Thursday, August 28, 2014

Reclaiming Your Turf After Maternity Leave

We’d all like to believe that when we return from maternity leave, our bosses, colleagues and subordinates will welcome us back, and maybe even demonstrate some patience and supportiveness. Unfortunately, that’s not always what goes down. Too often, bosses are insufficiently empathic and organizations do not provide enough flexibility. However, in my own experience, both as a new mother in the corporate world, and as an executive coach who has worked with women who are ascending to senior leadership positions over the last twenty years, I have found that it is peer relationships that are often the toughest to navigate.

There are ample guidelines out there on how to ask your boss for more flexible hours, but a shortage of advice on how to handle a peer who – having covered for you during your leave – won’t give you back your turf.

This is precisely the situation Shannon, an advisor at a financial services company, faced when she returned from leave. A male coworker, her peer, had gotten close to her key investors while she was away. But upon her return, instead of relinquishing her accounts, he demanded to be cc’d on everything, withheld information from her, and left Shannon’s name off of client offering memos.  He began to assume a supervisory role and attitude toward her, which she deeply resented. Shannon considered her options—confront the coworker?

Or go over his head to the boss?  She didn’t want to be seen as the one sinking into petty politics. When she finally confronted him, he denied any wrongdoing, saying he was just trying to do what was best for the company. Shannon wondered whether she had inadvertently made a bad situation worse, by revealing her weakness and anxiety to a rival who she did not doubt would use this knowledge to further weaken her.

Whether you’re dealing with an untrustworthy rival like Shannon’s or simply a coworker who has gotten used to doing things her way – and seems to be having trouble relinquishing your own duties back to you — it’s important to strategically manage your re-entry, beginning with what you do even before you leave.
Start by thinking strategically about your short and long-term career goals, as well as your team’s needs. Sometimes a maternity leave presents an opportunity to hand off responsibilities that could help develop more junior colleagues, or a useful excuse to identify tasks to be outsourced or dropped entirely.

Before you leave, meet with your boss to discuss expectations and goals for your return. Your boss can help your peers understand that they will only be covering for you temporarily.

Immediately before your return, set up a call with your manager and relevant peers to learn about any possible changes to your agreed-upon re-entry plan, and meet with them early after your return so you are fully up to date and can approach your “on ramp” back to work with the latest information about what peers are doing and where projects stand. Work with your colleagues and boss on a timeline for taking over your old projects.

Before, during, and after your return, be sure to thank the coworkers who have taken on parts of your job.  The reality is that they have had extra work to do, and often their efforts are not rewarded by the organization. Let them know that you acknowledge their assistance and will endeavor to reciprocate someday.

These measures should help mitigate conflict before it starts, but if there is conflict with a coworker, weigh the pros and cons of a direct confrontation.  If you decide to confront, plan the conversation carefully and get some help in preparing from a trusted friend or supporter. Be clear with yourself regarding what you are trying to accomplish– Are you trying to put him on notice? Ask her to back off? First seek to understand his or her point of view, and start from a place of inquiry instead of from a place of acting threatened and defensive. Carefully consider bringing the situation to your boss.

In Shannon’s case, she realized that the rivalry had become a proxy for all her new-mother ambivalence and emotions about life and work. She also knew that she had made a good faith effort to constructively engage with her competitive peer, but that her efforts had not been successful and therefore, escalation to her boss was necessary. However, before she met with her boss, she was careful to separate out her feelings of anger and betrayal from the outcome she wanted: control of her own clients. She requested that her boss go to her rival to thank him for helping while Shannon was out, but also asked that he firmly remind him that Shannon would now be handling her own accounts again. While Shannon’s relationship with her rival is still strained, she is hopeful that her boss will deliver, in word and deed, on the explicit and implicit promises he made before she went on maternity leave.

Originally published August 28, 2014 by Harvard Business Review:

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Managing Your Emotions After Maternity Leave

When you’re a new mother, it feels like everyone wants a piece of you — literally, figuratively, and emotionally. Add physiological changes, a lack of sleep, and hormonal fluctuations into that mix and it’s easy to understand why returning to work after maternity leave can be one of the most fraught, challenging, and stressful times in a woman’s life. A woman may want to lean in, but her sense of equilibrium might be so off kilter that she’s not sure which direction she’s leaning in, or whether she’s leaning at all — or just trying to find her footing on what she’s no longer sure is a level playing field.

