Enhancing the Abilities of Female Leaders & Working Mothers

Webber Kerr’s President Adam Lloyd meets with Elaine Davidson, Former Global Head of Recruiting Excellence at BlackRock and CEO and Founder of Works4Her, as they discuss maternity leave Re-entry, and how an indirect passion has transitioned into leading a full time cause. 

Elaine is a corporate HR executive, having spent 20 years in the likes of BlackRock and PWC. Her current crusade is as founder and CEO of Works4Her, a global consulting firm she formed to aid organizations in enhancing the abilities of current and future female leaders and working mothers.  Works4Her also happens to be one of the first firms to offer Maternity Leave Re-Entry Coaching.

AL: Elaine, you have spent the last 20 years with BlackRock and PWC, when did you realize that creating solutions for organizations and their working mothers was an issue you had to take on?

ED: As a professional who grew up in the Talent Acquisition space, I was constantly at the table for discussions around building a pipeline of diverse talent, including women.  Also, as a working mother of 3 who wanted and needed to work, I found myself feeling very vulnerable despite working for companies that were ticking all the boxes.  What I was feeling on the inside and how I was presenting on the outside were completely misaligned.  When I put these two together, I realized that something else was missing.  I then spent 4 years talking to and interviewing other working mothers, which confirmed that I was far from alone in these feelings.

If companies are talking about hiring women and yet women are still feeling vulnerable, then clearly we need to evolve the working mother conversation.  I eventually figured out how to be a successful yet present working mother, but it took me over 8 years.  I don’t want to see another woman wait 8 years - or even 2 years - to figure it out.  I don’t want another organization to miss out on the opportunity to have amazing female talent represent their brand simply because they don’t know what to do or how to attract them in the first place.  The same old conversation about working mothers isn’t going to cut it.  My firm was designed for those organizations ready - really ready - to have an unplugged conversation about their approach to working mothers and what it also means for the pipeline of Millennials that are rising up.  

AL: From your direct experiences as a working mother and from working within organizations that deal with maternity leave, what is the biggest challenge for female executives re-entering into positions of leadership?  

ED: The biggest challenge, by far, is making sense of your new normal and how to thrive within those boundaries.  We don’t talk a lot about the emotions of working mothers - at least not in an unplugged manner - but the reality is that there are new emotions showing up for these women that they have never experienced before.  What once seemed so clear can become a little foggy.  There are feelings of guilt, frustration, anger and joy all swirling around and it’s hard for women to find their grounding in the early months and years of working motherhood.

As these women come back into leadership roles, it can be even more difficult because of the brand they had previously established.  Many women want to be a role model to others yet they are still struggling to make it all work from the inside out.  It’s a real challenge.  

AL:  Do you view working mothers as adding another element of cultural diversity to organizations, aside from working women?  If so, in what way?                 

ED:  Absolutely.  Gender diversity is of course only one dimension of diversity, and working mothers are a subset of that.  Working Mothers come with a unique set of skills, capabilities and support needs that can’t be ignored if organizations want to have sustained growth.  More than 40% of mothers are the sole or primary source of income for their households yet if you talk to a group of working mothers, you will quickly learn that many of these women want to succeed but struggle.  You don’t have to be a working mother to want flexibility, executive coaching or programs to learn how to thrive in your career.  However, as a group, working mothers are still trying to figure out how to be great at work and at home - because they are not mutually exclusive.  What we don’t see in the workplace is what happens before and after traditional working hours.  These women are coming home and doing a second, sometime third shift before they get to change out of their work clothes, take a shower and eat dinner - which may happen at 9 PM.  Some might argue that it was her choice to be a working mother - but that argument is dated.  This problem needs to be addressed as part of our greater social and corporate citizenship responsibilities.  More and more qualified mothers will need to work - and that includes the daughters and granddaughters playing in our sandboxes today.

AL: How important is the topic of supporting women as they transition back from maternity leave to companies that are looking ahead to their future leaders? What kind of changes do you encourage companies make to adapt to the needs of future leaders? 

ED: This is a two-part answer.

First, we often talk about emerging female leaders, how to be fierce and how to be impactful.  We talk about aligning to business goals, meeting targets and being innovative.  I completely support all of this and teach it as part of our programs and services.  However, returning to work from maternity leave is probably one of the most critical transition points in a woman’s life - not just her career.  Most women at this point are just trying to get through the day.  To talk to them about being hard driving and leading in the early months can be a big miss on the organization’s part.  Companies who invest in maternity leave re-entry coaching are sending a message to their employees that says “we understand and respect that this is a very difficult transition and we want to help you through it.  We want to help you get back to your high performing status.”  This goes a long way for the women receiving the coaching as well as those following in their footsteps.  It’s a small monetary investment when you compare it to the cost of just one mid manager level working mother leaving to work somewhere else -- ~$125,000 and ~70% loss in productivity.  

Second, the most talented candidates do their homework.  Today’s future leaders are savvy and firms will always have to compete for this talent.  How will your brand stand out as one that will develop them, provide opportunities for growth AND support them as they start families?  We can come in and run some of the best programs for working mothers and emerging female leaders but if you don’t weave the messaging into your Employer Brand, both internally and externally, you are missing out on a critical factor in attracting and retaining future female leaders.  

AL: Organizations have a lot to lose when mothers opt to leave, you calculated a 70% loss in utilization. What advice would you give companies that are exploring options to create a successful re-entry program?   

ED: This is about business.  It’s about your Employer Brand, building a pipeline of female talent and then retaining that talent through critical life stages.  It’s about making smart investments for long term ROI and fully understanding the forecasted trends for the next decade around the percentages of women graduating college, mothers working, etc.  Remember that often times, your best brand ambassadors are your current employees.

If your company is exploring options for successful re-entry, here are 3 actions items you can take now:

  • Know your landscape: How many women in your organization took maternity leave over the past 3 years?  How many female Millennials do you currently have that demonstrate high performance potential?
  • Gather information/conduct roundtables using an objective 3rd party: How are these women doing?  What was the transition back into your organization like for them after maternity leave?  What support did/do they need?
  • Review your options: Do you have a formal coaching or mentoring program to support new moms?  How are you making the transition back from work a little easier for them?  Are you initiating the conversation?  Works4Her offers a coaching program designed to support organizations in their commitment to working mothers returning from maternity leave.  Beyond this, we provide a suite of services and programs that help companies with their overall attraction, development and retention of women, including the marketing and branding of such programs in an authentic, meaningful and relevant manner.