coaching with the potential cost of recruiting a new senior buyer or merchandiser. “Coaching is half the cost of using a recruitment agency,” she says.

Morton adds that such coaching proves its value when the mother is back at work. “It helps women to refocus and have conversations with their employers,” she says. “This is important because it is even more disruptive for the employer if the mother decides to leave the company after she has come back.”

Like Allen & Overy, Arcadia views coaching as in tune with changing demographics of women who have their babies later. “We promote youth here and most people in their 30s have babies when they are settled in their careers,” says Morton.

Fad or business tool?

So is maternity leave coaching a fad or serious business tool? Professor David Clutterbuck, board member of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, believes a mentoring approach works better as it helps women gain confidence, build bridges and plan for the long term.

“Many women come back into a changed environment then undervalue themselves,” he says. “A month before they come back they need someone of a similar level to prepare them so they hit the ground running. “

A similar scheme, badged as ‘buddying’, is in operation at investment bank CSFB. Michelle Mendelsson, director and European head of diversity and inclusion at CSFB, says: “The bank is having success with its buddying scheme, which is part of the firm’s UK Parents’ Network initiative, set up two years ago at the request of the bank’s employees and supported by the global diversity and inclusion team.”

Volunteer maternity leave buddies, who meet the criteria of good listeners and effective networkers, are recruited via the Parents’ Network information pages on the bank’s intranet, or through word of mouth. “We help the buddy with their skills, so that when the returner is back at work, they can meet and discuss the challenges of juggling work and home life,” says Mendelsson. “These networks grow organically.”
Mendelsson says there are two advantages to running the scheme: women feel better about returning to work, and they form cross-divisional relationships, which can benefit the business. “It’s a win-win situation all round,” she concludes.

What to include in maternity leave coaching

Gil Schwenk, who chairs the standards committee of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, likens maternity leave coaching to transition coaching.
He says it covers:
The challenges of letting go
What is going to happen while the mother is away – who will delegate?
How will time be used when she returns?
Clarifying the individual’s values – what has become important to them since their lives have changed?

Source: European Mentoring and Coaching Council

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