After Lisa, a senior member of a consulting firm, returned to work, she had to face both her own cocktail of powerful emotions and complex organizational politics. While most women don’t face every situation she experienced, many do confront at least a few of them. And Lisa’s reaction — ultimately, to say nothing — is all too common.

She had been the “golden child” at her organization, working in close proximity with her boss on several key initiatives. Preparing for her maternity leave, her boss had arranged for a new employee, technically Lisa’s peer, to temporarily handle her work. However, Lisa returned to find that the new staff member had completely taken over the department and ingratiated herself with their boss. She acted like Lisa’s superior instead of her peer. Lisa watched in anger as she methodically encroached on others’ jobs in the organization, took undeserved credit for others’ work, and systematically expanded her responsibilities and power base.

At the same time, a male coworker, even though he was her junior, hazed Lisa for a year, continually teasing her about all the work done he’d on her behalf, and asking questions about her work commitment.

Normally unflappable in the face of such behavior, she now found herself doubting her own reactions. She began to wonder if she was being oversensitive due to her own feelings of being beleaguered on all sides, tired all the time, and feeling like a failure compared to her pre-baby, well-rested self. Though filled with anger, she did not confront either her rival or her gadfly, or discuss the situation with her boss—and when a competitive offer from another company arose, she seized it and left. It was a decision she ultimately came to regret: her boss was blindsided and shocked at her departure, and several months after Lisa left her position, her nemesis was fired.

In my work as an executive coach, I have found that successful women often keep their struggles private in difficult re-entry situations. This may be because they don’t want others to view them as weak; because they don’t feel like they have a confidant they can trust (their mother-friends may judge them, while other colleagues may take advantage of them); or it may simply be that they don’t want to open a Pandora’s Box of emotional pain by talking about it. The result is often self-doubt and compartmentalizing—one woman told me that she cried for months on the way to and from work, then stoically focused during the work day. In a short-term crisis, compartmentalizing can be fine, perhaps even healthy. But motherhood is neither short-term, nor a crisis, so we need some more effective approaches:

1. Be well informed about typical post-partum emotions so you don’t feel that your reactions are abnormal or that there is something defective or inadequate about you. Try to be open to your feelings and to experience their full range, which will make you less likely to fixate on any given issue or challenge, such as a workplace rival.

2. Figure out what you want independent of what is happening at any given moment in your workplace. If you make the decision to work full-time, it should be because that’s what you’ve decided to do, not because you feel you need to compete with a particular peer for your boss’s favor or for key assignments or responsibilities. Similarly, if you decide to leave that job (or the workforce) it should be because that’s what you want long-term, not because your current situation feels untenable.

3. Get the support and kindness you need, whether that be from a few trusted friends, internal or external advocates or mentors, or a counselor. In particular, women who have already been through it will be glad to share their stories, lessons learned, and to dispense advice based on their own experiences. Many women are surprised by the support and validation they get when they signal openness to it. Also, try your best to not isolate yourself from friends and others who care about you and your wellbeing. Your time with them, no matter how limited, can be healthy and restorative.

4. Find even small ways to build your executive stamina through fitness, meditation, nutrition, hydration, and getting as much sleep and sunlight as you can. Take breaks when possible at home and at work to restore your energy and recharge your batteries. This may mean hiring a sitter just so you can go upstairs and take a nap; that’s OK. It may mean requesting more of your partner, family, or community; that’s also OK.

5. Prepare in advance for difficult conversations, whether with your boss or with a workplace rival. Maintain your composure and professionalism, and plan to use positive, solution-seeking language that doesn’t imply criticism or appear accusatory. That’s a best practice almost all of the time, but it is even more important if you’re in a workplace where colleagues are using your leave as an excuse to undermine you; losing your cool will only give them more ammunition.

Regaining your energy through these healthy methods will mean you will have less need to draw upon stress as its own energy source. While stress can be an energizing motivator in the short term, the long-term effects are dangerous. Don’t try to sprint the marathon. But also don’t worry or beat yourself up too much if you do lose your balance from time to time. Every new mother does, whether or not she is trying to balance family and career goals. I realize it’s easier said than done, but if it feels like no one in the world is cutting you any slack, at least try to cut yourself some slack.

