The Manager’s Guide to Parental Leave Planning: A Timeline

I’ve been at Atomic Object for more than eight years and have never taken more than 10 days off. When I announced my pregnancy last winter, I knew I had to prep for a clean break from work for a few months. Despite the wealth of articles I found on what to pack in my hospital bag, I found nothing useful on parental leave planning.

So my team and I built a leave-prep process that worked for us. Here’s how we tackled it, in case it helps you out.

6 Months Before Leave: Share the News and Plan

Announce your pregnancy and decide if hiring is necessary. Opinions on when to share this information vary, but it’s your call.

Here were the considerations around my decision to announce my leave around 6 months before my due date:

  • How long would it take my team to adjust to the news and get trained on any new skills they need?
  • What level of confidence do I want in the viability of the pregnancy before I share? If my pregnancy doesn’t stick, will I be okay with a group of people knowing about it?
  • If I need to make a new hire before I go, how much lead time do I need to recruit and onboard them before I leave?

I told my managers first, then my team, my peers, and finally the company.

Sample internal announcement:

Hi team,

I’ll be on parental leave [date-date]. No action is needed; my Slack status, Google Calendar, and email auto-responder will be the sources of truth. Please give us as much lead time on requests as possible this year. The team will follow up individually to ensure a smooth transition.

Let me know if you have questions.

5 Months Before Leave: Document and Cross-train

My team has had some turnover in the past, and we’ve found task documentation to be a valuable tool for coordinating sustainable work. My colleague Lina Miller wrote about why and how we document departmental work in this blog post.

Document your ongoing tasks in detail. My team keeps docs in a shared folder with “last updated” dates, task frequency, and step-by-step instructions. Train your team using this documentation: first, demonstrate the work with them watching; next, ride shotgun as they do it; finally, let them do it independently.

Revisiting my documentation was a healthy process because it allowed me to clean up some of my systems and empower my teammates to take on some of the grunt work that I probably should have delegated to them earlier.

4 Months Before Leave: Address Hopes and Fears

If I have one practical piece of advice from preparing for my leave, it’s this step.

My team had been surfacing some anxiety about various aspects of running the department with less capacity. I used my colleague Kim’s design thinking activity post about the Hopes & Fears exercise to help shake all these concerns (and aspirations) out into the open with the whole team.

We used Miro to collaboratively brainstorm, which took an hour. Using a second hour, we affinity-mapped and labeled clumps of the hopes and fears on the board, and came up with an action to address the fears and capitalize on the hope.

Hopes and Fears Miro Board Screenshot

Here are some examples of the outcome:

  • Hope: “I hope we can find new opportunities for the team to utilize contractors and make our team more efficient.” Idea: “Share new opportunities with contractors to have them develop ideas about ways to add value.”
  • Fear: “I fear the team will lack emotional/social/professional development support, leading to a less positive work experience.” Idea: “Remaining team members determine weekly meeting cadence and structure to address these aspects of work (When? How long? What do we discuss?)”

For each idea, we gave it a date by when it should be done, and then I organized those ideas by due date into a Gantt chart.

Screenshot of parental leave Gantt Chart

3 Months Before Leave: Know Your Policies

While you’re working through your Gantt chart to-dos, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the specifics of your company’s leave policies and any policy considerations that might influence/intersect with your leave. Atomic is especially on top of this, thanks to the wonderful Danielle Marsiglia on the operations team. That meant I didn’t need to advocate for myself all that much, but there were still a lot of details to manage.

Here are some questions I asked our operations team:

  • How and when do I enroll my kiddo in Atomic’s health insurance?
  • When does my insurance coverage change from just myself to myself and a dependent, changing my deductible?
  • When I go on paid leave, who do I need to tell to kick off the process? Do I need to select a date to begin leave, or can I work up until an unknowable delivery date?
  • What paperwork am I responsible for and when is it due?
  • Am I eligible to combine my PTO for the year along with my leave? What if I want to taper back into work part time at the end of my leave?
  • Who will submit receipts for recurring charges on my company credit card?
  • If we’re offering a compensation adjustment while I’m out, what information is needed from me to make the adjustments for my team?

