There’s not a parent I know who hasn’t dreaded the ‘I’m pregnant’ conversation with their boss. But eight weeks into maternity leave, I’m optimistic about the positive effect of my absence on Mastered. This take runs counter to so much of the traditional wisdom around this topic, so allow me to explain …
A founder / CEO role at an early stage start up is ever-changing and all encompassing. In the last couple of years I’ve lead product, biz dev, ops and CX, to name a few, often all at the same time. The side effect? My role has often become a CEO+ role, a mash-up of multiple responsibilities, all which inevitably creep in scope each quarter.
My maternity leave is a chance for a hard reset, an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again — something I‘ve attempted to do multiple times but never really come that close to achieving.
My handover started six months before I left. I made a cribsheet of every responsibility I had, and had a loose roadmap for when I wanted to have handed them over to others. It was a live, ever-changing document, which started with a brief description of the responsibility, and a status (“Handed over”, “On track to be handed over”, “Off track to be handed over but a clear plan in place”, “No plan for handing over”), and ended as a list of responsibilities, who was taking them on and my essential advice. It was saved in Google docs, available to both my co-founders at any time, and an agenda point on the weekly operational management meet.
By my leave date, roughly 70% of my responsibility were handed over and being actively done by others, about 20% were ready to be taken on when I left and 10% were considered non essential and ditched.
Editing 10% of a workload is no bad thing when simplification is always a winning tactic — another beneficial side effect of founder maternity leave. As I reflect, I could — should — have edited more. There’s never been a moment at Mastered, or in any role, where focusing even more on key priorities wasn’t the right move. Note to self for when I return to work.
When I do, the aim is to take on a as few of my previous responsibilities as possible — keeping only those where my doing them has maximum impact. What I take on is still TBC, but the overall aim is for it to be less operational and more 30,000ft than before. It’s something my remaining co-founders and team know and are working towards while I’m off — and I’m genuinely not sure I could have do it so effectively were I still ‘in the building’ (quotation marks because we work in a distributed way).
Giving away my Legos
My absence has meant others have stepped up, taken on challenges they didn’t think they could, and — I have a hunch — will have done most things far better than I could of. It’s the central principle of the notorious ‘give away your Lego’s’ feature on First Round Review — your job as a founder (and, I’d say, the leader of any team on growth mode) is to constantly be shedding your responsibilities and empowering others to take them on, so you have room to identify and focus on critical future opportunities and tasks. (As an aside, having deeply believed this for many years now, it made handing over for maternity leave 10x easier for me than I know it has been for others. My coach and former Chief People Officer told me a natural tendency for those going off on paternity leave is to get controlling over tasks the closer they get to their leave date, out of fear for what happens while they’re away. I’m grateful to have genuinely had no such fear and encourage everyone to read this piece.)
Over that six month handover period I was actively, and inadvertently, giving the team the training, tools and mindset them need to nail it. It forced me to do learning and development for them I might not have otherwise done, and take chances on people who I might not have been so fast to delegate to had I still been around. And for some, it will have forced them to step up, even if they didn’t think they were ready, master new tasks they didn’t believe they could take on doing, and — I hope — thrive while being in their stretch zone.
Sure, I could have done this while I was around. But my not being about at all gives them space to take on more responsibilities and try things without being in my shadow. I’ve always found it to be challenging taking on someone else’s role while they’re still lurking around. Sure, it means they’re there to answer questions, to mentor you, to be a bit of a safety net. But overwhelmingly I’ve also found them to be mostly unhelpful presence — you’re always thinking about what they’d do, what they think of your choices, and how they might react to your plans, even if subconsciously.
Reset my energy — and the company’s creativity
Finally, on me. I’ve spent almost nine years building Mastered. It’s the longest I’ve ever spent in one job, and maternity leave has, so far, felt like a sabbatical — a chance to step away, focus on different things for a while, find new perspectives — and, I assume, come back changed. Despite the lack of sleep, and steep learning curve of parenthood, I already feel relaxed in a way I haven’t done for a long time — and I’m already excited to get back to Mastered with a fresh take on what we’ve been doing for so long. And that’s essential. I’ve been at the helm of Mastered for almost a decade and often wonder if I’ve gotten stale, what someone else would do given the responsibility of steering the ship. The maternity leave gives someone else — my co-founder Grace, our chief experience officer — the chance to try it, and hopefully make some new decisions, place some new bets, make some new mistakes. This, perhaps if the greatest benefit of all — complexly fresh ideas and a new perspective is something only someone else entirely can do, and the only other way to get what I have now would be to step down entirely. I’m not ready for that yet!
I’m aware this is an overly positive take. Me not being around is going to have caused plenty of pain — for my team, for my co-founders, for the business. And I’m hyper aware I only get to have this take because I have two incredible co-founders who are steering the ship while I’m away. (We’ve always complimented each other in terms of skills — we overlap a little, enough to cover each other, but not so much that there’s too much of any one thing at the top.) It helps that we don’t have investors to justify me being off to, and that we’re at a stage of the design/product cycle where I’m not as critical to the mission. But it’s still a take worth giving as, in my opinion, the only way for us to get a more diverse workforce is to reframe things previously seen as challenges into opportunities. I hope it gives any future parent, founder or otherwise, and managers everywhere, a new way of entering into those ‘I’m pregnant’ work conversions.