Mr Potato Head or bleach? Furlough or innovate?

A Guest Blog from Graham Hutchings, Associate, Friend & Chief Operating Officer at Profitability Business Simulations

I have read a lot recently about authentic, transparent and vulnerable leadership. So here’s an honest, personal account of what the last few weeks have been like juggling work and home life, and some of the things we are doing to manage our business through uncertainty. If you think there might be something of interest for you here, then it’s probably a 7-minute read, assuming you resist the inevitable urge to fall asleep midway through.

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I am 32 and married, with a 1-year old daughter. We live in Henley in Oxfordshire and my wife, Emma, works for the NHS. On March 9th this year, I took over the management of ProfitAbility, which for 30 years has delivered bespoke, face-to-face learning programs for organisations all over the world. On March 16th this year, the delivery of face-to-face learning programs became impossible, for who knows how long.


The focus during the weekdays has been on balancing our respective jobs with looking after our daughter Olivia. Even though Emma is a “key worker” (but able to manage her caseload from home), Olivia’s childminder has closed. We regularly have incidents where the planned handover times fail, and Emma is on an over-running, difficult call to distressed parents of a disabled child struggling in the lockdown at the same time as I am starting a scheduled conference call. A frantic waving of arms and angry stares ensues as we silently battle for the right to conduct our respective conversations without having to simultaneously help Olivia dis-figure poor Mr Potato Head for the 1000th time that hour. I am sure these scenes, and much worse, are repeated in many households at the moment. It means a lot of very early starts and late nights trying to keep up with work and endlessly tidying up from the mayhem of each day, but that is a tiny price to pay for remaining healthy and employed.

Strangely, I have found this blurring of home and work life stress-reducing rather then stress-enhancing, as it’s hard to keep stewing over a difficult call with the accountant when you’re confronted by a naked, giggling toddler prancing around trying to drink a bottle of bleach, a la Trump. As an escapist alternative to depressing news, we have discovered WildEarth on YouTube, which live-streams game drives twice a day from the South African bush. We have also become far more grateful for our little garden and beautiful surrounding countryside – especially in light of stories from friends or on the news of those confined to flats or city centres. I defy anyone to find a more perfect setting than the sights, sounds and smells of a secluded English footpath on a warm Spring day. The weather has been amazing and it’s almost as if nature is rewarding us for extracting ourselves from our planet-and-mind wrecking 24/7 everything and nudging us back towards a life which could be altogether more fulfilling. If this had happened in November’s autumnal misery, and had Boris imposed more severe, Spain-like measures, I suspect the numbers of people admitting to have “enjoyed” lockdown would have halved.

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From a work perspective, it has also been a question of balance. At the core of this has been the fundamental dilemma of “shutting up shop and waiting for this to blow over” (furloughing everyone) or “doubling down on innovating and trying to emerge stronger” (for us, this means transforming face-to-face learning content for unique, highly experiential remote learning experiences). Whilst we have furloughed a handful of employees, we have chosen the second path for now. Given that we have clients in a range of sectors, some booming (pharmaceuticals, FMCG) and others dormant (hospitality), our case was not clear cut. Both paths have obvious risks and though leadership needs to be decisive right now, it also needs to be calm, pragmatic and not too proud to change – this situation is going to last a long time and evolve continuously! For us, the ceasing of all value creation for a period of several months would make “starting up again” very difficult as, aside from the impact on our culture and employee welfare, pipelines and workflows would have run dry and clients may have gone to competitors. Choosing the innovation route depends heavily on having the internal resources (leadership, connections, skills, time, cash) to pivot the business, and the external market displaying sufficient demand for the resultant offerings – neither of which one can be certain of in such a fast moving, unfamiliar context.

Whilst the early indications from our chosen path are promising (our team, adopting a sort of siege-mentality, has shown an incredible attitude and work-rate for innovation, and clients have requested a few virtual courses already), it is far too soon to know if it has worked or not, and major challenges and tough decisions lie ahead as our market, and the business world as a whole, works out what the hell to do. Being a small business dealing exclusively with large corporates, we remain at the mercy of our clients, and we have certainly seen the true colours of some in good ways (paying extra quickly) and bad ways (reneging on contractual payments: ***resists temptation to name and shame***).

Changes implemented

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I am racked constantly by self-doubt and concern that we’re making the right calls to protect the working lives of our employees and the prosperity of the business. However, here are some of the things that seem to have worked well for us so far, and the matrix shows the internal cultural shift underpinning this.

