Managing motherhood in a client services role

Calling all working mums out there - how many times have you slithered out the door at 3pm racked with guilt about leaving early to make school pick up? To coincide with International Women’s Day, DDB Sydney managing partner Kate Sheppard recommends mums stop the shame and leave loudly.

Being an extrovert, I’m a pretty loud person by most people’s standards. So being quiet about my presence in (or absence from) a meeting room was not my happy place when I first became a working parent 10 years ago.

It’s worth noting this change in behaviour wasn’t by direction from anyone other than myself. In fact, back then I had a very supportive CEO at DDB who made it clear when I fell pregnant with my first child that we would make it work for me, whatever it took.

Despite their support, I still felt as if I had to slither out the door at 3pm and found myself making excuses to clients as to why I wouldn’t be available, rather than reminding them I now work a four-day week.

It had a lot to do with the culture around flexible working conditions at the time. Remember, this was 2009, so I was one of the only women in the agency with a flexible working arrangement and certainly the only one in client services. There was a concern that I’d no longer be at the beck and call of my client’s deadlines and demands due to the needs of my young family.

The only reason I knew it was possible was because our clients were doing it way before agencies. Part time work, working from home and job-sharing were not uncommon in marketing departments at the time. Ad agencies were slower to come to the party, but there’s no doubt we’ve made strides in recent years.

Taking the challenge into our own hands, I worked with a very encouraging HR director to observe and research what big companies like Westpac, Novartis and Unilever were doing, so DDB could implement a consistent parental leave/flexible working policy. That was the easy part. It was the cultural change that took a lot more work. At the time, there was a distinct lack of understanding and acceptance within the broader agency.

‘Why should she get to leave at five when I’m here till eight, just because she has kids? Can’t she get a babysitter? Why should I have to get something ready an hour earlier just so she can pick up her kids? It was her choice to have them, so surely she should figure out how to review stuff when I’m ready? Why should we move the meeting to a day when she’s here?’

In fairness, these weren’t always articulated out loud, but they were absolutely presented in the looks, the comments, and the innuendos. As a result, I became a master at slinking out the door when my colleagues were distracted on phone calls.

One of my best tricks was putting my bag at reception at lunchtime so I could surreptitiously leave my desk at five with just a mobile phone in my hand, and it looked like I was going upstairs for a meeting.

Cut to a decade later and now, with three children under my belt including twins, I have had enough time and experience to learn that leaving loudly is the only way to go. When I realised a while back that other people were looking at me to see if this whole suit/mother thing could work, there was nothing to be achieved from being quiet about it.

Not only did it detract from my authenticity as a leader, but I realised no one else in the agency was going to be loud and proud about their need for personal balance and flexibility – whether they were parents or not – unless I was too.

So, if I’m leaving at five to pick up my kids from school, or coming in late because I need to watch my son succeed/fail at his swimming carnival, or going on a 10 year anniversary trip with my husband the week before a major shoot – then everybody from my team, to my colleagues, to my executives, to my clients know about it.

Acknowledging family exists and sometimes they take priority over my job keeps it real. I don’t look at it as a compromise.

I think my colleagues would agree I get my job done well and in a timeframe I make work for both me and my client responsibilities. Same goes for the other way around, when my job takes priority over my family commitments.

I may be in client service, but I’m also in service to my role as wife and grower of little humans. There ain’t no louder and prouder role than that.

Kate Sheppard is a managing partner at DDB Sydney.


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