In 2018, I became a first time mom to Melanie, who was the inspiration behind Little Melly—a fresh baby food startup in Lebanon with the mission of making quality baby food accessible to today’s busy parents. In September of 2021, amid rapid growth and change within the company, I gave birth to my second daughter, Tiffany. In the months leading up to Tiffany’s birth, we were knee-deep in our work. We had launched a developmental program funded by USAID, new jobs and departments were being created, a 5-year regional strategy was being set, and investor meetings were actively taking place. While all of it was exciting, it was also overwhelming because I knew my due date was rapidly approaching. To be frank, even if my due date were two years away, I still would’ve thought it was too close. Our to-do list doesn’t ever stop, that’s just the reality of it.
Soon enough, the time eventually came for me to go on maternity leave. I had a haunting fear that my postpartum months would hurt both Little Melly and my own career. I believe many new moms have that same fear. In hindsight, however, becoming a mom and spending time away from the workplace actually led to unforeseen, beautiful outcomes which in fact advanced my career and company instead of hurting them. Becoming a mom made me a better team manager and company leader, so I hope that sharing this reflection encourages any mother reading this.
1. I built better relationships with my team
Before becoming a mom, I wasn’t quite the empathetic person. I was more performance-driven than people-driven. I believed that as a manager I shouldn’t delve into my team’s personal life, and that it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to be friends with them – otherwise I would lose credibility and authority. Little did I know that this was creating a barrier between us. With the right mentorship and after going away on maternity leave, I realized that I want and crave relationships with my work peers. The same way that I needed it, they did too.
You’d think that relationships are stronger when people see one another regularly, and while that is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that distance will harm them. Distance helped me see the need for work relationships and has led me to take care of them the same way I make an active effort to maintain my marriage.
I now connect with all my managers on so many levels which has helped create a beautiful work culture:
- On a monthly basis, we share our professional and personal goals. My goal is to help them reach those dreams and advance themselves.
- I spend some time with my peers outside the workplace. One of my favorite recent memories was when I took a walk in the park with Little Melly’s customer success manager, Pascale. It was so refreshing which helped us energize ourselves for the rest of the workday.
- I used to consider my home “off-limits” and strictly personal. It was stressful because I couldn’t always make it to office but there was work that needed to be conducted in-person. I first welcomed the team to my house during their visit to congratulate us on the birth of Tiffany, and that visit broke the barrier. We now regularly have meetings at my place when I don’t have a babysitter available. This past Christmas, we on-boarded a new production manager, Myriam. On her first day in the company, we had a training/orientation meeting at my place with Tiffany on my lap the whole time. Quite the welcome into the company!
- I realized that it’s not enough to only learn about my team’s personal life. I had to also share mine. Relationships are two-way if they’re meant to succeed.
2. I learned to embrace the unexpected
A few nights ago, we rushed our daughter Melanie to the ER for stitches. We were expecting our friends for dinner that same night, but we had to rearrange despite our best efforts to plan. I had it all figured out that day: Melanie would be home by 6:00 pm, in bed by 7:00 pm and Tiffany in bed by 8:00pm – all in time for our quiet and enjoyable dinner.
After the incident, I could have postponed the dinner to another night, but we’ve learned to embrace the unexpected even after we plan. When changes do happen, it doesn’t mean everything goes to ruins. Slight changes in details can still lead to the outcome you desire.
In the same way, I’ve implemented this learning outcome in the workplace. We can spend months budget-planning and event-planning, but things don’t always pan out as planned. Instead of giving up, we choose resilience. In 2021, we were chosen to be supported by USAID. We set our goals at the beginning of the program but 6 months later we realized we should have had different goals. Instead of that beating us down, we reflected on the journey and used it to create better future goals.
When change is inevitable, pause for a moment and draw a picture of all the different paths you can take. When we can befriend change, we become more resilient and better decision-makers.
3. Work-life balance became a cherished value within the company
Our nature of work is never-ending. Even though we do not operate on weekends, parents are still feeding their babies Little Melly meals over the weekend. This in turn means that questions and requests will arise. In a generation where exceptional customer service is almost a prerequisite, the temptation is to be available every second of every day.
The paradox is that becoming a mom helped me realize how crucial work-life balance is. It’s horrible to be home playing with the kids but inattentively nodding your head as they speak because you’re drowning in your phone for a work matter.
I soon realized we all crave work-life balance. It wasn’t just me as a mom. When we made work-life balance a priority in our culture, it’s amazing how our operations improved. We immediately recognized that if production was precise, if dispatching was accurate, and if delivery safety was ensured, urgent customer questions would be minimal. Corrections wouldn’t be needed either – it’s a win-win situation and everyone is happy.
4. We raised decision-makers
Being further away from the workplace meant a couple of things: I could no longer fill in the operational gaps, our team needed to be comprehensive and complete, and the team required the flexibility and maturity to make wise decisions on the go. In the months leading up to my delivery, we built what I now call our dream team, and we began a weekly operational meeting where each manager lists what worked well and what didn’t during the past week, in an effort to improve the outcomes of the next week.
Most recently, I added “minute learnings” to each meeting where I start off with a 10-minute learning opportunity. This ritual has helped each manager widen and stimulate their thinking capacity, in turn leading to better decision making.
With increased flexibility and trust, team members are taking more responsibility for their actions because they have the empowerment to make decisions as needed. A few weeks ago, our distribution manager, Fadi, was telling me how much thought he put into which new driver to hire because he had full decision-making power. We agreed that I wouldn’t interview and approve the hire, so a good hire would make his job easier and a bad one would mean he goes through the process all over again.
A leader has a main role: to balance between his/her strategic and executive roles. The strategic role involves everything to do with vision and momentum while the executive role relates to all operational tasks. Our temptation and anxiety can lead us to focus on the executive role, but our strategic role is what moves the company forward.
Think of a company like a cruise ship. There are endless areas to ensure are working properly if we want the ship to move: hiring people, managing them, ensuring technical resources are available, and more. But someone needs to steer the ship too. Where is the ship even meant to go in the first place?
My maternity leave and becoming a mom helped me find the time to balance both roles. Without taking a leave (maternity or even vacation), we can forget to (or postpone) zooming out of the whirlpool of tasks to strategize how to steer the ship.
The next time you’re out of office, don’t let it raise guilt. Use that opportunity to improve the way you carry out your job.
About the Author
Jennifer Mansour is a mom of two young girls, Melanie and Tiffany, and has been attesting to how mothers can indeed excel in their careers while raising a family in a healthy way. In 2019, she founded Little Melly, Lebanon’s only fresh baby food company, to raise the standards for what baby food means and to make fresh food accessible to today’s busy parents. Using both subscriptions and retail-sales as a revenue model, Little Melly is tackling consumers’ cravings for health-conscious products.
Earlier in her career, Jennifer specialized in marketing insights including digital marketing, website and mobile app development, and content strategies. Jennifer has a Bachelor in Business Administration from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon and she received her Master’s degree in Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship from Penn State University, USA in 2021.