How slowing down with intention can speed up your career
As a first-generation college graduate, Jaime always felt like her success was tenuous. She focused on the next project, the next promotion, the next bonus -- always with a nagging fear it could all slip away if she didn’t keep up her pace. After college she worked in consulting and at Teach For America, then earned her MBA from Kellogg and joined BCG as a consultant.
However, she also always wanted a family. She was thrilled when she and her husband found out they were expecting their first child. But that feeling quickly turned to confusion and panic as she considered how to navigate her career at BCG only a year into joining.
Assuming that she should pull back during pregnancy because “that’s just what you do,” she asked to be removed from an intense travel project.
The short-sightedness of taking it easy carried into her return after leave when she asked for internal work and pro-bono projects. Jaime’s work shifted to a series of random projects that left her disengaged. Yes, these assignments had greater flexibility and more time at home, but they were drastically reducing Jaime’s energy and passion for her job.
She realized she had pulled back too much.
Because she didn’t have any role models right in front of her, she had made decisions based on intuition and what she “heard about” most soon-to-be mothers doing and wanting. The narrative in consulting was particularly strong - every major consulting firm, in an attempt to attract and retain more female talent, offered a wide range of flexible and local work arrangements.
When maternity leave #2 was on the horizon, Jaime realized she had to take it upon herself to more clearly define and set boundaries around this “murky middle” path she wanted to take -- passionate and engaged in her career but also home most nights for dinner and bath. Finally admitting she didn’t have all the answers herself, she turned to women who had already been there.
She used her second maternity leave to network extensively with professional women who had children: “I talked to anyone and everyone, including women 20 years older than me, and asked them about their experiences managing the trajectory of their careers within the context of parenting. Hearing these women’s stories and investing the time to reflect on my own goals gave me the confidence I needed to finally make a career switch.”
Finally, with Jaime’s third pregnancy (in a new role at a large corporation), she defined the parameters of her parental leave on her terms. This meant she avoided a lot of the problems from the first two leaves and even co-founded Parentaly. This new journey meant learning lessons alongside the hundreds of parents working with them.
Read more about what Jaime learned because it shouldn’t take anyone three kids to figure out how to navigate parental leave. Dive deeper below.
#1 "Don't leave before you leave"
Sheryl Sandberg popularized the phrase “don’t leave before you leave” in her book Lean In. Despite reading the book, Jaime missed the memo.
During her first pregnancy, she was a consultant at BCG. When she found out she was pregnant, Jaime was on a project that she loved but required 4-5 nights per week away from home. Although she was feeling healthy and energetic, she decided she needed a new project with a slower pace and less travel.
She explained, “In my mind, this was simply what an expectant mother should do. I had this assumption that once I had my baby, my goal for work would be to do as little as possible. I assumed that I would draw all of my energy and passion from mothering. So I took the necessary steps to prepare myself for this new vision.”
At 12 weeks, she announced her pregnancy and requested the switch. Her firm was supportive, and she spent the rest of her pregnancy tossed around several less interesting, less relevant projects. She continued along this path when she returned to work following a 16-week maternity leave and again she requested low-intensity, local projects.
“It was only a few months after returning to work that I began to realize what a mess I had made for myself. I had spent almost a year of my work life doing projects that I was not passionate about and did not position me well for my future career trajectory. And as much as I loved my son, I realized that the life I wanted for myself included having a career I was passionate about.”
After this experience, Jaime took a few lessons into how she approached her next two maternity leaves and how she advises others approaching these questions:
- Avoid compulsive worst-case scenario planning: As Jaime reflected, “I felt great my entire pregnancy with my first child. And yet I kept waiting for some sort of horrific morning sickness or debilitating exhaustion to show up, and I made assumptions for my life as if these ailments were constantly lurking around the corner.” No one can predict what the twists and turns of pregnancy and infancy will bring, and many parents do face meaningful challenges. But if you feel great, then take advantage of that energy and live your life as fully as you can, personally and professionally.
- Assume that your interests and passions pre-baby will likely continue to be your interests and passions post-baby: Every parent acknowledges how life-altering it is to bring a new child into your family. Certainly, there is less sleep, less time, and plenty of new expenses. But through that all, Jaime’s example is a consistent one: individuals’ career goals rarely do a complete 180. There are modest shifts and often true re-examining and clarification of goals. But what brings you passion and energy professionally today is very likely what will bring you passion and energy post-baby.
