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Mum’s the word at the top table

By Rachelle Peard. Published on 22 October 2014

As a working mum of one, Lynne Colgate, interim management partner in Human Resources at Eton Bridge Partners, knows only too well the demands of juggling a career with motherhood. Here, she interviews three senior women HR professionals, all of whom are parents, and asks about the secrets of their success and the advice they would give to those wanting to combine being a mum with a top level role.

To view the by full article on the Changeboard blog, please click here

Lynne (LC) spoke to:

  • Cheryl Elbishlawi (CE) previously Senior Vice President HR, Universal Music Group International. Cheryl has three children, aged 17, 14 and 10.

Cheryl Elbishlawi - senior HR professional (2)

  • Jane Pateman (JP), Group HR Director at Biffa Waste Services has two grown up sons in their 20s.

Jane Pateman - Group HR Director at Biffa Waste Services

  • Joanne Walker (JW), People Director at Auto Trader, has three children aged 12, 10 and six.

Joanne Walker - People Director at Auto Trader (2)

LC: Tell us about your career.

CE: I started my career in hotels over 25 years ago, progressing through HR and moving to telecoms, where as an HR manager, I had my first two children. I was lucky to have two great mentors early on, who were incredibly professional and role models of how to combine a career with children.

JP: I was very young, particularly by today’s standards, when I had my children. I was working as a personnel advisor, but wanted to stay at home during their early years.  I took the opportunity to study while I was a stay at home mum. It fuelled my ambition and I went back to work when my youngest was three. I juggled studying for a degree part time in the evenings, with a full time job and two young children.

JW: I was a manager at British Airways before going Auto Trader as the HRD, I had only been there a year when I had my first child, but I was honest with them at the interview and said I wanted children.

LC: Was it difficult managing childcare?

CE: A good support network is very important. My husband was working very long hours, I was juggling full time work and if the nanny was sick I had to call on my mum. Eventually my husband gave up his job to look after the children, it was as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

JP: I couldn’t have done it without a family network, both mothers lived locally, my husband was self-employed and had some flexibility and we had a childminder as well.

JW: It was a real juggling act, we had part-time nannies, we used a nursery and then I took a two year career break to help my husband set up his own business. When the recession hit I went back to work, so we had a part-time nanny, school runs and nursery to juggle once more.

LC: What have been some of the biggest challenges?

CE: With your first child you think the care arrangements you make are there for ever, but stay open minded and don’t be afraid to change things. We had a live-in nanny at first, but after a few months we realised that didn’t suit us as a family, so we shared a nanny instead.

JP: It was always harder in the summer holidays. That was the time I felt most guilty about working. On the plus side, by the time I was making real progress in my career in my 30s, my boys were older and less dependent on me.

JW: When dates change! I have a brilliant online diary – everything is in there, I really plan ahead for events like sports day, so it’s very frustrating if the school moves things around.  Also, when meetings are being arranged away from home, the men tend to put the date in the diary and move on whereas every woman in the room is immediately working out how to organise childcare.

LC: What’s your view on maternity leave?

CE: How long you take off is a very personal decision, you have to weigh up how flexible your boss is, where you are in your career and what you can afford. Keeping in Touch days are something everyone should make full use of.

JP: Many women now have children later in life when their careers are more established. Everyone I know has come back and hit the ground running. It’s about flexibility, you need to be kind to yourself while you get over the babyhood stage.  Most people that I know or who have worked for me have tended to take the maximum time off – I don’t blame them!

JW: For my first child I only took four months off because I hadn’t been in the job long, for the other two I took longer.  If you take a year off, it can be like returning to a different organisation, Keeping in Touch days can really help.

LC: How essential is an understanding boss?

CE:  It helps to have a supportive boss who understands the challenges of working and having young children. However it is important to demonstrate you can add value and remain focussed at work. I have never hidden the fact I have children, but I have never used them as an excuse either.

JP: Most employers now are more progressive and forward-thinking. When I went back to work I did a job share for the first year so I could get them ready for school and nursery, but I soon realised I wouldn’t get on unless I took a full-time role and I haven’t looked back. Now, as a director, as long as I am getting the output it doesn’t matter if my team is in the office or working from home. It’s a different world now and flexible working and technology have resulted in more options.

JW: In our organisation it’s very much accepted that both men and women have to juggle their day around childcare, there’s much more flexibility in terms of flexible working, working from home, reduced hour contracts. It’s a combination of arrangements that works best. With my team, I focus on output, not input – by all means pick up your children, but log on later and that’s fine with me.

LC: What’s the best piece of advice you could give?

CE: People are always quick to give advice and share opinions, only you know what works best for you, your family and your career. Plan ahead when you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get to one school event. There will be others.

JP: It’s all about focus – if you are delivering, then people aren’t really noticing the hours you’re doing. Be sensible and plan your career, some roles involve a lot more travel, which can be difficult with young children. I got here by being motivated, ambitious, tenacious and resilient and I think anyone can do it if they really want to. Be flexible and you will always find a solution or a way through.

JW: Use your 20s to work out what you really love doing and establish your career, so you have your 30s to have children if you want them. And don’t imagine barriers that aren’t really there.

Written by Lynne Colgate

Lynne is interim management partner in human resources at Eton Bridge Partners.