For entrepreneurs, taking any time away from your company can induce panic. We've nurtured and grown our businesses from scratch, and leaving--even for a week or two--can feel like you've abandoned your responsibilities. So when you're leaving for a matter of months, as is often the case when having a baby, having a clear coverage plan in place is the best way to maintain your sanity... and reduce your guilt.
I got pregnant with my daughter Caroline when my start-up, weeSpring, was less than a year old. I'd been traveling cross-country for fundraising meetings, working past midnight on a regular basis, hustling to grow our user base and secure advertisers--and taking care of a toddler. It didn't feel remotely sustainable, but it was all absolutely necessary. The idea of slowing down that pace was unfathomable, never mind stopping entirely.
To prepare, I talked to a ton of other women across many different industries who'd balanced seriously demanding careers with newborn babies, and the theme that threaded across all of those conversations was trust. You have to trust that your stand-in (or stand-ins) will be able to execute in your absence, and you have to trust your job (and your company) will be there for you when you get back. And planning is key: you need a long runway to really ensure a seamless transition (both at your departure and your return).
Five coverage plans emerged from those conversations:
1. OVER: Your Boss Takes on Your Responsibilities
While not always applicable for entrepreneurs (unless you have a very active board), having your manager take the reins is relatively common in the corporate world. When your boss is stepping in, you know that there's someone watching over your projects and relationships who has a 30,000 foot view and the relationships to make things happen.
When a CEO takes maternity leave, the board chair is the de-facto manager, as was the case when Katie Duffy, who leads Democracy Prep Public Schools, had her baby. "Our board chair was extraordinarily supportive when I was on leave, standing in for me at important meetings," she told me. "He became really hands-on and was able to carry some of the weight of the important decisions we were faced with as an organization."
The downside: while the big strategic decisions are in capable hands, the day-to-day could get lost in the shuffle.
2. UNDER: A Direct Report Shoulders Your Responsibilities
If it's a direct report taking on some of the load, it can be an opportunity to signal to her or him that you have confidence in their abilities and are investing in their professional development. Several women told me the people they designated were excited to be given the chance to take on leadership responsibilities and interface directly with senior management. If you're running your own company, this tends to be the default choice.
The downsides: This person might not (yet) have the gravitas or sway to keep things moving along in your absence. And trust really is paramount; you don't want to blindly elevate someone into your seat if you think that person could be angling for it.
3. SIDEWAYS: A Colleague Steps In for You
A lateral coverage plan puts a peer in place; for entrepreneurs, it is a co-founder. If a colleague is taking the reins, invest the time to work side-by-side with that person before you leave. A real estate investor told me that she allowed two weeks for her colleague to shadow her, and in the second week, they reversed roles so the colleague could actually start doing the job. If you're the one who regularly corresponds with press, for instance, have your co-worker/co-founder do those calls while you're listening in and can offer feedback.
The downside: unless your colleague's role is being scaled back during this time, it can leave him or her overcommitted--and potentially resentful. (And a resentful co-worker will unnecessarily complicate your transition back to the office.)
4. OUTSIDE: A Consultant or Freelancer is Brought In to Do Your Job
An outside temp can be a great solution because you know that person will have full bandwidth, unlike someone who is taking on your role in addition to her own (like the three previous examples). One option is the ex-employee who comes back exclusively to cover maternity leaves. She knows the key players and the culture, and in a lot of instances, she's done the day-to-day work previously.
When Rachel ten Brink, a co-founder at Scentbird, had her first child, she was on the marketing team at Estee Lauder. "A capable, confident industry consultant came in to fill my shoes," she told me. "I knew my projects and contacts would be in good hands, because this was someone who'd essentially done my job."
The downsides: it can be time consuming (and expensive!) to recruit, screen, and train someone to come in from outside. You also have to invest in getting buy-in from your team members, who may be reluctant to follow a leader they don't know.
5. ALL OVER: Your Responsibilities Are Divided Amongst Your Team
Team coverage is most common in instances when the team is large or the company is small (like a consulting or PR firm), with several people working collaboratively on a single project. Spreading the work around limits the burden on any one individual, and for start-ups, it's sometimes the only option because everyone is already stretched so thinly. When I was preparing to leave weeSpring for a couple months, I made a comprehensive list of what was on my plate, and I went through it item-by-item, assigning a temporary owner to each.
The downsides: With everything divided (and hopefully conquered), no single person is looking at the big picture--and prioritizing accordingly. If you're doing project-based work, you run the risk of not having a project to return to. (Make sure you network internally to lay the groundwork for your return well before you leave!)
Regardless of which of these plans is best for you (and your company), managing your maternity leave is also about managing expectations--especially your own. I often heard comments like, "I found my team could finish things that we'd started before I left, but weren't able to initiate anything new without me." But if you lay the groundwork thoroughly and effectively, you'll be able to avoid inertia in your absence and surprises when you return.
(Once you've decided on a coverage plan you will also have to decide how to craft your out-of-office message.)
Allyson Downey is CEO and co-founder of weeSpring, a startup that helps new and expecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby. Her entrepreneurial spirit dates back to elementary school, when she had a face-painting business for birthday parties, and it's carried her through roles with Random House, Eliot Spitzer, and Credit Suisse. She has an MBA from Columbia Business School, an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts, and a BA from Colby College. She serves on the board of Democracy Prep Public Schools. Follow her @allysondowney @wee_spring.