#2 Maternity leave can be a fantastic inflection point and bonding moment to connect with others who have been on this journey
When Jaime was pregnant with her second child (born two years after her first), she was still digging out of the mess she had created by becoming a consultant who focused on a random assortment of low-intensity projects. And she began to have a desire to really clarify her longer-term career goals.
“I have always been someone who learns best by example. I was craving the advice and guidance of women ahead of me on this journey.”
About halfway through her 16-week maternity leave, Jaime began to reach out to her broader network to find women who met the following criteria: were mothers, had started their careers in consulting, and were 5-10+ years older than her. She ended up toting her baby around on walks and coffee dates with 10 different women, and she says the experience was invaluable.
The lessons she learned from this experience gave her the confidence to redefine her boundaries at her consulting firm AND to outline the criteria for her next role. About a year after returning from her second maternity leave, she left consulting for a fantastic opportunity at Target.
Here is what she learned from her experience:
- Becoming a parent creates an incredible bond with others: Most of the women that Jaime reached out to during this experience were very loose connections. But she found that they were empathetic and willing to connect because they so clearly remembered the confounding experience of becoming a parent and navigating work. “I was really vulnerable with these strangers and simply said - I am on maternity leave and overwhelmed by the prospect of defining my career goals in the context of motherhood and I want to learn from others’ experiences.” So many amazing women were happy to talk and share their stories.
- Careers are long: Still in her first job post-MBA, Jaime felt incredible pressure to ensure that whatever career move she made next would be the perfect one. And yet talking to these women in their 40s and 50s reinforced all the twists and turns a career can take. “Every woman I talked to described at least one horrible career experience - a bad role, an impossible boss, or a professional mistake. And yet miraculously, they all survived. It reminded me to release some stress from ensuring every small step is perfect and instead focus on some bigger goals.”
- You need to define and ask for what you want: One of the first women that Jaime met with asked her during their chat, “What would be your dream job right now?” And Jaime realized she had absolutely no idea. As she continued her conversations, she began to jot down notes on what was most important to her, both personally and professionally, for her next role. It was a short but very specific list:
- Consumer-obsessed and future-looking organization
- A progressive brand and inclusive, supportive culture
- Strategic transformation role to start, levering her experience
- High visibility role with potential for upward mobility
- Very limited travel
- A culture that embraced working parents and was accepting of leaving the office by 5 and prioritizing kid events and appointments
- A specific compensation level
So when a recruiter from Target called with a role that checked the box on every criteria, Jaime ignored the other downsides (there were several!) and embraced it wholeheartedly. She never second-guessed jumping after an opportunity that so perfectly met her unique goals.
#3 You might want to work a bit during leave, and that’s ok
Jaime had her third child several years into her tenure at Target. At the time she was preparing to go on leave, there was a lot of chaos.
“It was April 2020, and the world was in the beginning of the initial COVID-19 shutdown. I was leading a large team, and most of my direct reports had small children at home and no childcare support. We were preparing for a really critical deliverable for a 3-year growth plan due that summer, and we were also hiring to significantly grow our team. Meanwhile I had two of my own kids at home, and was about to have a new baby.”
Fortunately, Jaime had the benefit of two prior maternity leaves and the lessons of Parentaly, and so she was able to plan for her leave with the confidence to define an approach that best served her goals.
“I was incredibly passionate about our team and our impact, and the concept of zero communication for 16 weeks was not aligned to my goals.”
Here are some of the surprising elements of her maternity leave approach:
- She aligned with her manager, direct reports, and peers on the topics she wanted to have engagement with during leave: She discussed the conditions under which she wanted to be engaged, which was really clarifying to others. “I knew I could trust my team to be respectful, and it helped prevent confusion or chaos to give them the permission to contact me if needed.” A few discrete situations occurred during her leave that required a conversation with someone on her team. Jaime was able to address each of them with a simple short phone call, often while nursing her baby.
- She remained focused and engaged on key talent topics: Given the newness of the team and the growth trajectory ahead, she chose to remain engaged on talent planning and performance challenges where they existed. “It honestly took me very little time to do, but it set me and my team up for a much smoother transition back to work when I returned.”
- She didn’t shy away from pursuing her own career goals: “I actually interviewed for a promotion during my leave. It didn’t end up working out, but I was incredibly grateful for the chance to be considered and I learned a lot during the process.” It is impossible to predict when new opportunities will arise, and being on parental leave doesn’t mean you are ineligible for those opportunities.