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Dealing with maternity leave in an SME

With a gap left when a key member of staff went on maternity leave, Mike France explains how his business dealt with it and then re-integrated them.
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This month saw us welcome back our head of marketing, Helen McCall, from ten months of maternity leave. The period of Helen’s absence has presented a raft of challenges for a small business such as ourselves – that of preparing for her absence, the repercussions and how we have adapted, and the process of bringing her back into the fold.

Marketing is an essential strand of our operations, and permeates through every aspect of the business – from the creation of the product, to where it can be bought, how much it should cost, and how the product and brand messaging reaches the customer. Marketing is ultimately about ensuring that both our customers and the wider market understand who we are, what we stand for, and where we are headed.

Of course, good marketing is no substitute for a quality product, and to a certain degree the product will always speak for itself. But, by going hand-in-hand with a quality product, marketing enables you to take your offering out to the world, and helps consumers both buy into your brand and that physical product.

Thus Helen’s absence on maternity leave created a considerable vacuum at Christopher Ward.

The first point to consider here is the individual themselves. In the maelstrom of running a business it is important to always remember that the most important aspect of any company is the people. You must be receptive to the fact that, in any instance of extended leave, it is just as big a deal for the individual as it is the company.

For this reason, to ensure Helen was always in the loop with developments in her absence, the process of re-integrating Helen actually began the moment she left.

Throughout the ten months of maternity leave we kept a dialogue open so Helen knew of the changes that were occurring. This included the appointment of a new PR agency and a new photographic studio, for example.

I personally felt her absence very keenly. While we brought in an assistant at a lower level of seniority before her leave began, we did not replace Helen directly due to the knowledge that she would return.

One of my responsibilities as a co-founder of Christopher Ward includes the marketing side of operations, and as such I picked up much of Helen work in the meantime. As I result I’ve become something of the living embodiment of the Beatle’s song “Eight days a week” these past ten months. But naturally this is part and parcel of holding a senior position in a company – especially when you are a co-founder.

The second point to make is that many SMEs seem to really fear maternity leave. We don’t look at it like that, as there is no substitute for recruiting quality into your team – even if they do have to be absent for an extended period.

As we approached the date of Helen’s return, our re-engagement ramped up – we discussed how she would fit back in, and the best way to ease her back into the fold. Keeping Helen engaged in our communication with our external agencies also helped to ensure a continued understanding of what we were doing.

The feeling of being constantly integrated rather than detached is invaluable, ensuring that Helen was able to hit the ground running upon her return from maternity leave, rather than feeling like a stranger peering in.

Upon her return, rather than sit back in her office, Helen has been sat in my office with me. By sitting with me, Helen has direct access to my thoughts on a day-to-day basis, which has aided the re-integration process. It’s also been refreshing to challenge the rigid hierarchical structures that many companies operate along by having such direct communication.

Helen’s return will also see me relieved of some of the day-to-day workload that I have absorbed over the last ten months, which in turn will free up more time for me to focus on the company’s wider marketing strategy.

The last ten months have shown how, as a business, we can face a challenge, put the instruments in place to deal with it and re-emerge stronger. The challenge now is to direct our resources in such a way that we keep improving how we communicate our brand to an ever-increasing audience.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.

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About Author

Mike France

One of the leading retailers of his generation, Mike France operated from his early thirties at board level for several blue-chip companies (BHS, Sears, Debenhams) before becoming CEO/co-owner of the world renowned educational toy brand, Early Learning Centre together with his business partner, Peter Ellis. The pair sold the business in April 2004 and within weeks came up with the idea of launching the world’s first pure-play online luxury watch brand. He is also on the advisory board at Kurt Salmon Consulting and has previously held various non-executive roles as varied as Premier League football clubs (West Ham United) and in several private equity ventures.

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