Mark Smith

Managing Director, Health & Public Service
"It was important that others in the company could see that taking SPL wouldn't impact their careers—and I could lead by example there."

External publications: Executive Coaching, ACN Careers Blog, Consultancy UK, Evening Standard, Telegraph, Management Today, Huffington Post

Why did you take Shared Parental Leave (SPL)?

For my wife Emma and I having a family is a joint endeavour, and it just felt right that we should be able to decide between us how we want to share the first year of childcare between us. For me this goes to the heart of what SPL provides—a choice. A choice to a couple, a family, in order that they can work out how they want to best manage that first year of care. And for me, I wanted to a hands on dad as much as I could … and so SPL was perfect!

I took the full seven months off for SPL from September 2015 through April 2016. I remember when Accenture announced the enhanced offering and policy they were going to put in place from April 2015; I couldn’t believe our luck as our son was going to be born in July! As well as allowing me to take a more active role in caring for him (Louis), it has given my wife more flexibility in terms of her career and responsibilities. This is important, as she runs a small marketing consultancy that she’s built up over the last 10 years. It was really important for her to be able to stay connected to her clients as best she could.

How did your colleagues and peers react to your intentions on taking SPL?

I was one of the first few to apply for SPL. When it was first implemented I certainly had to do a lot of explaining about what it was and almost justify why I would want to. But once you get through some of those early reactions, and barriers even, and when you start to talk about the benefits to you as a new family, most people go “why wouldn’t you?” and—often—“if only I could have done that.”

Accenture were great from the outset—helped hugely by the fact that Olly Benzecry was a lead sponsor for the change and a key advocate—so we got the communications right and worked hard to "share the word." It wasn’t just communications, though. We also had to effect the change and so demonstrate to people that it was a legitimate choice to take, that it wouldn’t impact their careers, and to have line-managers understand how to implement the policy so they could support team members.

More widely, outside of the firm many companies are still finding their feet, and of course society will take time to adjust too, so the uptake in the wider population has been lower than the great success we have seen in Accenture.

Has taking SPL had any type of impact on your career?

It was important that others in the company could see that taking SPL wouldn’t impact their careers—and I could lead by example there. This is so key, as research by My Family Care found that half of men thought taking leave was perceived negatively at work and would directly impact their career progression. In fact, in our last annual promotion round we promoted a number of people who were either on or recently returned from SPL.

How do we do this? Well, simple in a way, as we haven’t really had to devise anything new. For, in effect, it’s just extending our maternity scheme. The policies are tried and tested, the considerations of time-out for childcare obligations when discussing performance management/appraisals/pay/bonuses are mature and robust, return to work/keep in touch days are well planned through, and I believe our leadership has the experience, pragmatism and willingness to make it work for men as well as women.

How has SPL shaped the relationship with your child and family?

This is a question that I’m often asked. Firstly—and I know as any new mum can attest to—being the primary carer for a baby is challenging, tiring and at times overwhelming. There’s so much to learn, so many uncontrollables, so much responsibility. But once you find your feet and the swing of things, which also coincides with the baby starting to become more active and aware of their surroundings, the fun is immeasurable.

Once I got the confidence to leave the house more, Louis and I did loads of activities together, like swimming, Monkey Music, messy play, endless walks in the local parks and along the river, as well as exploring most National Trust gardens within 30 miles of us. I just loved the bonding, the fact that Louis would see me as an "equal" parent, so when he was down or wanted a cuddle he’d come equally to me as much as he would Emma. I also realised how all-encompassing being a parent is—and how little time there is to do anything else.

What’s changed since coming back to work?

So do I miss it now I’m back at work? Yes, absolutely. But that’s life and it’s all about making the most of every opportunity … and for me, that leads into having employers be able to support those opportunities.

Now that I’m back my priorities are a little different, I always try and do at least two bath times a week. This takes planning—but when I can, I leave work at 5:30 to be home in time. It’s likely I will then log on later. It’s important for you to manage your own priorities and your own routines. So that’s where I’ve changed a little—you move away from the need for presenteeism, it’s about getting work done and you decide a model which works for you.

I definitely have better work life balance now. I find that I travel less and use Skype more. I would travel when I need to, of course, and do client drinks or catch ups, as that’s important, but I probably do less of the spontaneous "beer after work," and I’m comfortable with that.