Bold Career Moves Inspired by Parenthood

Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr says new parent epiphanies can drive success in high-power jobs.

At a time when the world needs strong leadership, it’s all hands on deck. Yet data shows that women continue to be an underleveraged resource. In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, will explore the intersection of career, relationships, and gender and the impact on families, organizations, and society.

Having a baby prompts new parents to change a lot of things about their lives. Sleep schedules, financial priorities, transforming the office into a nursery, discarding any unsafe plastic or toxins. Even new mom haircuts are a thing. But I’ve noticed another trend in baby-inspired changes—bold career moves.

This week I reluctantly sent off a colleague just back from maternity leave who is being called to an exciting, high-profile position at a new company. This isn’t the first time I’ve bid best wishes to a colleague with a new baby at home who was inspired to make a career change. In fact, come to think of it, I did it, too.

Unfortunately, that isn’t quite how it usually works. As a rule, few jobs are designed in a way that are appealing to new parents. Among professional women, 43% of women with children leave their jobs. There are so many reasons to leave: prohibitive cost of childcare, missing out on key milestones, unsupportive workplace cultures. And while co-parenting is on the rise, the choice and responsibility to be at home with the children more often falls to women. A 2014 poll found that among nonworking adults between 25 and 54 years old, 61% of women cited family responsibilities for not working compared with 37% of men.

Of course, taking on new responsibilities and building credibility in a bigger job may seem like the last thing a new parent wants to do in a bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived state. For some, it will be purely a financial decision. Either way, there is some surprising evidence that the transformation new parents experience builds leadership qualities that are essential for taking on big, high-profile jobs.

For one thing, becoming a parent can be a humbling experience that grounds people in their true and multifaceted identity. It’s a trait similar to “authenticity,” which is the ability to integrate different aspects of oneself, and one that top female executives we have interviewed have cited as critical toward helping them bring a wide range of leadership qualities to work. New parents are also focused around a sense of purpose—which can translate well into the workplace, too. Indeed, in a recent Korn Ferry study of 58 women CEOs, nearly seven in 10 said they were motivated by a sense of purpose—by the thought that the company could have a positive impact on its community, its employees, or the world around them. Their purpose-driven leadership was central to their efforts to create a positive culture that could bring out the best in others who are also trying to make a difference.

And then there are the traits of courage and risk-taking, a prerequisite for becoming a parent. As it turns out, women CEOs are 2.33 times more likely to score high on courage than professional women in other leadership roles. The manifold sources of their courage include a strong need to seek out new challenges, a desire to make a difference, a feeling that they have more to offer, and in some cases a grounding in their power as mothers. Of the 58 CEOs in the study, at least 84% shared examples of courage in career decisions, and 64% shared examples that required strong or very strong displays of courage. Their courage resulted in their willingness to take risks that would advance and grow their businesses and their careers.

All of these traits are within the grasp of new parents. The fierce parenting instinct is not limited to caring for and protecting baby. It kicks into gear when parents see the world through a new lens. And many, if you think about it, are not going to be happy about leaving their baby behind if the job they’re returning to isn’t impactful. A whole new measuring stick is held up to see whether it’s worth a new parent’s time and energy and income. If a job is designed in a way that engages mind and spirit and offers an energizing challenge, new parents are more likely to return to the workforce and thrive.

In the end, successful women CEOs tell us that it is possible to have it all—just not all at once. If they were to offer a work-life hack, it would be to do it on your terms. And this is why, despite my reluctance to lose a close colleague, I am celebrating her courage to say yes to a big job that scares her a little bit. She’s making a bold move in the postpartum window, and I have her back.