  • Relentless focus on “momentum over perfection”: The quicker we can get through work, the quicker our clients (and us) can see the benefit and give us feedback, the more control we have over our future
  • Move from quarterly objectives down to weekly OKRs for the company, teams and individuals: fully transparent across the business,this is to mirror the need for speed, focus and fast, measurable feedback loops to confirm what works and what doesn’t. Any time/cost resource not hitting targets can be quickly re-focused to match the ever-unravelling context
  • Doing the basic, obvious things well: clear communication timetable for the whole business and each department, with strict “meeting best practices”, on Microsoft Teams (though all internal calls are banned on Wednesdays and it’s the best day of the week); daily monitoring of cashflow/scenario plans and close liaison with the bank and accountants (there are ALWAYS ways to reduce more cost which is not generating return); over-emphasis on transparent decision making/expectation management with the Board AND employees; narrowing of focus of activities, reviewed weekly, so ALL resource is applied to just 5 or 6 things likely to generate return now.
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Continuous learning

With the internet and email inboxes seemingly more awash than ever with garbage content, it can be hard to know where to go for practical, relevant insight. Here’s what I have found useful:

  • Networking: I have found weekly sessions with my local Vistage group very insightful as a way of learning and sharing practical initiatives in managing businesses through uncertainty
  • Being mentored: Speaking regularly 1-2-1 with people you trust in other businesses/sectors is invaluable e.g. Alex Partridge at Wagestream helped me learn how to implement the weekly OKRs framework
  • Encouraging sharing: I am not a regular consumer of podcasts, TedTalks or blogs, but others in our company are, and encouraging them to share on a daily basis nuggets of value from what they have heard, watched or read has meant there is a constant stream of succinct, relevant ideas flowing into the business. For example, this interview contains an amazing story of innovation happening right now, with learnings applicable to many contexts
  • Realising quickly that decisions like furloughing, pay cuts or other cost cutting are not admissions of failure but simply the right thing to do to protect our collective future. The integrity and loyalty of our team in this respect, especially those who have been furloughed, are largely to thank for this
  • Not working normal business hours, due to having to look after Olivia. The breaks have provided invaluable reflection time and forced me to delegate things to team members far more skilled than me, and then get out of their way. I may be wrong, but I feel this has massively increased the effectiveness of my input and my ability to keep the necessary perspective. 

What next?

Who knows… some difficult decisions, more tight control of cash and perhaps evidence that we have made the wrong call on some things, but I am convinced that right now many companies, including us, are producing some seriously innovative and creative output by collaborating internally and externally in ways that would never have happened before… **”STEP AWAY FROM THE BLEACH”***

Working Dads are taking (and enjoying) Shared Parental Leave, BUT the data doesn’t show it!

Bad news: read all about it!

“Why take-up of shared parental leave is so dismally low” proclaimed City AM at the end of November. ‘It was seen as weird’: why are so few men taking shared parental leave?’ said The Guardian’s October headline. ‘UK Named Among Least Family-friendly Countries in New Study’ warned The Independent in June this year.

Since April 2015 parents have been allowed to split up to fifty weeks of leave between them, with the 37 weeks of statutory maternity pay can be paid to either the mother or father. The intention behind this SPL deal is to improve diversity and close the woeful gender pay gap.

If we look at the data on shared leave taken through the government scheme, the picture is indeed grim. These articles continue with more bad news numbers: “When it comes to paternity leave, the UK ranked 28th in the list, offering fathers two weeks’ statutory paternity leave at £148.68 per week”, continued the Independent article. “Just 9,200 new parents took up shared leave in 2018 out of more than 900,000 who were eligible, the study found”.

Dismal news? Yes. True reflection of the situation? Not really.

Although the above is an accurate reflection of those taking up government SPL, it’s thankfully not a great reflection of what’s happening more broadly. Organisations are starting to write their own SPL policies and some of them are truly revolutionary. Many of them are tackling the biggest downfall of the government scheme: lack of paid leave.

Letting businesses lead the way on SPL

That bit above about £148.68 per week on government SPL, yeah that’s your sticking point. You don’t need to be a Londoner to find that amount of weekly government pay a little, um, limiting.

