Shivani Ranchod | May 2018
It was odd to be away from, and out of contact with, my son, my mother and my grandmother. What it did allow for, though, is the space to reflect on the nature of motherhood and on my new role as Percept CEO (aka Percept Work Mom).
To be clear, in my personal understanding of motherhood I’ve tried to separate out the social construct (with its inherent gender stereotypes) from the essence. Motherhood has come to symbolise a certain quality of care and attention: the gender of the person delivering this care is irrelevant, and whether this care is in the context of a biological parental relationship is beside the point. My meditation teacher, Sue Cooper, introduced me to the Bodhisattva Guanyin (sometimes Kuan Yin), a symbol of compassion and good-enough mothering. The thing I love most about Guanyin (besides her ability to listen to the cries of the world at ease) is that the figure is depicted as both male and female, depicting a “limitless transcendence beyond gender”.
In the dividing up of roles between myself and Dave (read more about how we did this in my blog “Slaying the Bicephalic Beast”) it was always clear that the people-related bodega would rest with me. Not because I am a woman, but because I spend much of my time thinking about how to create environments in which people thrive (whether this is the classroom or the workplace).
I think that a fundamental characteristic of such an environment is that it allows people to carry their multiple roles and identities in a way that is integrated. This isn’t easy. Kelly Chennells wrote about some of her personal experience in this regard in her blog “The reality of a part-time working mom”.
Paradoxically, that also means enabling people to have clear boundaries between their work lives and personal lives. Having these boundaries means that it becomes possible to be fully present at work, and at home. Things like checking emails at home lead to fragmentation and distraction. It is hard for our loved ones to feel truly loved and nourished when we dilute their attention. We don’t expect our team to be available 24/7 and to answer emails at all hours of the day. If managing my work/life balance means that I come back online after my son goes to bed, then that is absolutely fine – as long as I don’t impose those work hours on anyone else.
Similarly, doing good work means being free to fully focus on work: ideally work that is purposeful, work that stimulates our curiousity and work that feeds another aspect of our identity. Anja Smith’s blog on maternal mortality in the Cape Colony is a wonderful example of that – it represents a deeply thoughtful piece of work on a fascinating dataset, that not only has historical value but also informs that way that we think about maternal care in our current health system. It is particularly relevant in South Africa where we have over- and under-medicalisation sitting side-by-side.
Creating a work environment that supports parenthood (and all of the other caregiving roles we play) means that we have to think carefully about flexibility and accountability. This means supporting part-time work, enabling people to work as “slashers” or as “giggers”, using technological platforms that enable team communication (we use Slack), as well as time-tracking software like Toggl (in our case, more to ensure that our part-time employees don’t over-work as opposed to the other way around). It also means having a parental-leave policy – even though we are a small start-up and the financial risk is considerable. We’ve worked hard to get to something that doesn’t make gendered assumptions about who the primary care-giver is, allows for same-sex relationships, and allows for adoption. We’ve also thought hard about the ways in which people re-evaluate their careers in the period of parental leave by building in the ability to re-organise your work-life.
Building a caring organisation is akin in many ways to the process of motherhood. How is that you enable your team to feel seen and heard, and, consequently, truly valued? Seeing the connections between the two leads to thinking about things like performance management completely differently. We’ve ended up with a personal growth framework instead of a performance management framework – in the same way that we think about ways of enabling our children to grow and thrive, and not ways of performance managing them. This doesn’t mean an absence of discipline, but it does mean a blend of love and discipline.
We are still at the early stages of figuring all of this out, and we have no doubt that it will shift and change as we grow. I am all too aware that we need to build an organisation that can scale and that isn’t dependent on either Dave or myself. We’ve worked closely with the amazing Lele from mPower to help us with our organisational design and to give us an outside perspective. This is part of a multi-disciplinary approach, and recognising that actuaries can solve some problems, but not all problems.
As for being the Percept Work Mom, it has been gratifying to realise that creating a caring organisation means that you are as likely to be on the receiving end of care as you are to be the one dispensing care. I am writing this blog from my bed, having been encouraged by my team to take a sick day and to do a better of job of taking care of myself. I slept in this morning, and woke to find that my son had put toothpaste on my toothbrush (as well as on the bathroom counter…), evidence that kindness begets kindness, both at home and at work. What’s love got to do with it? Everything.