CEO and Founder of Leaders Plus Verena Hefti shares the vision behind our social enterprise and why many women don’t simply push out their ambition when pushing out their baby.
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I was a Regional Director at Teach First, the largest educational charity in the UK. I enjoyed my work immensely and took pride in it – it was a huge part of my identity.
But, then my bump started to grow.
And while my ambitions hadn’t changed, what changed was how people related to me.
I remember vividly giving a colleague a lift one day. In the car, she grilled me on why I became pregnant and assumed it was an accident because “clearly someone ambitious like me wouldn’t want children”.
Throughout those 9 months, I received many comments which assumed that I would push out my ambition with my baby.
Many well-meaning colleagues asked if I was going part-time, yet my (male) partner was never asked this.
Suddenly people stopped talking to me about the next big project and my ambitions for work.
Instead, countless conversations at work focused on what colour scheme our nursery would be decorated in. (My eldest has just started school this year but our nursery has only just been decorated.)
When I gave birth to my daughter, maternity leave brought the intensity of work to a sharp stop.
I finally had time to think.
I was completely exhausted and overwhelmed by the responsibility of keeping another human alive. But I craved having my brain stimulated by more than just baby talk.
I was still me, just ‘Plus’ a baby.
I loved my daughter but I worried whether my new-found ‘mum identity’ meant I had to choose between being a loving mum and an ambitious and successful leader.
Questioning the future, I reached for books focused on career progression and gender.
What I found was shocking.
In a nutshell, I discovered that having a child was one of the worst things a woman could do for her career.
Having children was associated with an even bigger gender pay gap, and many women stopped progressing their careers all together after having children.
In fact, women having children and then leaving the workforce is one of the root causes for too many exec leadership teams being predominantly white and male.
I knew there must be other parents like me.
Groups of new mums and dads who didn’t want to choose between being ambitious in their career and enjoying their young children.
So, I decided to do something about it.
Leaders Plus Was Born
Whilst on Maternity Leave and with the help of my local MP Heidi Alexander, I organised an event in the House of Commons with 60 leaders and 40 babies on the topic of combining leadership careers with young children. I can only guess what passing MPs made of the baby sounds escaping from our room that day!
I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback following the event – attendees wanted more!
So, with the help of some wonderful volunteers, and during those never-ending baby-feeding sessions I set out to research how I could best support working parents.
I interviewed working mums and dads in middle leadership roles about their needs and the issues they were facing.
I also delved deep into the research around career progression and academics such as Iris Bohnet at Harvard and Alison Wolff here in the UK generously gave their time to help me understand the big issues faced by working parents today.
Then, using my experience of running large scale training programmes both in my home country Switzerland, Denmark and the UK, I designed what has now become the Leaders Plus Fellowship Programme.
A Multi-Award-Winning Social Enterprise
Fast forward 3 years and Leaders Plus is now a multi-award-winning social enterprise who has helped hundreds of parents to combine ambitious careers with young children.
We have been recognised as one of the 50 New Radicals by Nesta and the Observer and have been shortlisted for the PwC Public Trust award amongst others.
Then around two years ago, a completely unexpected letter landed on my desk informing me that I was selected to receive one of the Prime Minister’s Points of Lights Awards.
Of course, those awards are fantastic but what really keeps me going is the impact my team, our fantastic senior leader volunteer mentors and our facilitators are having on our Fellows. I really believe that together we’re changing lives.
In our most recent external impact evaluation we learned that more than a third of our Fellows have been promoted within a year of finishing the programme.
But personally, I think, the most important thing is that the Fellowship seems to unleash courage and confidence from within.
Introducing the Leaders Plus Fellowship
Like our Fellows who ask for pay rises while still on parental leave, or who unapologetically ask for part-time work in a job interview or who step forward, the first one in their company, to take shared parental leave.
The programme combines a carefully selected supportive peer network, a senior leader mentor, a structured career acceleration programme, plus sessions with line managers and partners where possible.
But most importantly, it gives Fellows the time, space and sometimes even the challenge to think through what they want to achieve in their career and family life and importantly, the steps they need to take to get there.
We are currently accepting applications for the Autumn 2020 cohort. So, if you’re ready to take the first step and join a community of change-makers who believe that it’s okay to love your baby and still want to progress your career then click here to find out how to apply.
As one Fellow once described us, “it’s like NCT but for your career”.