So why are we at The Juggling Act so optimistic amidst all this supposedly bad news? Simple. Because many organisations have now written and implemented their very own Shared Parental Leave policies. These policies are being advertised internally and externally. They are being celebrated in their company cultures, and men are being encouraged to take the leave and spend real time with their children. Two big things are happening as a result:

1. It’s helping women go back to work, with support in place at home and in the confidence that the child is well looked after (by the other parent). And there are no additional childcare costs.

2. The men are genuinely enjoying it and are becoming happier, more balanced and fulfilled fathers (and employees).

The Shared Parental League

Among those campaigning for fathers to take the chance to stay at home for the second six months of a child’s life is Joe Young of the blog Dad on SPL.

Joe says it is the only way forward for our society: “Gender equality in the workplace will only be achieved when men take an equal role as the primary caregiver to their children.

“It is very difficult for men to be the primary caregiver in the early months of a child’s life. The difference between being a ‘hands-on dad’ and being capable of being the ‘only-pair-of-hands dad’ and is why I focus on the second six months.”

Joe has compiled, and regularly updates, The Shared Parental League table (see below), highlighting companies leading the way in workplace gender equality. As of November 2019, the top performers were Standard Life Aberdeen, Mishcon de Reya, Linklaters, Lloyds of London, UBS, Aviva and Hammerson who all ranked as Champions League Qualifiers, thanks to their family-friendly policies of allowing either parent to take leave ON FULL PAY in months 7-12 in their child’s first year, regardless of their gender. It also applies to those who have adopted or had a child via surrogate.

What the guys say

Even in the notoriously testosterone-fueled worlds of finance and law, changes are gradually being made to encourage men to take more than the traditional fortnight.

Among the dads who have benefited from these forward-thinking policies are senior consultant John Darling who was one of the first to take advantage of the change in the law in 2015. His wife Becky took the first six months off to care for their son Arthur, then the couple switched roles for the rest of the year.

John explained: “I work for people from Sweden who said, ‘This is normal in Sweden – this is just what people do!’ Having six months off really put everything into perspective from a personal point of view.” Looking back, John says the experience made him a more confident dad: “I can’t see any blockers at all. I’d recommend it to all blokes. It’s important, it’s great fun, you will understand your child a lot more than if you hadn’t done it.

“There is probably anxiety around finances. The other thing that may play a part is the social stigmas that we still have. It certainly feels like some tasks are seen as a woman’s job or others as a man’s job. Quite frankly that attitude just needs to be knocked on the head.”

Andrew Woodhead, an associate at Knight Frank, echoed these thoughts after taking SPL when his wife returned to work seven months after the birth of their son.

“No one had taken SPL in my team,” Andrew recalled. “No one wants to feel that they are losing out when it’s not the norm in their company, and naturally might have concerns about promotions and progression but society has moved on and not taking the opportunity, should your family dynamic allow for it, is a no brainer.”

Read the full interviews on Joe Young’s blog here

Approaching a tipping point

When our son was born in 2017, my husband took 6 weeks on full pay from his banking job. That was huge at the time. In our NCT group of 10 expectant couples, only one other father took extended leave for 3 months (and it was unpaid). Today when I speak to friends – some of whom are now expecting a second child – it seems everyone is doing it.

For me, the following says it all: in a recent discussion of SPL plans with a fellow mum – who is expecting a second child in the new year – she quipped, “Now that he [her husband] has taken SPL once with our first kid, he wants to do it again, but this time for longer. The other day he joked that he wants to take the full 6 months after me – at least I hope he was joking – I said, forget it! 3 months maximum, I want to take the rest.”

When we are approaching a point where the financial and societal barriers to SPL are being removed such that parents are able to squabble over who gets to spend more time as primary care-giver, well, that’s progress in my book!

About The Juggling Act: for Parents in Leadership

The Juggling Act is a consulting agency. We work with organisations on how they can better support their working parent employees through cultural assessments and transformation. As part of this offer, we also run The Juggling Act leadership programme: a 4-part combination of coaching sessions and workshops, designed to empower parents re-entering the workplace, enhancing their focus and self-assurance as well as offering real-life practical exercises in negotiation and communication skills. 

Our mission is to make the world of work more successful and fulfilling for everyone: employers and employees, women and men, for generations to come.  

Register for the April 2020 Programme

The Juggling Act Working Parents Programme is registering now. The 2-day workshop portion of the programme will be on the 2nd & 3rd of April 2020. We will be running several in-house programmes for clients in between.

The April Programme is open to delegates (any current or expectant parent – bio or non-bio) from all organisations and sectors and takes place at the Century Club in Soho.