Episode 21

The secret ingredient for career advancement through parental leave

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We know career coaching through parental leave is hugely impactful based on the thousands of expecting employees and returning parents who have gone through our programs.

But what does research say about the power of career coaching on the parental leave experience? 

Today’s podcast guests, Angela Passarelli and Spela Trefalt, conducted research and found that career coaching not only helps women stay in the workforce; it helps them thrive and grow into leadership positions at their organizations.

In the episode, we dig into what motivated them to study the impact of career coaching through parental leave and some of their most interesting and surprising findings.


Disclaimer: This podcast transcript is autogenerated and may contain minor errors or discrepancies. 

Allison: Spela and Angie, thank you so much for joining me today on the False Tradeoff podcast. 

Spela: Thank you for having us.

Angie: It's a pleasure to be here. 

Allison: I am thrilled to have you here today. We are going to talk all about your interest in and your research that you have done around career coaching, specifically within the context of individuals going on parental leave and how that is good for them, their careers and their employer. I want to start from the beginning. How did you even become interested in this very specific topic? 

Spela: So both Angie and I are mothers. We both took leaves when we had our children. So some of it is sort of shared and was there, I guess, implicitly all along. I'll let Angie talk about her research in coaching more generally.

For me, The interest started, so I trained as a coach after my graduate school while I was working as an academic. And at the same time, I also had my children. And the mothers that I was peers with, meaning that I was in the mother's group with, we're all highly educated, some with terminal degrees, many with master's degrees, all with really good careers and jobs.

And several of them decided to take a break that did not have a very finite timeline, right? Because the cost of childcare in Boston was more than what they earned after taxes at that time. And that really bothered me as a business school professor at a university that has a mission of empowering women to earn independent livelihood, I felt like, Oh my gosh, you cannot think about it that way.

There's only a year or two when childcare is the most expensive. And also, why are you thinking about your salary after taxes and not your husband's salary after taxes and all of these things, right? I had a good understanding of what that does to women's careers, to women's mental health, to marriages too, right?

So it just felt like it was a precarious time. And as someone who is also trained in coaching, I felt like, Oh my gosh, this is such a perfect space to ask questions. I started dabbling into this and then I said, okay, I need a stronger bench. And I went to Angie, who is an expert in research on coaching in general. And then we started collaborating. 

Allison: Angie, what did you think when Spela first came to you? 

Angie: I was humbled, you know, like, why me? And the more that we talked about what her vision was for the project and the ideas, it resonated so deeply with me because I had had similar life experiences that she had. 

I've always been interested in leadership development and women's leadership development. I think I was probably recently back from leave, perhaps, at about that time, so it was very salient, and I also was thinking to myself, why do we call this period leave? Because I learned so many things about myself in that process, that when I returned made me a stronger leader.

And so, I was kind of chewing on this idea of, you know, how do you think about what women and men learn during this parental leave process that can be applied back to work. And I had never really thought about it. I didn't even realize that there was such a thing as coaching through this process. So when Spela came to me, I mean, this, my initial reaction was like, this is something I can't say no to. Like, I have to do this with her. 

Allison: So then what happened next? You have this idea, you want to research this topic. Did it start as a research project or was there something else, Spela, that you were proposing you do together? 

Spela: No, so I really did, you know, my background is in qualitative research, right?

So for most, for the most part in my research, I do a lot of interviews and then look for patterns in the stories. Angie does a lot more sort of in the brain research that is looking at kind of neural pathways and all sorts of fancy stuff like that. So I thought, let's see what we come up together.

This was my first research project in coaching. I generally do research in work life balance, which is related obviously to this topic, but it has not been in coaching. So I really wanted to learn from Angie about how to look at this particular process and how to find some useful things. And Angie was excited about learning more about qualitative, qualitative work.

Soit was going to be a research project from the start. And what we started looking at was what do coaches know? Coaches who do this type of research and to be perfectly honest and open at the time, we did not know that this was actually a pretty vibrant community and area of work that, especially in the UK was quite strong,and very much emerging and growing in the U.S. so we were excited to talk to people from both sides of the pond about their experiences. 

