07th Oct 2011

Oh, Mother

In a recent article in Bloomberg, Helena Morrissey, who as CEO of Newton Investment Management oversees 47.2 billion pounds and almost 400 employees, recalled her worst moment as a woman in the City. It happened almost 20 years ago, when she was the only female on a team of sixteen male bond fund traders at Schroders Investment Management. She’d just returned from her first maternity leave and her boss passed her over for promotion. As Morrissey says, her boss was matter-of-fact about the reason – “’Well, you’ve just had you first child, and we’re not sure whether you can make it through.’ The sense was that I was on a different path.’” Her response was even more pointed – she quit, joined Newton, and, seven years later, became CEO at age 35. Now 45, Morrissey remains one of the few female CEOs in the City – and has since had eight more children, for a total of nine.

Morrissey is rightly regarded as a trailblazer. Her ambition, brilliance and steely determination led her to a victory so perfect that for the rest of us it seems to have the illustrative power of a parable.

Partly as a result of the work of Morrissey and other women, attitudes are changing, and those in positions of power have less leeway for the expression of unreconstructed prejudice. Womens’ most effective response to the considerable challenges they face when returning to a corporate role post-childbirth, is confidence and effective organisation.

First100 has recently designed a Maternity Returner Assist programme that is specially designed to empower women to meet these specific challenges. The initial 100 day period must be structured with the aim of finding the right balance between the roles of mother and executive, so that good organisation and confidence can reinforce each other in a kind of positive feedback loop.

Let’s look at the case of Natalie, who was left physically debilitated by a difficult birth, and returned to work as an MD after a year-long absence to find the firm almost unrecognisably altered; a trusted CEO and many members of her original team had been replaced and a basic shift in the company’s focus had come about in response to changes in the market.

Natalie found it was necessary to prove herself all over again in an unfamiliar work environment while dealing with physical recovery and motherhood simultaneously, so an approach based on thorough preparation and mental discipline was essential.

In this situation First100 would work with Natalie to anticipate specific challenges and develop quantifiable, achievable goals, while never loosing sight of the difficulty of the challenge she had set for herself.

In facing complex challenges, clarity and planning are vital preconditions for fostering courage and integrity, and all of this is impossible unless we give ourselves the time to develop an approach that works.

Hilda Goold

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