It’s easier to 'Lean In' with a little help

Karen Thorne, my Director of Marketing Operations, juggles her demanding role with being a mum to two beautiful little girls. I was interested to hear some of her insights on her 17 years with the company and the two times she has gone on maternity leave during that period.


How did you come to HomeServe? What roles have you had?

Karen: I started at HomeServe 17 years ago as a Senior Marketing Services Manager, when it was a 40-person UK business (compared to 2,500 now in the UK and nearly 5,000 worldwide). I came originally as it was a good role and close to my home, but I only planned to stay for a short time. I had a couple of years as Director of Account Management supporting our affinity partners and then back to Marketing Operations, which is my background.

What was it like going on maternity the first time? Why did you come back? Did you consider leaving?

Karen: The first time I went on maternity, four years ago, I was put at risk (of redundancy) with two colleagues the week before I went off. I was 38 weeks pregnant and was asked by the then CMO whether I was prepared to go through the selection process. I declined and it was agreed to defer the whole process until I returned. It was a really stressful time, not just having a new baby, but also worrying about whether I’d still have a job. And, because it was a time of upheaval at HomeServe, it was really difficult to keep connected to what was going on, so I felt isolated. Deferring the decision turned out to be the best thing that happened; by the time I returned seven months later, Greg had replaced the previous CMO and had cancelled the redundancy process. Interestingly, I never once considered quitting HomeServe, it was the place that I wanted to be. I met Greg when he first started – just two weeks before I came back - and I knew we’d get on. Neither of us were interested in looking at the past.

Greg: Loyalty is so important and big companies today toss it aside like it means nothing. I can’t imagine an environment where a pregnant top performer with the company for 13 years - the 40th person out of over 5,000 employees - is told they are at risk of redundancy the week before they go on maternity leave. As a manager it is messy at best; as a leader it is unthinkable and as a human, the idea horrifies me.

While it is a great example where HomeServe was culturally, you should learn from the past but not dwell in it. We used the regulatory crisis at HomeServe to make a clean break and start doing things right the way. When Karen came back she asked to go on reduced hours so she could spend one day a week at home. I knew she was a great leader and she would have her direct reports step up on that day. It was a little more work for me but the right thing for Karen and also for HomeServe for two reasons: First it proved that we will be flexible with working mothers, right across the business. Second it allowed me to have Karen in the office and allow her to be the type of mother she wanted to be. Becoming a parent is transformational. And while you don’t have to be a parent to be a successful leader, parents are lying if they say the experience does not make them better leaders. You learn perhaps for the first time in your life what it really means to put someone else first in life and that experience translates well to work.

What was it like coming back to HomeServe after the second maternity?

Karen: The second time I went on maternity things were very different. I got a lovely card from Greg (which I still have) reminding me that I also have a HomeServe family. I worried about losing contact, but Greg was keen for me to enjoy my time. I have a really great team of direct reports, who I knew would keep things going and a great guy to cover my maternity. I knew he didn’t want my job permanently and I always knew that I was going to come back to my old role. All that made the second time round feel very different. It was easy to stay in touch with my team as we are a close bunch, and I also had a number of great catch-ups with the interim about things. All that made coming back easy, as did the lovely (welcome back) card from Greg!

Greg: I pushed Karen to really enjoy the break not just with the new baby, Hettie, but also with Libby, who would be a big sister for the first time. I’ve learned over time that, although it seems counter-intuitive, you should encourage people on maternity leave to not worry about work and you should also really keep them connected enough to still feel a part of work. Personally, I could not imagine missing a whole year of work as I know how anxious I get when coming back after just few weeks off. I know this sounds silly in comparison, but as a man it is the best I can do to relate. And while the personal letters seem like a nice touch, it is really important to put a few promises in writing with a signature.

How were things when you came back? Had the interim made a lot of changes?

Karen: When I returned after seven months, I could immediately see a lot of things the interim had done and how well People had responded to him. This was partly because of the person he was, but also because the culture within the business was changing so dramatically during the time I was out, and a key part of that was a focus on engagement. I had always had strong relationships with my directs, but had underestimated the power of deeper engagement with the whole of the team. Because the interim didn’t know the technical aspects of my role, he had to ask a lot more questions of everyone, which Greg had encouraged him to do, and which made the team feel more empowered. It’s really hard seeing someone else doing a great job at your role, and I worried that it would be difficult coming back. However, as it turned out, it gave me a brilliant starting point to keep all of the engagement activity going and develop it. Now engagement is one of the fundamental drivers of our team. We have monthly sessions where we share strategic updates and deliver development, we have away days every six months, the guys nominate each other for recognition, and we now all know each other pretty well. We’re a bit like a family and have some really great shared memories.

Greg: Karen came back with an open mind and worked with what had happened while she was gone to get the outcome that she wanted. She is gracious to say the greater cultural changes had a part in what happened but if she had not been so open to trying a new way then she would have tried to wind back the clock which would have been traumatic. Instead she embraced the changes and put her own stamp back on her department. They have performed so well the past year in part because she trusted me and her team enough to accept a lot of change. Creating an environment where People are not afraid to try something and fail is so critical to getting the best out of your team.

So is there a compromise you have to make between the office and home?

Karen: Getting the balance between home and work life has actually never been an issue for me. I was very lucky to be able to agree a four day working week, and I absolutely love my day off with the girls. But I also really enjoy work. I’m not sure I even see it as a balance. Sometimes I’m at home with the girls and sometimes I’m at work. I enjoy both and have fun doing both. I remember Greg once saying that it was a waste to see work as a means to earning money to enjoy your time off of work. I wholeheartedly agree with this. We are at work for a significant proportion of our lives, so enjoy what you do or change it. Life is way too short to be miserable.

Greg: I do think People are surprised when I say that work-life balance is a terrible expression. We all need to have balance in our lives but enjoying what you do, or more precisely having a sense of purpose at work, has to be a priority. We all have done work that we’ve hated for periods in our lives but you have to have enough about you to own your situation and find something different. We spend too much time at work, and as Karen says, life is too short for there to be any compromise. I know it is easy to say this, but if you go to work most mornings not looking forward to the day ahead then it’s time for a change. And as George Eliot, that Lean In forerunner, said “it’s never too late to be who you might have been”.

How have People adapted to the new Culture and Strategy?

Karen: The journey we have all been on in the last three years is huge. Not just about how we treat and engage with our Customers, but also how we treat and engage our People. It is a totally different company. The leadership team, including Martin and Greg, encourage feedback, are honest about mistakes we make and we all learn from this. Engagement scores are high and increasing and it’s rare to lose people out of the department now.

Greg: Karen has been so important to the cultural changes we have been trying to drive. She had been part of 15 very successful years at HomeServe and then all of a sudden the rug was pulled out from it all. HomeServe accepting that they made mistakes was great but People like Karen adopting a whole new way of working after all of those years of doing something different is actually quite incredible. I know that focusing on our People so they can focus on the Customer is easy to say but it is much harder to make it a reality. I think on reflection though that People were really open to this change once they realised it was real.