So coaches who've done extensive practical work in this area to see what they see, what they observe, who they are coaching, what are their responses and what are their experiences in exchanges and, and, uh, communication with the organizations in our experience from that research project.

We're always the ones providing this, right? So one of the things that we found was that in the coaches that we talked to, there was none of them who coached private clients.

Allison: Oh, wow. Interesting. So they were all hired by companies to provide this service. 

Angie: Sometimes it was serendipitous that they were doing something else. They were hired as a leadership coach, for example, or as an executive coach. And then someone, you know, the woman got pregnant. And so then the focus of the work together as a coach and client shifted. So it wasn't, all of them weren't necessarily contracted just for this.

And I would also just to add to the conversation that our thinking in talking to the coaches first is that they would have cases like multiple people who they've coached that by taking an hour of one person's time, we could learn about a number of different women and we were really strategic about that because we didn't want to put an extra burden on working women who had just become mothers at the time.

And so that was part of the rationale behind why we started where we started. 

Allison: I resonate with that very strongly because in our parental leave coaching program, we really struggle with capturing feedback at very specific moments in time, which is important to continue to prove the impact that we're driving, but also to your point, it's like, We need to capture them before they have this baby and then once they're way back at work and not anywhere else because, like, their priority is not giving us feedback, it is taking care of their family and recovering themselves if they gave birth. So, then what happened? You went out, you interviewed all of these coaches. What did you find? What were the main findings from your research? 

Angie: I don't know that this is what was most interesting, but it was certainly what was most surprising because, um, both Spela and I went into this kind of inquiry process thinking that we were going to learn what kinds of decisions women make as they work with these coaches.

And we thought, we thought that we would be studying how women decide to stay or how they decide to leave and, and, you know, And that's not the narrative that we heard. In fact, we were surprised that none of the women who the, so that we would ask these coaches to think about kind of cases or critical incidents with women that they've coached and we were, we were digging for their stories.

And In these stories, no one has left the workforce. None of the working mothers, or the new mothers, were leaving. And that was shocking to us because we assumed that they were working with these coaches trying to decide, do I stay or do I go? And that's not what was, what was happening, at least with the group of coaches who we interviewed.

Allison: And what was happening? What were the conversations about instead? 

Spela: So conversations were about, how do I make this work? How do I maintain my presence in identity as a high performing professional? So how do I maintain that level of performance, commitment, sense of identity, a sense that I'm really contributing and being valued while at the same time, also being the kind of mom that I want to be.So how do I set boundaries between work and personal life in a way that is not going to make me look unprofessional, less committed or whatever else. 

And then, what was also interesting to me was that women were not really thinking about whether to leave or not, but some women did leave later on because, or when I say leave, not leave to go home, but leave to work for a different organization.

And primarily because they were not given enough challenges. So, and it's, it's actually a little bit more nuanced than that, right? So sometimes when, when we're looking at this transition, we're thinking about kind of two separate possibilities, right? Either benevolent sexism or this idea that women in this period have to be protected and we can't demand too much of them.

We have to handle them with care, and that can backfire, right? Because an ambitious woman who had set up a situation at home so that she can continue rearing for big achievements feels put to the sidelines, right? In that scenario, even if it was with the best intention. 

The second position is we're just ignoring that she ever had a baby. We sent her to all the conferences or whatever it might be, traveled giant assignments and she can't do it. Right. She just feels exhausted or she feels like she can't be there for her family in the way she wants to. So she'll quit.

But what we really saw was that women were discussing with their coaches the meaning and value that they were getting out of work. And if that was worth the amount of energy and time and exertion that they were giving, but primarily does it feel like I'm doing something of value? Cause if I'm doing something of value, it's fine that I'm away from the baby. It's fine that I don't see him or her every night. It's fine that I maybe stopped pumping because that sucks, right? But if the work is not something that feels That I'm making a difference, then I start questioning it. 

Allison: This is so interesting for me to hear you say that we see the exact same thing in our coaching program, which is some people do come in a small minority, come in kind of planning to quit.

