Startup fathers: Start taking parental leave

Tiho Bajić
CEO, LTSE Software
Feb 14 2018

The Bajic Family — 2018 New Year’s Eve

My first work day in 2018 also marked my return to work at the Long-Term Stock Exchange after 7 weeks of parental leave and being largely offline. Given our startup’s stage, most people express surprise at how the LTSE and even I personally could sustain such a long absence from work. Even more surprising is that my leave was governed by an LTSE-established parental leave policy. In fact, our CEO Eric Ries was largely offline the first two months of 2017 as his family welcomed their second child. These reactions stem from commonplace misguided expectations about behavioral tropes upon which great startups are built. I should know. With my first two kids each time I rushed back to full-time work within a week only to see my performance decline and irritability spike up while I stubbornly fought sleep deprivation. This is also why it was great to witness two archetypal startup founders — Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Alexis Ohanian; cofounder of Reddit & Initialized Capital, which is a seed investor in the LTSE— champion parental leaves in 2017.

CHILDREN AND GENDER INEQUALITY: EVIDENCE FROM DENMARK: https://www.henrikkleven.com/uploads/3/7/3/1/37310663/kleven-landais-sogaard_nber-w24219_jan2018.pdf

The poor parental leave policy problem is not limited to startups and broadly affects all Americans. The US is one of the few remaining countries without a national paid parental leave law, which affects those working for small businesses even more. Parenthood leads to globally pronounced gender inequality. Unlike men, women’s earnings are highly impacted after having kids. The good news is that companies like Google and Patagonia are showing the way by sharing data on how extended paid parental leave makes good business sense as it increases retention. And one way to right the gender inequality is to encourage fathers to take parental leave and lead by example like Alexis at Reddit and Mark at Facebook did. Supporting fathers is also supporting women. It leads to parity at work and home.

Regardless of their company’s parental or other extended leave policy, new parents and their peers need to deal with planning for parental leave. I’d like to share some personal and LTSE-related lessons in hopes of helping other individuals and companies prepare for handling employee leaves more effectively.

At LTSE, we enjoy strong family first and work-effort sustainability cultural values. During my parental leave, the following three key concepts made it easier to practice these values: DRI, 6-week plans, and team agreed-upon policies.

DRI

In addition to a formal reporting structure at the LTSE, we also self-organize in cross-functional teams to achieve key business objectives. Each key objective has a Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) — as popularized by Steve Jobs at Apple. The first step for my parental leave prep was to determine who would take over from me as DRI for my key projects and how we’d manage that transition. Once I had the list, it informed the internal conversations and rebalancing the rest of the team had to do. It made writing that out-of-office email that helps reroute inbound inquiries especially easy. It also helped me feel that everything truly important would get proper attention so I didn’t get bogged down with parsing out the long tail of odd tasks and unique responsibilities startup people inherently own.

6-week plan

Each calendar quarter at the LTSE is broken down into two 6-week plans. Each key project is represented on our 6-week plans and planned to run in a build-measure-learn feedback loop. Having identified new DRIs, I worked ahead of time to create a mutually agreed-upon six week plan. As I expected to reassume my DRI roles, my main peace-of-mind benefit was establishing a sandbox for what would be done, what could be expected over 6 weeks but also what might be the worst that could happen in my absence. Another benefit of our 6-week plans is being able to measure results against an expected (learning) metric. During my absence, temporary DRIs were doing a great job on some projects and we were able to discuss making them permanent DRIs. For example, as a result of good performance, we streamlined all engineering hiring with my colleague Beth, our software engineering manager. Likewise, Pavitra, a software engineer assumed and remained the main point of contact for our partners for Captable.ioFast409A, and Disclosure. As I came back to full-time work in January, it was definitely empowering to have the comfort and confidence that someone else would continue to do a great job with something that used to be my responsibility. Finally, the 6-week plan that was created in my absence made ramping back up relatively simple and quick. I only needed to spend a few hours to get a holistic sense of how we did on the plan I helped put in place and what the current plan looked like. In my first 1:1’s with the team it felt like I hardly skipped a beat.

Team agreed-upon policies

Instead of setting up completely unrealistic, unsustainable and unfair expectations concerning major life events, at the LTSE we allow people going through these events to suggest guidelines after doing appropriate research. This prepares the rest of the team to weigh in before a policy is formed and subsequently enacted. For example, one our first policies was around paid time off that arose as part of summer-vacation planning. This then led to establishing time-off and remote work communication guidelines. When it came to my parental time off, Eric was great in first establishing support to take the time my family and I would need. I then had plenty of time to research informed paid family leave practices at other startups (Nicole Miller from Buffer lists a number of reference points I also considered), research practices like Equally Shared Parenting that personally resonate, and finally suggest a policy. Holly, our Chief Operating Officer, benchmarked these suggestions against the industry and our financial realities before we had an informed set of policy recommendations we discussed as a team. I felt empowered and supported throughout the process and now can champion our benefits (including up to 8 weeks of fully paid time off for new parents, regardless of gender) and approach to other future parents (internal to our company as well as candidates we’re hoping to attract).

I hope this post encourages other expecting parents to push for leave policies that make more sense than the poorly defined federal and state laws. Feel free to reach out directly if you’d like a confidential sounding board for talking about your company’s leave policy. I also hope that I highlighted some ways that can be used to mitigate business disruption caused by personal leaves. I’d appreciate if readers could share their own experiences via comments.

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