We sat down with Bita Goldman, General Counsel and Co-Founder of Marketplace360 and General Counsel and Vice President of Quantum Networks, to discuss how she handled two maternity leaves (with three children) while accelerating her in-house career.
Tell us a bit about Quantum Networks and Marketplace360.
I am the General Counsel and Vice President of Operations at Quantum Networks, and next month we will be launching a new venture called Marketplace360, where I will serve as Co-Founder and General Counsel. Quantum Networks is an eCommerce company based out of midtown Manhattan, where we sell innovative products through the world’s largest online marketplaces. At Quantum, we use creative marketing, product merchandising and data insight to grow a brand’s awareness across marketplaces like Amazon. We’re a lean team (fewer than 20 people) – and each team member is brilliant at what he or she does.
What are the elements of your in-house roles, and how many lawyers/non-lawyers work your team?
At Quantum, I’m the only attorney on the team (though I certainly work with many people on the business teams to get things done). I was originally brought on to put out the proverbial “fires,” but my role has expanded significantly over the past few years. In terms of specifics, I now oversee everything from employment issues to acquisitions to trademark violations. More generally, I’m responsible for figuring out how to move the company’s bottom-line profitability forward while keeping the company in compliance.
Given your significant responsibilities, how did you think about taking leave, and how did you strategize for those conversations with your team?
My strategy for these conversations began well before the actual meetings. From the moment I learned I was pregnant, I made the conscious decision to keep my foot on the gas pedal all the way through the pregnancy. I constantly checked-in with myself to make sure I was working as hard as I could, reminding myself that this was my chance to show my team how invested I was in the company and in my own strong performance. When I finally told the partners and my colleagues (approximately four months into the pregnancy), they sensed my focus and felt confident in my commitment to excelling at the company even as I added new family responsibilities.
How did you tackle the actual notification communications?
I did one-on-one, in person meetings, beginning with our most senior team member and then going down the chain of the executive team. I told them the path I’m going down: I am pregnant, and I’m committed to the company; I’m committed to what I’m doing here, and I want to build a solution together. They were a little shocked but took it well. There was certainly anxiety, but they were also very happy for me.
Over the next two months, I worked with the executive team to craft coverage solutions for everything that might need to get done while I was on leave. I didn’t announce the pregnancy or leave to the rest of the company until I was pretty obviously pregnant. By the time I made the broader announcement, we were in a position to tell the team that we had a game plan - this is what’s involved, and this is how we’re going to handle the leave and workload during my maternity leave.
How did you structure your leave?
For context, I had twins, and then less than a year and a half later, I had another baby. The first time around I took a 14-week leave and the second time I took a 12-week leave. Taking these leaves was not an easy decision because we’re a very small team, but I knew that taking leave was something I needed to do. I generally have an extremely work-focused mindset, so I knew I needed to take a formal maternity leave in order to completely shut-down that part of my brain and not miss the opportunity to begin building a relationship with my children.
In terms of structure, approximately three weeks before my due date, I began working remotely a few days each week. About a week before my due date, I started working remotely entirely. During those few weeks, I was working longer hours than ever in preparation for my leave, but I was doing it from the comfort of my living room recliner. I worked this way – and was still emotionally wrapped up in work – right up until the I delivered my children. Once I had my children, though, I planned to be pretty much 100% offline.
How successful were you at actually being offline?
The best advice I got on this point came from other women general counsel: establish boundaries so your team understands the general scope of your leave, but don’t get too hung up on those boundaries. So I worked hard to practice self-control to not check my email daily, in order to prevent myself from getting so immersed in work that I might lose track of special moments at home. But when I was really needed, I was available and happy to jump on a call and help out.
How did you handle leave coverage?
I managed leave coverage through two outside lawyers. I prepared each of them with documents and information in advance in case something came up or the things that were pending when I went on leave suddenly needed to be addressed while I was out. I negotiated all details and rates with the lawyers so that if the need arose, the partners would have knowledgeable resources who could handle the situation – and wouldn’t be forced to call me. The business team didn’t end up using these resources, but it was a good, inexpensive security measure.
Is there anything you’d do differently if you were to do it again?
