This is a talk I did for Hibob, a brilliant HR tech firm. What to expect when you’re expecting all about paternity leave.
What to expect when you’re expecting?
This is a big question. Alongside consulting with organisations on their culture and values, I run being dads, exploring what it means to be a dad. And I also run workshops in big city firms for new and expectant dads.
One thing that every dad, and mum to know is that you do not know what to expect.
For dads, it starts finding themselves on the sofa at 9pm. Your partners gone to bed, because she’s growing a human being and is, not surprisingly knackered. Her body is changing. Yours isn’t. The only signs you get are from her.
You hope for a smooth birth, you hope for a healthy, ‘normal’ baby but you just don’t know.
That’s the key thing going on here. Uncertainty for the parent to be, but also for the business they are a part of.
Uncertainty does strange things to human beings. It tends to create fear. A desire to control. A plan or a scenario forms in our minds and when that doesn’t materialise it can create more negative feelings.
That said though, human beings have been reproducing for millennia, so there are lots of lessons that can be learned and some things that are certain.
The biggest is this is about change. And change, like uncertainty, can either breed fear and threat and everything that goes with that, or it can be an opportunity.
It’s the opportunity I am going to focus on here.
What it is and how to make the most of it.
But before popping on our positive mindsets, let’s make sure we’ve really felt the other side. The threat and obviously I’m talking from the male perspective. Yes, much will be applicable to both genders but I’m going to stick with what I know.
A part of your heart lives outside you
For men becoming dads, for many of them, it’s a turning point. No longer are you your own master. You are now in service of something else. Something that will take you to new levels of emotional extreme. A love you’ve never felt before, which reminds you to thank your parents and apologise for all the shit you put them through because now you understand why they did.
Fear comes when you least expect it
Now you have a child, you have the fear that, because part of your heart lives outside you, it’s at the mercy of the world, of other people. As one journalist I interviewed, who joined troops to report from the frontline in Afghanistan and Iraq, said, I look at the news differently now. I can relate to families who’ve lost their children more, it always brings tears to my eyes.
The challenge of the provider
For more and more dads the provider role creates an internal struggle. The role of the male provider, the male financial provider, is strong in our culture. Yet more and more dads don’t want to just be the financial provider, they want to be an emotional provider too. And it’s better for their kids, rates of drug addiction and anti-social behaviour decrease, academic grades go up and all that good stuff when dads are more involved. The conflict created with how to allocate your time creates stress and tension, but it also presents opportunities. Not least because it’s the other side of the equality debate.
Challenges For employers
For employers, especially smaller ones a number of things can be seen as challenges.
Changing priorities, after all your team mate now has a new thing in their life that they care for more than their work. Will they give it their all? Will they roll up their sleeves when we’ve got our backs against the wall with something?
Will they still be as flexible as they were, staying late, coming in early, being available for last minute changes – client meetings, new opportunities with short-term turnarounds?
Then there’s the cost of it from the cost of paid leave to the cost of lost productivity. Seeing it as a cost, as something to be managed by seniors betrays a mindset that’s focused on problems and not looking for opportunities.
The opportunity to build a focused business
Parents suddenly find they have a new priority one of the strength that it’s unlikely they’ve felt before.
And with any priority comes focus. Many dads I’ve interviewed have talked about hitting another level of focus. There’s no time for procrastination, it’s JFDI time.
Parents can be the key to unlocking the focus that gets you to decisions and results faster. They don’t have time for endless meetings, for referring decisions. In their mind we’re here to get things done, so let’s do it. And it all has to happen before 5pm because there’s no way bed and bath time is getting missed.
Harness this focus, encourage it and use it.
The opportunity to build a workforce that lives great lifestyles
This is all about flexibility. Yes parents are more inflexible because they have other things going on. What that means though is that parents have the potential to create stronger teams. Without care, flexibility can become a ‘parenting perk’. People without kids see the parents leaving at 5pm and feel resentment that they can’t too. They can, of course, take this time, but until you have a priority that’s bigger than work you won’t. So it’s the businesses job to enable this. For example, an accountancy firm in the states called BDO had a flexible working policy, but only parents used it. This was creating resentment from others, the classic ‘it’s ok for them, but not for the rest of us’ they were seeing it as a perk. But it was only because the reason to work flexibility was stronger for parents. They changed the way they communicated the policy, they changed the way they managers talked to their team. Over time people started working more flexibly and working better.
The opportunity to create stronger teams
One dad I interviewed is the VP of talent for a global software company. A big shot. He had surrogate twins in India. He said to me that it forced him to lean on his team more, to delegate more and you know what, they outperformed his expectations. The same story is true of me. Before going on paternity leave and when I came back, I talked with my team about how they were going to work without me. I looked at the tasks and worked with them to identify who was going to do what. They did, brilliantly.
Ultimately it’s about creating more grown up organisations
The responsibility of being a parent can help those who are accustomed to fitting in and following in the workplace, stand up. If you give them permission they will change things so that the workplace works better for them, and for others.
Let’s face it, what business doesn’t want teams who work better together, who are more focused, who want to change the way your business works for the better?
Yes it’s the employees’ responsibility to work this out, but if you don’t create the conditions for them to change the way they work so they can live the lifestyle they want, then you are partly responsible for the strength of their family relationships. You may say you don’t see it that way. Fine. Over time you’ll find a workforce without many parents in it. Given that 80% of women over 40 have kids, your talent pool is going to be small.
I can’t stress how important this perspective of shared responsibility for family relationships is. Time moves fast. You don’t want to wake up one morning realising you don’t have the relationship with your kids you wanted, because you put the time into work not them. If you never see your kids in the week and are too tired at the weekend to give quality time, you’re not going to have a strong relationship, a terrible thing for an individual, but also for the owners of the business who are complicit.
If you paternity as a thing to manage you’re looking at it negatively. You’re only going to be doing the right thing for your business in the short term. If you see it as an opportunity, you’re going to be doing the right thing for your team in the short term and your business in the long term. What are you in it for?