Ramp Up Your Career After Parental Leave

by Lisa Quest

Quick Takes

  • Identify your career goals
  • Cut out tasks and meetings that don’t advance your goal
  • Focus on what you can do in the time you have
  • Conduct regular conversations at work and at home
  • Reassess your goals and adjust course
  • Pay it forward

Returning from parental leave can be a jarring inflection point that too often results in people curtailing their responsibilities or leaving their jobs altogether. While many women choose to return to work after maternity leave, many others find that it’s not sustainable and leave or take on reduced roles. Seventeen percent of women and 4% of men stop working in the five years following childbirth, according to research recently conducted at the Universities of Bristol and Essex in the United Kingdom.1 Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has found that the gender wage gap in America is the largest for women in their prime childbearing years.2

Navigating a system that was not designed for career paths that balance work with family can easily feel like a mission-practically-impossible even in the best of times. And when the job market is weak, many people will become even more pessimistic about the possibility of persuading an employer to accept a flexible work arrangement.

After two maternity leaves, I’ve discovered that some companies are willing to let people redesign their positions in a way that will allow them not just to continue their careers, but to accelerate them. It means setting clear goals, forensically analyzing how you spend your time, consciously not doing things that aren’t core to meeting your goals, overcommunicating, and then course correcting when required.

Set Clear Goals

In order for any corporate machinery to try to accommodate your career goals, you first need to identify them. If you’re not sure what your dreams are, no one can help you realize them. So step back and ask yourself: What do I really want?

What are your immediate objectives after you return from your parental leave? What are your long-term goals? Do you want to run your company one day? Or do you want to slow down your career and focus on your family? Or do you hope for some combination of both? All of these options can work—as long as you’re honest with yourself and your employer.

If you can’t articulate your answers, a parental leave is a great time to reflect on them. Being up with a tiny human at 3 a.m. can give you some time for self-reflection. In my case, it was difficult to envision my long-term goals and to figure out how to achieve them until I took a break from the daily grind on my maternity leaves. During my first leave, I resolved that I wanted to continue in consulting, a field with predominantly male leadership, as a partner at the consulting firm Oliver Wyman. But I also wanted to leave work every day at 6 p.m. to spend time with my family, and I wanted to take August off to travel from my base in London to visit family in Canada.

During my second leave, I decided that I hoped to play a major role in building out our firm’s public-sector practice and lead our anti–financial crime business, where I would interact widely and often at the highest levels of our firm, overseeing multiple project teams in multiple countries at any given time. But I also wanted to be able to prioritize my family whenever I needed to. I adjusted my schedule accordingly, so now, instead of leaving work at 6 p.m. every day, I might take off one Monday per month. If I have an emergency doctor’s appointment for my child, or if any of a potential million other things crop up unexpectedly with my family life, I can drop work if I need to or I can comfortably agree with my partner that he will handle the situation. In turn, if I have to work in the evening, I don’t let it stress me out.

Forensically Analyze How You Spend Your Time

After you’ve identified your goals, forensically analyze how you spend your time at work and cut out anything that’s not aligned with your objectives. Before you go on maternity leave, be clear about what you’re working on, whom you’re working with, and how you intend to rejoin your team. That way, once you return, you can more easily delegate or drop anything that does not speed up progress.

For people who already work fairly autonomously, this is generally straightforward. But if you are in a more senior position, you’ll likely have to say no more often to supporting projects and corporate initiatives that are not directly related to your ambitions. This can be tricky, since there’s a risk of being perceived as less committed to your company if you turn down extra work. Still, you must: If you take on too much, you may underdeliver on your work or family commitments, or both. Discuss the right balance with coworkers. People will generally understand if you make it crystal clear how you will still contribute on a broader level, but in a deliberate and agreed-on way by focusing on your goals.

Concentrate on what you can do within the time you have and excel at that. When I returned to work following my second maternity leave, I gave up supporting a major part of our business to focus purely on building out our economic crime advisory work with the public sector. Narrowing my focus in this way allowed me to devote the time necessary to develop much more insightful content in my specific area. As a result, we’ve been able to support the most sophisticated financial centers in improving their financial crime defenses. I miss supporting the other part of our business. But I would make the same decision again.


Overcommunicate your aspirations with your employer, colleagues, and family openly and honestly. Share a detailed parental leave plan with your boss that lays out what you want to achieve and the clients and areas that you want to cover. Schedule meetings with your boss before you leave, about a month before you come back, and monthly afterward to discuss how things are going. That way, they can step in to offer support when needed.

It’s also important to have continual conversations with your partner at home. Persistently check on how your balance of work and home life is going. In my house, this changes every week. We constantly talk—or frantically text in the middle of the day—about who will pick up our oldest from day care and who can travel on which dates.

Course Correct

Be prepared to adjust. It’s impossible to know what it’s like to juggle your family and your career until you’re in the thick of it. So be open to reassessing your goals and course correct as required.

You may find that you can do more than you expected. When I first came back from maternity leave, I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to commit to multiple client-facing roles. But once I set boundaries and became better at delegating, I found I had more time in my day than anticipated and could gradually take on more.

But accept that things will also not always work out as you’d hoped. I had to take a step back from one global initiative because the team, spread out across multiple time zones, would meet exactly at the time that I wanted to be home with my boys. After sleepless teething nights, I’ve lost four—yes, four—passports and misplaced count less bank cards and travel coffee cups. At times, our kitchen looks like it was hit by a tornado after we rush out the door in the morning. Don’t let these kinds of mishaps cause stress—smile and realize that you’re doing the best you can.

Be open and honest when your best-laid plans go awry. That way, the broader team can understand that it is not always an easy journey.

Be a Champion for Others

By bringing your whole self to work, you can encourage your employer to think through, and overcome, the potential obstacles involved in supporting not just your own flexible work arrangements, but also those of others. Actively and visibly support people in a similar position. Support individuals when the risks they have taken have failed and remind the organization, and the individual, that taking risks is a part of being successful—the important thing is to maintain faith in the individual’s under lying ability.

Spearhead initiatives with senior leaders in your organization to support new models of working. For example, an initiative called “Men4Change” in our firm is designed to close a gender gap in senior leadership roles. Senior men help to create and assist with customized work arrangements for many high-potential women. A “Boost” program assigns sponsors to support individuals with everything from designing their flexible work arrangements before parental leave to ensuring these agreed-on plans are successfully implemented afterward.

We have not only a moral imperative to make it possible for more people to return to work from parental leave, but also a commercial imperative to develop the best-performing teams. As you navigate your own return, take time to step back and figure out what you really want to accomplish. Find the sponsors who can help you shape and accelerate your career on your own terms. Then pay it forward by being an effective role model and sponsor to other new parents coming up through the ranks after you.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, April 9, 2020 (product #H05JR3).

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