Originally published August 19, 2014 by Harvard Business Review:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Email Pitfalls, Faux Pas and Blunders

To: You
CC: Your colleagues; your boss; your staff
Subject: Email Pitfalls, Faux Pas and Blunders

Every time we communicate with others we send a news flash about who we are.  Probably the most common form of business communication today is email. What messages are your emails sending?

In our coaching efforts, we have found that emails sometimes project an unintentional “tone,” creating a communication faux pas that rumbles long after the inbox was opened by the recipient. Below are examples of five of the more common pitfalls of email.

Pitfall One—The ALL CAPS Effect. Email is not for giving bad news or expressing anger… ever!
Take Lisa, a client I was coaching. She was itching to become a Senior Vice President at a large media company. The primary focus of her job was to work with her peers to drive a project near and dear to the CEO. After talking to the team and reviewing some of the emails Lisa had sent, I called her at home. My key message to her was to be careful about sending emails that might express her frustration with others. With email our tone and body language are separated from our words, and we don’t have the benefit of all our communication tools. For example, using ALL CAPS can come across as shouting. Email messages can get misunderstood or misinterpreted. When you give bad news or are frustrated, venting via email can be dangerous.

Pitfall Two—The Boomerang Effect. Email should not be used to market yourself at the expense of others.
Another client, Robert, wanted to be viewed as part of the senior team. A look at his written communication showed he was unnecessarily copying senior people on emails, which angered his peers and ultimately displayed his insecurities and poor teamsmanship. This can be a career staller versus starter. His political intent was obvious, therefore turning the action against him, similar to a boomerang. A boomerang is basically a propeller that isn’t attached to anything and is sensitive to the wind -- in this case the political winds.

Pitfall Three—Mind-Enhancing Lubrications and Communication Do Not Mix.
I coached an individual once who had developed a particularly acidic relationship with one of his key internal customers. It turns out that his daily habit was to hit a bar after work for a few “cold ones,” which in and of itself might not be a problem. The issue was the Blackberry. As the alcohol began to flow, his fingers would flow and type over keys that they might not have otherwise, sending negative emails to this peer. Anyone who has had dinner with a spouse over wine and brought up controversial subjects such as money or chores has learned this lesson the hard way—alcohol and conflict do not mix. At work (with technology this now means 24 hours a day), your career can be at stake.

Pitfall Four—The Arrow Effect. Send emails at times of day when people can respond to them.
It can be downright discouraging to staff members when they open their email accounts in the morning and find countless messages from their bosses, akin to being confronted by a barrage of arrows. For managers, the intent of sending emails should be to provide clarity and information—with the aim of increasing motivation and providing encouragement. Too often we use email to get something off our plate and onto someone else’s.

Pitfall Five—The Wrong Wheels for the Ride Effect. Pick the right vehicle.
When you pick up a friend who just spent hundreds of dollars getting her hair done, you don’t suggest you put the top down on your convertible. In the same vein, when sending a business message, we need to think about the best communication vehicle that won’t make the receiver’s hair stand on end. Jill, a recently promoted sales manager, felt that her new peers were not treating her as an equal—ignoring her and not inviting her to key meetings. We agreed she needed to meet with her peers, preparing carefully so as to prevent defensiveness right off the bat. When I spoke to her a few days later and asked, “Well, how did your meeting go?” she said she had sent an email requesting a meeting, and they hadn’t responded. I said, “But Jill, their offices are only two doors down from you.”

For communication that is complicated, controversial, or personal, in-person meetings are the best route to successful interactions. Not walking two doors down can give the impression that the subject matter isn’t very important. It might suggest that it is too much trouble -- that others aren’t worth the effort. None of those are messages she wanted to send.

So the next time you are about to use email, consider whether it is the best communication vehicle. If the message just contains facts, doesn’t need too much “tone,” is unlikely to be interpreted differently than its intent, or involves information that needs to get out to a lot of folks quickly, it may be exactly the right choice.

Next article—“Leveraging the Power of Email.”

Hilary Pearl and Laura Daley are executive coaches, consultants and workshop facilitators each with more than 20 years of practical business and consulting experience. They provide their clients with learning opportunities and tools to develop more cohesive, motivating work environments and improve the communication, managerial and interpersonal skills needed to drive the business. Their work is research based and takes into consideration the challenges of today’s challenging business environment.

We would love to hear your comments and insights! You can contact Hilary at or visit her website You can contact Laura at or visit her website