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Three mistakes to avoid when designing your maternity and returner coaching policy

June 27, 2018
February 27, 2020

Every day businesses like yours lose valued and talented staff, who have recently returned from maternity leave. We see this time and again regardless of industry, country or culture.

Growing numbers of parents are opting out of employment to start their own business or to join the gig economy as freelancers. They understandably want to balance a high commitment career with being a present parent.

In some sectors, as many as half of those going on maternity leave with their second child do not make a long-term return (Halryngo and Lyng, 2009). This is creating a (mostly female) talent drain of 30-45 year old professionals who are at their peak in terms of training, experience and value to the organisation (Cahusac and Kanji 2014.)

Losing these typically senior staff costs business dear. These employees have decades of valuable experience.  They are expensive to replace. And it drains women from senior leadership roles, compounding an already biased working world. What a waste to allow this trend to continue.

Maternity and returner coaching is a simple and effective way to retain this top talent, by helping returners make a positive transition back to work.

In nearly ten years of doing this type of coaching, White & Lime Ltd have seen many successes and had plenty of experience to learn from too. As more and more businesses turn to maternity and returner coaching as one part of their response to the gender and inclusion agenda, clients are increasingly asking us what we have learned from doing this work so far.  Here are our top three tips:

1. Don't rush your return

Research tells us that nine to twelve months after returning to work is a critical time for women. In our experience, this is often the time where returners are secretly questioning “can I continue to do this?”  This is precisely when support from an independent coach can make the difference between talented parents staying or going. All too often, clients have used up their limited coaching allocation well before this crucial time and they can end up reaching the end of their tether at exactly the moment the returner coaching allocation has run out.  If we are serious about supporting parents to make a long term return to the workplace, longer term support is required to cover this critical period.

2. Be thoughtful about who does the coaching

Be thoughtful about who does the coaching. Counter to our early assumptions, returner coaching does not have to be done by women and/or parents. It’s easy to assume that lived experience of maternity return is a critical element of the coach’s offer. Whilst the majority of our current maternity and returner coaches are parents, we’ve been surprised to witness that trusted coaches without lived experience of a return from leave still get outstanding results.   So, if being a parent isn’t an essential ingredient, what are the critical things a returner coach must have?

  • Firstly, their seniority and gravitas needs to match that of the client – don’t forget that this is primarily performance coaching.  The client may wish to spend part of the session talking about issues directly related to her new identity as a parent, but the rest will be focused on the normal range of topics covered by executive coaching. The coach must have that range.
  • Second, the coach must excel at confidence and identity building. It’s well documented that the maternity returner faces huge challenges in rebuilding their professional identity and confidence. They need brilliant coaching that enables them to be honest and vulnerable, whilst challenging them to identify and fully connect to their strengths, hold their nerve and re-define themselves and their working practices in a way that’s integrated to their new life and challenges outside of work.
  • Finally, the returner coach must be skilled in helping the client to acknowledge and manage adversity and unconscious bias, without being de-railed by it.  In a reality where working parents face judgement, and sometimes discrimination, we need returner Coaches who can face into this and provide support to the individual, while respecting and working with the organisation.

3. Don’t expect coaching to stand alone in your bid to retain returner talent

Coaching for returners is only one part of the picture if you’re serious about retaining talented parents.  Other things to give careful thought to that will have a positive impact on the organisation’s inclusive culture include:

  • Flexible working arrangements. Recent Harvard & McKinsey research revealed that an Australian telecoms company which now designs and advertises all jobs as “flexible” has been hugely successful in attracting and retaining the best talent, and in creating gender diverse leadership.  We’re huge advocates of job sharing and have many success stories to share: We challenge you to show us a job that cannot be performed brilliantly by two brains instead of one.
  • Empowering networks. Ibarra’s global research into High Potentials (2015), showed how women tend to be under-sponsored and under-championed compared to their male counterparts.  To reverse this trend, organisations are introducing structures that enable women to more easily support and sponsor other women: such as women mentoring programmes and development programmes targeted at women.  Research shows that historically women have been more reluctant to openly push forward other women, and we are delighted to see this trend changing. Look out for a White & Lime article on the business case for gender specific programmes coming soon, where we look at the pros and cons of this approach.
  • Talking to leaders about how to manage new parents. We can learn a lot from our European counterparts on this topic. In Switzerland, in addition to mat coaching, employers have discovered the impact that training line managers can have.  People managers at all levels, play a key role in positively influencing the likelihood of individuals not only returning post a parental leave, but also staying engaged and motivated at work to continue with their career.  Swiss inclusion experts Thriving Talent have pioneered work in this area and it is increasingly becoming a trend.
  • Managing a challenging workload alongside family life and the associated pressures and stress can be the elephant in the room for women and their careers and the topic is often avoided. But it is vitally important that it is openly discussed, because of it’s direct impact on the female talent drain. For many years White and Lime have been supporting professional parents and leaders to engage positively with their workload and find ways to integrate the two, through our clear head workshops and coaching.

If you would like to discuss how targeted development programmes for working parents and/ or leadership development programmes can support your organisation to become more inclusive, contact me on

Much gratitude to Siobhan Swindells for her invaluable contribution to the original research for this article.

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