How to keep high-performing women in the workforce

July 25, 2011: 10:34 AM ET

An executive mother offers her take on what employers ought to do to retain star female employees who want to start a family. 

By Georgia Collins, guest contributor

FORTUNE -- I never thought I'd be a working mom. My mom wasn't a workingmom and I loved that she stayed home. I wanted to be like her. I still do. But somewhere along the line, I found a career.

So before I started a family, I had a solid amount of time to build and refine something else -- a skill set, a team, and, most importantly, a passion for what I do. Suddenly walking away from all of that didn't seem like the right thing to me.

It wasn't easy going back to work in March -- five months after my son was born -- and I'm still conflicted on a daily basis by my choice. Luckily, I know an extraordinary group of women who've taken the same path as me. They are amazing moms who also have incredible careers -- across a wide variety of industries. These women are overachievers across the board. So when it came to finding a way to balance being a mom and having a career, their starting point was not about compromising one for the sake of the other. Instead, it was about finding a way to make both work, and work well.

I asked them what tips they would give other working moms and what advice they'd give employers about how to keep high-performing women in the workforce.

Here's what they had to offer:

  1. Outsource and embrace help.
    Without exception, all of the women I polled on this subject said that having a great childcare solution was critical to their success in going back to work. This means finding someone you trust, someone who loves your child, and perhaps most importantly, someone who you can easily communicate with. It also means letting go a little. My son loves his nanny but that doesn't mean that he loves me any less.
  1. Partner with your partner.
    My husband encouraged me to go back to work. His initial support was crucial when I was on the fence. But more significantly, he has continued to demonstrate his support. His job is somewhat flexible, which means he can cover for me when I have an early morning conference call or when I can't be home right at 6pm. He's also taken on a more equal share of the errands, shopping, meal preparation, etc.
  1. Do what you love.
    If you hate your job, it just won't work. Being a full-time mom is a huge job; it is also immensely rewarding. That is not always the case for work in the office. If you can't stand what you are doing or who you're doing it with, then you'll spend all day wishing you were with your child instead. So if you don't love what you do or where you are working, consider a change.
  1. Set boundaries and respect them.
    I leave work every day at 5 p.m. so I can be home by 6 p.m. This doesn't mean that I stop working at 5 p.m., but it does mean that I am unavailable from that point until the time my son goes to sleep. That time is sacred and I protect it. Set the boundaries that work for you.
  1. Build a network of moms.
    Before I went back to work, I joined a mothers' group. We set up a Facebook Group. Originally it was a way to plan play dates without flooding each other's inboxes, but it has become a tremendous resource -- a repository for advice and information on everything from baby food recipes to non-toxic hardwood floor cleaners. They are a constant resource and a support network even though I rarely (if ever) see them in person.

And for those of you who manage working moms:

  1. Remember that flexibility is a good thing (for everyone).
    A large part of my "day job" is to advise organizations on how to help their staff work effectively. Allowing flexibility is critical to the strategies we develop. This advice is especially true for working moms. They may not be in the office as much as their other colleagues, but you can be sure that they are using the work time they do have very efficiently. When employers allow working moms to make their own decisions about when, where, and how they work, they are more successful at balancing work and family.
  1. Manage (and measure) performance by results.
    If you manage and measure performance by "face time," you may want to reconsider your approach. Ultimately, what we all want is high-quality results. We have to get better about managing and rewarding people for their results rather than emphasizing the time they spent to achieve them.
  1. Offer challenges.
    People who feel challenged in their jobs enjoy them more. While I was on leave, my boss approached me about taking on a new role when I came back. Not only did this send a message that he wanted me back, but it also motivated me: I actually looked forward to having a new challenge. Making the transition to my new role was actually easier when I came back from leave because I had already shifted the responsibilities of my former role to others for the time I was away.
  2. Provide verbal encouragement.
    One of the best things I heard when I came back from maternity leave was "we're so glad you're back." It is so simple, but it meant a lot. I am sacrificing something to be back at work. Knowing that other people appreciate my presence and my contribution makes a world of difference, especially on those days that I'd rather be at home.
  1. Remember partners are part of the solution too.
    Partners are critical. To that end, extending flexible work policies to working dads or partners is key. And by this I don't mean, "have a paternity leave policy" (although those are good too). Instead, employers need to recognize that most families today have two working parents, not one. Policies that support families, rather than just working moms, therefore benefit everyone.

I'm not sure anyone goes into this thinking, "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to feel frequently conflicted, to consistently worry about missing something important, and to never get completely through another to-do list again."

But having both a career and a family is achievable. Success requires flexibility, partnership, a sense of humor, and perhaps a Facebook group.

Georgia Collins is the managing director of North American business for DEGW, a strategic business consultancy that helps clients improve their workplaces. 

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