Not that I’ve been a parent before, but I assume I don’t want to be thinking about any of this when I’m trying to keep a baby alive, so I’ve tried to think of every policy I might need to understand before I leave.

2 Months Before Leave: First Principles and Contingency Plans

At this point, my team had a few months to get their arms around the idea of my leave. They had documented instructions and training on newly delegated tasks. And they had shared and addressed their anxieties and desires for the coming months.

At this point, I felt confident that things would run smoothly so long as nothing unexpected happened while I was on leave. Unfortunately, that’s not how life tends to go. So I spent this month trying to equip my team with the tools they’d need to make decisions in unexpected situations.

First Principles

The best tool I’ve seen for this is something my boss Shawn Crowley encourages me to focus on frequently: first principles. These are the highest-level priorities that should guide a project, a job, or a period of leave. When things get uncertain, you can turn to a set of first principles for guidance and direction.

I asked each of my team members to define their own top-five principles during the period I’d be away. This was a helpful exercise in identifying mismatched priorities as well as encouraging that each was strategically aligned to what was most important at work.

Here was the message I sent to my team members to have them develop their lists: a sample from one team member:

Hey all,

One of the items we listed in the Leave Prep gantt chart was getting each of you to list the top-five principles to guide your work in my absence.

Examples of this might be: Drive legitimate demand, build high-quality talent pipelines, ensure communication flows across stakeholders, keep the whirlwind ship afloat, be as responsive as possible to internal and external needs, onboard new Atoms, etc.

In the next two weeks, can each of you please respond to me directly in this thread to list for me your priorities that will guide your work in the absence of as much oversight as you’re used to?

The idea of making this list is that it will help you clarify what to prioritize among competing priorities when you need to navigate them.

From there, we can discuss each list in our weekly sync to align on what’s most important.

Elaine

This was a helpful exercise in identifying mismatched priorities, and it was encouraging that each was strategically aligned to what was most important at work.

Contingency Plans

Another way I tried to help the team address the unexpected wrenches that might be thrown their way was by creating a contingency plan list. The list includes the SNAFUs that most commonly flare up with vendors, digital assets, internal relationships, and external relationships, and I gave them a resource guide about how to navigate each.

Examples include:

  • What to do when the website breaks.
  • What to do if a troll starts trolling us online.
  • What to do if we have a dry spell for inbound leads and CEOs ask what’s up.

It’s not realistic to cover every possibility, but most managers could name the top three to five problems that crop up with higher frequency and higher pain. They can probably offer documentation about, generally, how to approach each issue.

1 Month Before Leave: Final Check-ins and Relax

In my last month before leaving, I scheduled brief check-ins with my team and all our internal stakeholder groups. We asked each what the next few months had in store related to events, initiatives, and tactics that might intersect with marketing. We were particularly keen to understand if any of our stakeholders needed on-hand swag because that’s a task with a long lead time.

Then I brought the team together in person, and we ran our normal quarterly planning meeting. There, we finalized which team members would own which routine tasks (both their own and the ones they are subbing for me). We also identified any strategic projects the team wanted to prioritize with the limited capacity they had apart from their work and the work they’re putting into substituting for me.

I also made sure to build in a ~3 week buffer in the last month in case the beeb came early. It’s been great to wind down and feel like all my ducks are in a row.

Bonus: Plan for Return

I realize I’m bragging about how great this leave-planning process has been for me, my team, and our stakeholders here. But the truth is, we’ll only know the results after I return.

When I come back, I know I’ll have missed some wins, some challenges, some unexpected twists, and some stories of people rising to the challenge. I plan to interview the team about challenges, responses, lessons learned, and new areas of excitement. Ideally, in addition to me getting to step back from work to focus on my kid, a well-planned leave will also spark some job-crafting excitement among my team when they get a taste of a different kind of work.

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