What’s an executive on maternity leave to do?

By Jane Hirt, with Melissa Harris

The best things that have happened in my life were things I never saw coming.

That’s not only a symptom but also the benefit of taking risks. And I’m a big believer in taking smart risks.

I took a big one in late 2014 when I left a great job as managing editor of the Chicago Tribune to take a gap year. I wrote about it in “A Radical Sabbatical Survival Guide,” which I posted on Medium and a couple of other social platforms a few months ago.

I was bowled over by the reaction. You’d think that someone like me who’d spent 25 years in mass media — and knows exactly how powerful social media is — would have considered how many people might read my post.

But you don’t really know what it feels like to go viral until you’re in the middle of kind of going viral. And for a few crazy days in January, that post ricocheted around the world.

I appreciated the thousands of shares and likes and comments, including all of the people who told me their personal sabbatical stories. It seems to be part of the human condition to yearn — at least a little — for the time to live life without the demands of a job. And that longing was evident among people from around the world. I heard from businesswomen and men in Brazil, the Philippines, China, Sudan and India, from myriad industries.

Many of the commenters asked me to post again when I decided what I’d do after my gap year. Lately I feel like I’m done gorging at the trough of life, and I’ve started consulting here and there, testing the waters of the gig economy.

This week, I started a four-month stint at Origin Investments, a private equity real estate investment firm in Chicago that has added a crowdfunding platform to their investment options.

I’ll be filling in for Melissa Harris, Origin’s vice president of marketing, who is expecting a baby in May and will be taking a three-month leave.

Marketing isn’t necessarily where I saw myself landing next, but I’m eager to get back in the game and learn new skills and whole new industries.

The aspect I’m most excited about is that I’ll be filling in for a woman executive so she can take a maternity leave and focus on her baby and herself for awhile, with no distractions from work.

When Melissa, a friend and former colleague at the Chicago Tribune, approached me to see if I’d be interested, she was struggling with how she’d be able to leave a job she loves at a fast-growing company to focus on her maternity leave, even temporarily. She’s lucky that her bosses were enlightened enough to agree to bring in a consultant during her leave, which, because the firm has fewer than 50 employees, isn’t even required to follow the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The arrangement is this: I will perform Melissa’s duties while she’s on leave and hand the operation back to her when her leave is over, so she can hit the ground running.

Who knows, after I finish this job I may move on to help another executive who is having a baby. There is certainly no shortage of women who want to have a successful family and a successful career.

I recently met an entrepreneur whose ears perked up when she heard about this arrangement I’ve got going with Melissa and Origin. This new friend of mine? She’s due in August.

I think it’s clear by now that businesses with women leaders are more successful financially. And if we’re going to expect and encourage more women to take on executive roles, we’re going to need to figure out arrangements like this to help them do it. I feel good about the fact that this is how I will be re-entering the workforce.

It must mean something that nearly every woman I mention this arrangement to is captivated by the idea. They’re all as inspired by the possibilities of it as I am. Perhaps Melissa and I are in on the beginning of a movement; one in which former female executives support current female executives in new ways. Wouldn’t that be great?

I’ve asked Melissa to write about what led her to think up this arrangement and what she hopes will come of it. Here are a few words from Melissa Harris:

On the eve of Christmas vacation, my boss, Michael Episcope, sat across my desk and explained that he didn’t think the firm could go without a marketing chief during my maternity leave.

Although we’re a small firm at fewer than 15 employees, we control nearly $500 million in commercial real estate nationwide and are rapidly growing our investor base through both traditional means and our website. Michael worried that if we didn’t bring in a consultant, we’d lose momentum. I shared his concern, but my first instinct was to panic. What if this temporary replacement stole my job?

Michael did two very important things to get me comfortable with the idea. First, he gave me full authority to select the consultant, and, more importantly, he kept his word about it.

I created a list of three people, all women, with Jane at the top. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided that Jane was the only choice. I told Michael, “Either Jane signs on, or I work through maternity leave and the company provides my child care.”

I want to be very frank about why I feel so comfortable with this arrangement. First is the fact that Jane was the last person to hire me, seven years ago as a business columnist at the Chicago Tribune. Thus, we have been schooled in the same culture, ethics and even the same writing style.

Second, I trust Jane. Aside from the fact that she’s a friend and mentor, she also is a sorority sister and media industry veteran. Our social networks and experiences overlap so much that both of us would be placing a lot of goodwill at risk if either balked at or tried to amend the arrangement.

And third, and most importantly, she’s going to be great for Origin Investments. She has both launched a startup as founding editor of RedEye and led a 450-person newsroom as managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. She knows how to grab people’s attention, having kept a close eye on audience metrics for decades. And she knows how to execute a strategy.

Meanwhile, I get three months to focus on my family. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank Jane for signing on. But the people I most need to thank are Origin’s cofounders, Michael Episcope and David Scherer, for being progressive, innovative leaders in the private equity and real estate industries, which are home to far too few women executives.

Melissa Harris is vice president of marketing at Origin Investments and a 2016 graduate of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Jane Hirt is the former managing editor and vice president of the Chicago Tribune. She is currently a Chicago-based consultant.