When you champion parental leave for employees but are back at work yourself after two weeks

Sally Merritt is co-founder and CEO of Evotra, the three-year old business that helps wealth managers make a success of their technology. She’s also a new mother who has returned to work just two weeks after giving birth. A champion of parental leave among her own employees, here she talks about her decision and shares the considerations, planning and support that have enabled her to do this. 

The moment I broke the news of my pregnancy to Dips (Evotra’s co-founder Depesh Pankhania) we went into planning mode. It’s what we do!  

Our business is all about overcoming challenges: pinpointing problems, developing solutions, creating plans and then implementing them. So, thankfully, we had some good transferable skills and are both wired up to thrive in the face of chaos. But this was huge.  

Evotra – our business, our baby – was just three years old and growing at a pace. We had 20 employees who had all chosen to build careers with us – many leaving established businesses for ours. Dips’ own family security was linked to Evotra’s success. And our clients were trusting us to see them through critical technology transformations.  

And here was I, doubling my own personal scope of work by expanding into ‘babies’, an area I had no hands-on experience in! 

Foregoing maternity leave 

Maternity leave was never going to happen. I knew this immediately. Business founders – particularly those with fledgling companies – have different circumstances to employees. I couldn’t step away. And I didn’t want to either. This was my life; the one I’d chosen so I had to make it work. 

Essential home support 

None of this could have happened without the right support at home.  

I’m not the kind of CEO who can afford an army of helpers but I am in the privileged position of having an incredibly supportive husband who is putting his own career on hold to stay at home with our baby this year. So yes, it’s a wrench to not have our little boy in my arms but what a wonderful start this is for him.  

Hybrid work makes all the difference too. I’m not physically separated; he’s there in the other room right now! 

But I do have to say, it is hugely frustrating that while the UK has made significant progress with Shared Parental Leave and Shared Parental Pay, this doesn’t extend to the self-employed – which includes my husband. So the choice we’ve made does have big financial consequences for us. And it’s a deal breaker for many others.  

Fundamentally, the current system places the entire burden of childcare onto the mother, and offers no financial support for self-employed fathers or same-sex partners wanting to share some or all of the childcare. I sincerely hope this inflexible piece of legislation changes in the future for other people in my position.

Making it work at work 

The logistics at work were somewhat more challenging. But, as I said, planning and project management are in mine and Dips’ DNA, and I’m so lucky to have had him by my side. We kept it to ourselves a long way into my pregnancy until we’d come at it from every angle, scoped out what it was going to look like and stress tested it. And, naturally, developed Plan B and C too! 

A couple of colleagues certainly noticed I was pregnant and I’m eternally grateful they kept schtum until I was ready to talk about it! 

So what are we doing? 

I’m focusing my time and energy on clients, where I can add the most. I’m leading a client through a complex project right now; one that was in full swing before the baby was born. Clients have been fantastic. They want me to show up, are grateful I’m here at work and have gone out of their way to be supportive. 

One thing I’m eternally thankful for is that Dips and I followed through on our ambition to build the very best team we could. Our focus is squarely on people that are not only highly skilled but genuine collaborators and problem solvers too. It’s stood us in good stead because our team has been fantastic at absorbing some of my responsibilities and grabbing the opportunity to develop and grow.  

We’ve hired in extra help too – a highly experienced trainer on a fixed-term contract who’s here to make sure our clients get all the targeted training they need. Our full-time business readiness trainer just happens to be part way through her year’s maternity leave right now! 

Of course some things have to give but when you’re in charge of a business you do have control in certain areas. So we’ve pushed back some of those items that we absolutely want to do but that aren’t time sensitive and won’t impact our clients. Our focus is on our core propositions and growth strategy and we’re still going full steam ahead with some big new initiatives. 

Staying clear of the wrong kind of advice   

One big mistake I made early in my pregnancy was turning to social media for research on everything to do with babies – ‘having it all’, birth plans, breastfeeding, nursery design, you name it. As a natural planner, this is my default mode. But it was miserable; a world of unrealistic expectations and inevitable disappointment. So I put a stop to it and instead sought advice from people I know and respect.  

My closest friends have all had babies and have been invaluable. So too have my work network, many of whom are old hands at juggling children and successful careers. I cannot tell you what a joy it’s been to hear people you know and admire say, “yes, it’s hard but it’s doable if that’s what you want.”  

Inevitably, I did also get a lot of unsolicited advice. Well-intentioned but not helpful! So to anyone in my shoes, I’d say: there is no right way to do this. You’ve got to do what’s right for you and your business. 

How am I feeling one month in?  

Going back to work has without a doubt been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. There have been lots of tears from the sadness and guilt of leaving my child, I’m exhausted from lack of sleep and am dealing with so many new challenges like the logistics of breastfeeding and handling crowded trains so soon after a caesarean section.  

But my first day back was an on-site client workshop and I came home buzzing. I loved every minute and it reminded me how lucky I am to truly love what I do. And I’ve witnessed the very best of human nature over these past months; the support and kindness from those around me has been overwhelming. 

So, yes, this is a huge challenge but also a privilege. I get to choose my own path. I can work around child care, work from home when I need to, decide where to live, and Dips and I can grow the business at a pace that works for us. And of course I now have a new focus – to make a success of all of this for my family.