I already did it differently the second time around! The key to successfully planning for a leave is organization – and the second time around, I handled organization much better. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I began making handbooks for every element of my job. I broke everything down into layman’s terms – with flow charts and diagrams – so that anyone appropriate in the office could understand and execute on tasks without reaching out to me. For example, I do all of the terminations to make sure that we’re in compliance with employment laws. My termination handbook included an explanation of what needed to be said, what could not and should not be said, what paperwork must be given out, and what items must be requested back from the employee.
What was the biggest challenge of taking leave?
The biggest challenge was my concern about people signing contracts without my reviewing those agreements. I worried about not having the opportunity to catch unacceptable language or to enforce certain contractual parameters – and then returning to find myself stuck in contracts or situations that wouldn’t have materialized if I’d been in the office. And I did actually come back to a few gems and had to manage some consequences of those contracts, but ultimately the experience was a lesson for both me and the business team. Attorneys aren’t always considered to have a tangible value akin to business team members, but after my leave as we dealt with the fallout of those non-lawyered agreements, team members were better able to understand the value I bring to the table.
How did you transition to going back to work?
I transitioned slowly. At first I did three-fifths time. Eventually, I moved to fourth-fifths time and then back to full-time. For each leave, it took me almost a year to transition back to full-time. When I was working part time, I would come in every day, but work shorter, well-defined and firm hours. I’d be at my desk working by 7:45 or 8am (everything would be quiet in the office that early, so it was a great time to get work done) and stay until 2pm. One or two days a week I shifted those hours later in order to meet with team members who could only do late afternoons.
The most challenging part of the transition was navigating my departure time each day, whether it was 2pm, 5pm or 6pm. Part of this challenge was learning to say, clearly and in advance, that I needed to leave by a certain time – i.e. learning to say that because I’m leaving at 2pm, our meeting needs to be at 1pm, not 1:45pm or 2pm. Even now that I work full time, one of the more challenging aspects of balancing all my responsibilities is learning how to handle the issues I can’t plan for, but invariably come up right as I’m leaving the office.
What was the best part about coming back to work and resuming your day-to-day responsibilities?
The best part of coming back to work was talking to adults and tackling intellectual challenges again every day. While I was on leave, I felt conscious of feeling less sharp and less knowledgeable about my company’s industry, and so it felt great to be back in the office for at least a part of every day, staying sharp, interacting with adults and pushing myself the entire time. It was scary too – especially learning how to juggle and manage everything – but more than anything it was exciting to be back in a position where I could see how far I could push myself each day.
How did you think about re-integrating with your team?
Even before I returned to work, I had a few meetings with the partners at a local restaurant near my house. The meetings were basically a three-night crash course in everything that was currently going on: new business ventures we were considering, internal team dynamics, new staff members, how people were feeling, what projects were moving forward, and what issues the team had encountered while I was on leave.
That gave me the lay of the land and then about a week before my return I emailed everyone to let them know I was coming back. Once I returned, I explained at our monthly staff meeting that I’d initially be on a part-time schedule, but I’d leave my cell phone open to everyone and encouraged people to call me at any time, even when I wasn’t in the office.
What do you do better now that you have a family and additional responsibilities to juggle?
I am far more efficient. I’m able to multitask beyond what I’d thought possible and I’ve learned to look for the smart and efficient way of doing whatever needs to get done. I’ve also become a better communicator such that I’m able to make clear to my team when I’m available, what I’m doing, and when things need to happen.
Just as important, I think, is that I’ve gained a sense of empathy towards employees with families. Before I had children, I thought that if you wanted to advance your career, you just needed to put in the time and that any distraction from work made an employee less serious. Now, while I’m a still a big proponent of working hard, I understand how important it is to be balanced and that part of being happy when you’re at work is knowing that you have time with your family when you need it.
Which strategies have worked with you for managing all your responsibilities?
The most important strategy for making it work with kids is having great childcare on a schedule that works for your family. When you have good childcare and know that your kids are being taken care of, you can focus on doing excellent work. That, and an exceptional amount of support and co-parenting from my husband – would not have been able to do any of it without him.