And you know, then it enters into this conversation of well, why? And let's diagnose this. And oftentimes then they don't quit, but I totally agree with you. What we have found is exactly what you've described, which is it's not that they want to quit or that they're even looking to talk about it.

It's that they're looking to talk about coming back and performing really well and that they realize in these conversations, had I not discussed this and sort of taken charge of what work means to me and how I want to thrive when I return, that's when things get bad. 

And it's not right when they return to work. It's a year after. At least that's what we've seen is that the people that do not go through coaching end up returning to a situation. They give it a good, you know, the good college try or whatnot. And then they leave as opposed to coaching, at least what I've found is that it is so helpful because you also anchor it in exactly what you're saying, What is meaningful work? That's like at the crux of everything. 

Angie: Yeah. And that's what also came out of this research, which, you know, later I realized is relatively standard practice, which is that managers also get some coaching during this process.

Allison: I was going to ask you to share more about what you learned about managers because they play such an important role here.

Angie: This is another surprise to me. I typically think of acoach working one-on-one with a client, and maybe there are manager check-ins along the way, but the focus is on the person being coached. In this case, what we heard described was a different model where it's much more systemic actually, where certainly we're giving coaching support to the woman who's going on leave, but we're also giving coaching support to the manager, her direct supervisor to think through how to best set up the team for success.

How do I keep her involved in a way or in a way that is consistent with her needs and desires and her situation. How do I and with the legal constraints around that too? I mean, that's a real concern and a model where we're not just working with the person who's going out, we're also working in some ways with the system.

And that to me is a much, much more effective intervention long term than just supporting the person who will leave an environment and come back to a basically unchanged environment. 

And so if you think about this equation, the Lewinian Equation of behavior as a function of the person in the environment, if we're not working on the environment, we’re falling short of really helping that person behave in the ways they want to behave.

Allison: I've read you talk about before that organizations typically focus their effort or their mind share on return to work; what happens after the baby arrives. But you made a point or you continue to make this point around, you have to start from the beginning. What do you mean by that and why is that so important?

Angie: Well, that psychological shift and change begins well before a baby arrives. So, a mother's identity is already changing once she becomes aware that she's pregnant and is starting to think through what this future will look like for her and her family and for her work. And so, the sweet spot for coaching is to help be part of that process of envisioning a desired future and creating a new identity that if you catch it on the tail end, it's really hard to backtrack to do some of that work that's best done in the moment where the transition begins.

Spela: If I may add here, Alison, one thing that Angie and I found in our research is that this is an important piece of the negotiation at home. And that has to start before the baby arrives because the leave and who's going to take the leave and how much leave and what are going to be their responsibilities during it critically shapes the path.

I just read a paper earlier today about how countries that regulate leave, where some of the leave is earmarked for fathers, right? Where it's either gone or the father takes it when the father takes it, it really shapes the whole division of labor at home, not just about childcare, but about the care for the home. 

And that is a big piece of what a lot of these women - now I'm bringing in a little bit of my own experience as a coach in this area too - they have the picture of their own child and many of them had stay-at-home mothers, right? And so now they have incompatible pictures of who they want to be and working with that and helping them really uncover what Are their values and what is realistic and what are they going to expect from themselves?

And then what is still loving, committed and all of that to expect of your spouse in this process, right? It's not, I'm not being a, you know, who, if I ask my husband to take one of the night bottle feedings, right? Or the trash, the groceries, whatever it is. And for many of them, when they start envisioning themselves as a mother, they also start envisioning themselves as their mother, right?

And research shows that we are much more like our parents were than what we think we want to be as parents. So working through that and really creating space for women to look at it with their intelligent minds rather than just with their intuition and kind of the gut feel can really help shape their family's future.

Allison: What this brings up for me, as you were talking about this, I thought, this is so fascinating. I've never thought of it this way, but 40 percent of the people who go through our parental leave coaching program are fathers. And we've done a lot of research to figure out. Is that journey, that employee experience, pre-leave and return-to-work for fathers the same as mothers?

