The twinundrom of leadership precedent and personal choice

Kathleen Saxton, Founder & CEO of The Lighthouse Company, reflects on Marissa Mayer’s announcement of a speedy return to work following the birth of her twins.

Last week, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer announced that she was pregnant with identical twin girls. As a mother of two myself, I am absolutely thrilled for Marissa and her family and the amazing years that lie ahead.

Much has been talked about the words written in Marissa’s announcement, in particular; “I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.”

Whether you agree or disagree with the Yahoo chief’s decision, you cannot help but admire her dedication and commitment to her business. This is very much a personal decision, and while for some it may seem like a hasty return to the boardroom table, none of us can truly know what conversations and sacrifices Marissa and her family have made to support this decision.

However, I do believe that the impact of this decision will ripple further than Marissa’s own family unit. A year after giving birth to her son, Yahoo under Mayer’s leadership, generously extended paid parental leave to 16 weeks for mothers and 8 weeks for fathers. Not taking full advantage of this leave may lead to some uncertainty among Yahoo’s workforce – should they really be taking full advantage of what their company offers if their CEO doesn’t?

Like annual leave and other benefits, this is there to be taken. I do not, for one second, believe that Yahoo has any ulterior motive for their generous parental leave. Yet I do know that employees look to their leaders for direction, guidance and generally what to do – so Marissa’s very personal decision could have ramifications beyond her own immediate circumstances.

Every year our New World Talent Survey identifies the ‘most dynamic leaders’ through the eyes of other senior talent. We’ve found it incredibly insightful that those seen to be the most dynamic were seen to be leading the businesses performing the best in our poll, regardless of whether the results or the policies of those businesses were actually positive or appealing.

What this means is that your role as a leader goes way beyond delivering financial results and keeping shareholders and other stakeholders happy. The role of the leader is also to act as the chief motivator, cheerleader and voice for the entire workforce – your actions, behaviour and decisions will always be heavily scrutinised, looked up to and ultimately copied by those most important to your business’s, and your own, success.

This is really a classic case of ‘you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t’ and illustrative of the kind of challenge that today’s leaders repeatedly face in a dynamically changing workplace.

My advice? Just bear in mind the impact that your own personal decisions have on those around you when faced with similar situations, but perhaps with differing circumstances.  As leaders, we can’t and shouldn’t expect everyone to make the same choices that we do, but we must be conscious of the precedent that we may set.

I for one have experienced the challenges that come with my own team trying to, or worrying about, mimicking my personal work style and ethic. As founder of the Lighthouse, with my Advertising Week responsibilities and my training as a psychotherapist I have made choices and sacrifices that mean six or seven working day weeks have become the norm for the moment – a pattern that I would never expect from any of my team, it is simply what my career plan demands of me right now. For most founders and CEOs this ‘always on’ mind-set comes with the territory in the early years, but at the same time we have a duty of care to explicitly express that we do not expect this of everyone.

Given the decisive leadership we’ve seen from Marissa Mayer in her three years at the helm of Yahoo, I’m pretty sure she will be encouraging all of her Yahoo colleagues to do what is absolutely right for their own personal paths – just as she has chosen her own.  Who are we to judge?  As leaders, we are simply here to allow life to breathe in the way it needs to for each individual inspired and motivated enough to turn up and be part of our mission each day.