What to Expect When A Startup CEO Is Expecting
I have three babies: a toddler, a startup, and an infant. I’m happy to report that each is not only surviving, but thriving. If I can do it, you can, too.
To be fair, let’s ground the discussion of pregnancy and startup founders in reality: babies are never convenient and startups are never easy. Also, both of these endeavors are notoriously unpredictable in their timelines and necessary resources. Combining them requires flexibility, intrinsic motivation, and the ability to ask for and accept help.
Here’s my advice for integrating pregnancy and maternity leave into your startup operations:
- OWN IT.
I made the mistake of acting like a teen mom for too long in my pregnancy, hiding in big sweaters and, once, behind my laptop as I stood to shake a VC’s hand. It was a welcome relief when I started talking about the increasingly obvious reality around the halfway point of the pregnancy. Most people responded with a resounding “Congratulations!’ and some even added “How can I support you?” (← bonus points!). I enjoyed my pregnancy significantly more when I was able to show off the bump as an illustration of a pregnant founder confidently navigating the demands of startup life. Plus, others were able to approach the topic more comfortably when they didn’t need to pretend to ignore the elephant in the room (me!).
Communicate your needs with the people you work with — co-workers, partners, investors, etc. Whether you need accommodations for physical limitations, travel restrictions, or even just more out-of-office time for (so many!) doctor’s appointments, tell the people around you what’s up. If your startup has a typical team composition, you may be the first ever pregnant colleague your teammates have seen in the wild. Bring them along for as much of the ride as you’re comfortable sharing and, in all likelihood, they’ll meet you with empathy at every turn.
3. HAVE A [DETAILED] PLAN.
Your partners, funders, your team and you need to know that the operations you drive at the startup won’t grind to a halt when you’re gone. I recommend one of two tactics, depending on the size of the team: If you’re larger than 5 people, appoint an interim CEO. This person could be your cofounder, advisor, or other close partner but he/she definitely needs to know the team and its operating rhythms to give everyone the confidence that there won’t be upheavals that get in the way of forward progress while you’re out. If you’re still a tiny team and an interim CEO position doesn’t make sense, then divvy up your role across a few deeply trusted team members, e.g. Person A is in charge of all product-related decisions and Person B is the final say on all marketing and external relations matters.
I started by making a list of all issues that come across my desk in a given period — the decisions (when to fundraise, hire), requests (expense reports, speaking invitations), and random questions and tasks (“We’re out of almond butter!”) that I deal with in the highly unglamorous role as CEO of a seed-stage startup. Then I divvied up my role among my two cofounders. A month before my due date, I met with each of them to train (where required) and share access to documents and tools they’d need to fulfill their interim roles. I also communicated the interim reporting structure to the team and any external stakeholders who were likely to be affected.
Turns out, very few unforeseen issues came up, but the act of preparing for the universe of possibilities was a useful exercise for all parties.
4. STEP AWAY. I MEAN IT.
I know, I know. We’re all workaholics in a fast-paced, prove-it culture and there’s a real and pervasive pressure to give birth (with no drugs, ideally at home or at least in a tub) while answering emails.
But, seriously, you’re having a BABY and, especially in the first few weeks, that tiny human is going to be far more capricious and demanding than your startup ever dreamed of being. Your body will become temporarily unrecognizable as it recovers from childbirth and strives to meet (or pass on) the demands of breastfeeding. Your world will suddenly feel smaller as your OKRs take on a decidedly quotidian nature — showering, leaving the house, and changing your yoga pants every other day. Soon enough you’ll be back in the swing of things, but until you are, it’s not fair to you, your baby, or your team to be on the hook for external deliverables while your hands are (literally) tied up, trying to swaddle that baby.
Beyond giving you the space and time to learn how to be a mom, your maternity leave can be a great growth opportunity for your team. When I wasn’t around to manage (or micromanage, in some cases) every little decision, each team member expanded his/her role in driving the company forward. When I did return full-time after 6 weeks (mostly) away, I assumed the reigns on many of former duties, but found in several instances that my deputies had come up with better ways of managing my former processes, there were plenty of key decisions that I didn’t need to be so directly involved in, and we all had greater empathy for one another’s roles in the company. We leveled up as a team and we are better and more efficient because of it.
5. EMBRACE A NEW REALITY.
Whether it’s your first or sixth child, you will have a new baseline of crazy in your life. Don’t waste your time trying to get back to the way things were at home or the office before the new bundle arrived.
Maternity leave gave me a broader perspective on my family life and my professional self. Back at work with a blank slate, I was strategic about how I filled up my calendar. Of course there were tasks that I needed to jump back into — turns out, no one volunteered to take on fundraising in my absence. But before filling up the days with status meetings and project reviews, I forced myself to be intentional about my time. Am I required in this meeting if the team moved forward so efficiently without me last month? How can I expand my own role to focus on new areas of growth and development for the company? My maternity leave required everyone to focus on the most high value priorities — including my own.
If you want a baby and a startup, you can have them both. Only you know what time horizon is right for your circumstances. When you’re ready, go for it and don’t ask for permission — or forgiveness.