And of course, as you can imagine, it's not. There are a lot of similarities, I think probably more than we would expect, that they are having very similar conversations, but one thing that struck me as you were talking about that experience of the mother. What we hear over and over again from fathers is, they also do not have a model of what it looks like to be in a dual income household or, and this is related but maybe separate, they don't know fathers who have taken parental leave.

They don't see other fathers taking parental leave. They don't know how to navigate that within the context of their career. And so it's interesting because it's like, I see from my position that you have fathers and mothers going through our program having a lot of very similar conversations, but almost combating two totally different stereotypes.

You didn't, you did not look at coaching for fathers. Is that correct? 

Spela: No, not in this project, but you're so right, Allison. I mean, that's such an interesting area. And in practice, I see the same thing as you're seeing, right? I mean, even in organizations that provide coaching for fathers. The way that it's looked upon, right, to take leave and to take advantage of this coaching is very different for men versus women.

Allison: I was going to ask you, what is your next project together? Will there be a round two of this research? 

Angie: I think our next project is actually to get this work published. We've presented it at a number of different scholarly conferences and it's gone around a couple of journals. Then we'll see. I think part of it that we would find a way to expand the research in a more quantitative way, where we could really look at objective outcomes of this type of coaching and understand where it's working, where it's not working, where it can improve so that we can share that with the community, coaches and companies like yours who offer this kind of work. 

I mean, I think one of the nice things that academics can provide is, you know, somewhat of an objective lens on these types of things where we don't have skin in the game, you know, it's not our bottom line. For me, I want to do work of consequence and for consequence, I want it to impact real lives and real people. And if we think downstream here to me, it's not just women and their partners who this can affect; it's their children too, and their company. So I can't really think of any better work to do than this. But where it goes next is still, I guess, a little unknown. I don't know, Spela, how would you respond to this question?

Spela: That's absolutely right. And you know, there is one thing that we've been trying to sort of theoretically develop, but I think it would be a really interesting, practical empirical question to examine is when does coaching matter most. Right. So of course, ideally you would give this to everybody, who's considered, you know, who's going to go on leave and you would start before they go and you would go, you know, have a session with them while they're on leave.

And then when they come back and help them recoup. Integrate and reshuffle where they're going next, but that's out of reach for many people in many companies. So what Angie and I built a theoretical argument on is that if you're going to do a minimal intervention, that should be early rather than…many people will say, well, if you can only do one session, let's have it after the person comes back.

Angie and I believe that that's probably not true. That it's more important to do it before so that people set themselves up for success before they leave, that they have these negotiations at home, that they're thinking long-term. So I think a really interesting empirical examination is: If you only have resources for one or two meetings, where will that bring you the most gain? 

Allison: I 100 percent agree with you. And I think you said it better than I could say, but that is something that I think most people find counterintuitive because we think, well, the return to work is so hard. And what I always say is, yeah, but 80 percent of the problems are already there. Like, what are you going to do to fix the fact that someone missed a performance review, that they're returning to a job that's too junior for them? Like, it's really, really hard to fix that as they return to work. Way easier to get ahead of that. Before they go on leave.

So I actually love that question of when is it most impactful along that journey? And of course, for some people, what we find challenging with return-to-work coaching is it's all over the map, what people are talking about at that moment in time. 

Some people really have personal struggles or medical challenges. And so for them, you know, there are certain people that that is the most helpful moment in time. But I think if you look at a macro scale, and that's where I think you both have a ton of interesting potential here to actually think like academics and researchers, as opposed to me, where I'm sort of like in the weeds of the anecdotes. I believe you would find that. It sounds like you were surprised by some of the results that you got in this research study. So who knows? 

Spela: Yeah, that's right. And that's the fun of it, right? If we knew all the answers before we go in, that would not be a very exciting project. 

Allison: I'm going to ask you one final question. What is one thing that you learned in researching this space that if you could go back to your parental leaves and do differently, you would change? 

