Returning from Maternity Leave—the Changing Business Context
SHL’s Ceri Mongie shares her experience of returning from maternity leave during a hard lockdown, and her thoughts on adapting to the new business context.
'Returning’ to work from maternity leave during a hard lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic was an eye-opener for me. It is a life adjustment all on its own. However, returning to a new business context, a new way of working, and with new expectations at the same time—it is a different story as it made the experience much more challenging for working mothers.
The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world and continues to do so. No doubt every single individual has a story to tell of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them on a deep and personal level. This is my story. As South Africa went into its first hard lockdown, I was preparing to return to work after being on maternity leave for three months. It was not the first time I had been on maternity leave, so I thought I knew what to expect. I had put in place all the necessary resources and colleagues to ensure that I returned to the South African business unit as I had left it.
It is nearly two years gone since I returned to work, and I am choosing to write about this now as I believe I can only truly reflect on the last two years and the impact this experience has had on me as a leader.
How the business context changed
My plan was in place; my twins returned to school at the beginning of 2020 after the December holidays; my husband was back at work, and I could enjoy my time at home with my newborn. Suddenly, I had one month to go on maternity leave, and I had to start preparing for coming back to a completely different business context requiring a different type of leader. As the reality of the pandemic unfolded, my reality became clear…my children would be at home with my husband and me while we were working with no support, and the worry of a friend or family member getting sick and worse set in. I needed to take over from my colleagues who had implemented the lockdown measures and continue to lead the business. In the end, this made me decide to cut my maternity leave short by two weeks. Everyone was dealing with the changes the pandemic brought, but I felt like I had no lead-in and was, in a sense, sheltered being at home.
In just three and a half months I felt that there were new expectations of me to support and lead the business which required new skills. This is unsurprising as Gartner stated in their 2020 HR priorities Survey that 90% of the respondents said that new skills would be required for existing roles. Mobilizing leaders can be very difficult and the question I was asking myself was: is there still strategic alignment between what was required for my role at that point in time as well as in the future and me and my leadership skills?
Three years of SHL research on 9000 global leaders identified one critical insight, and that is Context. Organizations are over four times more likely to make the right leadership mobility decisions with the Power of Context. So, I know that adapting to the new, evolved business context is crucial for any leader to stay relevant.
Mobilizing leaders can be very difficult and the question I was asking myself was: is there still strategic alignment between what was required for my role at that point in time as well as in the future and me and my leadership skills?
How I adapted to the new business context
Challenges of balancing work and family life during a hard lockdown aside, the biggest initial learning for me was that I did not need to do it all by myself. I continued to implement, support, and build on the initiatives put in place by my colleagues while I was on leave. In hindsight, it might have been the best thing that I was on maternity leave while the planning for the lockdown and the business context changing was happening. These critical business contexts had to be focused on more than ever and included actions like driving network performance, leading geographically dispersed and remote teams, ensuring the safety of persons, and delivering under high uncertainty and ambiguity. While I have learned to adapt to and develop towards some of these challenges, I might not have been the best leader to initially drive these.
As the reality of the pandemic unfolded together with other global and local events such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2021 July unrest in South Africa, I learned some hard lessons as many leaders did and will continue to do so. I had to continue to adapt, collaborate with the right colleagues and peers in the right business contexts, and really listen to my team.
Almost two years later and what a journey it has been, with many highs and many lows. In some ways, life is back to ‘normal’ with all three children at school and both my husband and me back in the office. However, I still ask myself every day, how do I continue to adapt and transform to the new business contexts that present themselves? I believe it is critical that I, and all managers and leaders, continue to review and develop ourselves and our teams to mobilize and align to the changing business contexts.