Maternity leave as a career killer and a burden for companies? Not at all. Maternity is the most educational experience, as formative as a master. It is a new model of leadership.
Raising a child is equivalent to creating a start-up. Mothers have strong leadership and managerial skills but are often unaware of this or don`t know how to use them. Maternity leave teaches as much as a university master does and should be considered as educational.
I had the pleasure to hear about MAAM (Maternity as a Master) a few months ago. As I ordered the book and started reading, I could not keep myself from nodding in agreement, chapter after chapter, with Riccarda Zezza, author, together with Andrea Vitullo, coach and leadership expert, of the book MAAM.
How refreshing to read their words, their research, their incredible achievements and results. At last someone was clearly stating what I, and many mothers and fathers around the globe, have known all along.
Their words and thesis might sound provocative. Except, in less than a year, the initiative launched with the book has been introduced in over 60 companies and a formative series of workshops has been requested and implemented in major banks and multinational corporations, in Italy and since the end of last year, in different European countries. The thesis of the book and of the workshop models are widely supported by research and results.
The topic of `parenthood` as an additional gear for a career, not as an obstacle is close to my heart. I just had to know more about the author, about the creation of her `Piano C`(an association that offers innovative projects and services for women and employers and also a co-working space in Milan) and about her plans and achievements.
I had the pleasure to interview Riccarda Zezza a few days ago for an internal company project. She has agreed to share our conversations here.
M. Riccarda, can you tell us more about `Piano C`?
R. After working in big companies for 15 years, in Italy and abroad, I realized there was a big opportunity to improve the way we work and better exploit the full potential of diversity in the work-space. That’s why I started founding a co-working space in Italy with the peculiarity of offering a “co-baby service”, to allow parents to have a better work life balance.
M. What inspired the book MAAM? The research you did in the run up to its conception sounds very interesting, can you tell us more about it?
R. We started a community of people who believe that the way we work should change towards a results oriented work environment, more flexible and capable of taking advantage of diversities. Women are one of these diversities, surely the one with the biggest critical mass, and maternity seems to be the biggest crisis a woman meets during her career.
R. Because it involves an absence, but also a training does… and the experience of motherhood, as every intensive life experience, especially if it’s about caring for others, also develops key skills. That’s how we started thinking of maam – maternity as a master, in October 2012.
The research we carried out for a year gave us incredible evidence supporting our theory and it is still ongoing. The human brain changes for good with motherhood (and fatherhood, and any other constant and regular caring activity), and behavioural sciences are now speaking about “role accumulation”: more roles improve skills, balance and energy.
Also empirical research has shown how motherhood can be a training field and a metaphor for a new kind of leadership: we call it generative leadership and it grows people and projects which will survive us.
M. After the success of MAAM many companies in Italy and abroad have been coming to you to implement inspiring workshops and presentations for their employees. Do they seem to have fully understood the key messages of the book and want to retain talents - who often happen to be mothers?
R. I think that companies knew it was about time to change the perspective on motherhood, since women have fully entered the workforce and motherhood is and will always be (hopefully) part of women’s life – as fatherhood is getting more and more importance in men’s life.
It’s a nonsense to keep on treating parenthood experience as a working problem and, on the other hand, create artificial “life experiences” to train our people and teach them soft skills which are more and more critical at work.
Companies have realized it. There is a huge cost – economical, human and in terms of missed innovation – in this way of managing maternity leave. The cost for a company if a mother delays her return to work or does not return at all is between 5.000 and 10.000 euro (EU data). But, more importantly, human capital means innovation, and the major loss of this paradigm is in terms of women not contributing as much as they could to our economy and society.
M. Some companies seem to wish to break stereotypes that for so long have surrounded maternity leave and parenthood. What are the main challenges and what do you think can change?
R. The concept of transforming parenthood skills in professional skills is very attractive and ecological: you don’t need to artificially “add” anything, but you acquire a method which transforms everyday life in a leadership gym. By doing this, you also give way to new energies in your company, which can overcome old stereotypes and activate a new perspective on productivity, working relations, time management, emotional intelligence.
M. What are in your opinion the competitive advantages of those companies who participate in your workshops?
R. Sometimes I am asked to give evidence of why companies should have more women at a decision making level. While there start to be a few studies about how companies with a better diversity at C level have better financial returns, my answer is that in a world where women represent 50% of the population (and 85% of the buying decisions), I don’t think we need to make the case for women to be there and decide together with men. There is no “better or worse”: but we surely are different and we all must bring our contribution to our society: it’s our responsibility (and opportunity).
“Mothers seem to have all the qualities that are needed today to change the business world for the better. Warmth, mental agility, and the desire to help everyone win.” (Abstract from MAAM, download the full abstract here)
Positioning parenthood and the skills coming from it, empathy, problem solving, efficiency to name a few, as a new model of leadership is a must for modern, successful companies. It has been widely shown by research that leaders with empathy have far more success than their authoritative colleagues.
So how long before new models can be fully implemented across work cultures? Times of change ahead, finally.