Angie: You know, I was working as an assistant professor at the time and on a tenure track and there were some rules about leave so you could take a very short unpaid leave or you could take a paid leave, which we called modified duties. So you weren't actually completely on leave, there were things you had to do along the way. And of course, there was no coaching and I had to go out and ask other women what they put in their proposals, and everybody's manager approved different things, and the Dean really wasn't involved at all. And so it was just very difficult, disorganized and inequitable across.

Had I had a coach or someone to help me think through What do I want my leave to look like, I would have made very different choices because my leave wasn't at all what I had hoped it would be and it wasn't the first start to motherhood that I wished it would be. 

Spela: I’m thinking about my experience and I have to say I have been so fortunate, right? I had a really wonderful experience, especially with my first daughter. I work at an institution that is all about gender equity and empowering women. And it shows, and that was very clear actually at the time when I was comparing my experience with experiences of my academic colleagues, I did not know Angie at the time. And, you know, she had her kid a little bit later than I did.

But, my peers in terms of motherhood had very different experiences in institutions that don't have that kind of culture in history. So I don't know… what I learned through this process is how lucky I was, right? In the sense that how much less risk I would have taken on if I had thought more strategically and more long-term about all sorts of things in this process. 

I happen to have a wonderful husband who's a very engaged father, and I did not have to push very hard for that. When my first daughter was born, he did not have paternity leave. He took like three days off, I think. And then he was off to work. And that did show for a while until I went back to work and he started taking care of our daughter on his own in the evenings. Right. So I would have navigated those little things differently. Overall, I was incredibly lucky to have gotten the things that I would want to get without having to think and plan for them. 

Allison: And we didn't even have time to dive into this, but I know you both have spoken a lot about how this ultimately is leadership development in a really critical moment in time and how the framing of this, this is not parenting coaching, it's not parenting advice.

Although of course, parenting topics come up in these coaching sessions, but it is really around. leadership, career, and I think my personal experience, so I was fortunate in that I got to go through my own coaching program with my third child. So the first was born before I even had started Parentaly, the second was in the earliest days right when COVID hit. So of course I had to have a third kid just to try the service I had created. 

And I am not a coach. And so we have coaches, I worked with one of our coaches and of course I am biased. So, you know, I'm going to say this of course, but truly, truly…it was so different. When I look at that third leave versus the first and second for many reasons, but the fundamental difference is I felt that going through career coaching as you were also expanding your family, it was such a transformational experience from a career perspective. 

And so all of the stuff that we talked about earlier in this episode, I think is so important and I think it's so important for women, men, folks in HR, company leaders to hear that those are the types of conversations that are happening in career coaching around parental leave. It is all about how I show up better at home and at work. How do I do more impactful work? How do I drive a bigger impact for work? Because I don't want to leave my child unless that's the case. And I think that that is a huge misconception that people don't understand that those are the conversations.

And so it's fascinating when you say you thought it would be like, Oh, I want to stay home with the child, or I want to quit and get an easier job. That is not at all my experience. What I see sounds like that's also what you found in this research, which I think is a huge misconception that people have in general. So I just love that we were able to explore that more deeply here.

Spela: Yeah, that's true. And that is a misconception. I think also for a lot of parents in organizations that offer this. They are, I mean, what I've seen in terms of uptake for this benefit or opportunity is that especially in organizations in which this is a little bit countercultural, right. Where HR is trying to shift the space. People feel like this is for people who can't hack it as opposed to an opportunity to really think strategically about your career and allocation of your resources in ways that are going to be optimal for your career, for the organization in which you're performing. And I hear that from clients too, they are a little bit surprised when they realize in what ways this was helpful. 

Allison: We hear that also people who come through our program, they say, wow, I didn't realize we would be focused on X, Y, and Z. And it's like, but yeah, the career stuff is so important.

Thank you so much for your time today. This is so fascinating and I really, I appreciate learning more about your process and the findings, because obviously I live in this world every day and find it to be really interesting, but I think what you have found and what you are able to share is doing so much good for many, many people out there. So thank you so much for coming on today and sharing more. 

Angie: Thank you for the invitation. 

Spela: Thank you, Allison.