When it comes to welcoming back returning parents into the workforce, how many bosses can honestly say they have managed that transition 100 per cent seamlessly?

For those worried they might not have done it by the book, meet Nicki Seignot co-author of the hardback, softback and e-book Mentoring New Parents at Work.

Written in partnership with HR and management author David Clutterbuck, the book is a resource for HR practitioners and line managers who want to retain and support new parents, helping pave the way for gender diversity at all levels of their organisations.

Having worked for 30 years in what she dubs ‘the people function’, Nicki noticed: “Many people going off on maternity leave just assume they’ll have the baby, come back to work and carry on. But people returning on reduced hours don’t expect that to affect their professional development.

“No-one was engaging with that transition that had taken place – the expectation of combining work and parenthood, people who want to be present and effective as a parent but also get a lot out of their work, too.”

Nicki, a working parent herself, started to do coaching and mentoring ‘mum to mum’ and in 2011 pioneered the introduction of maternity mentoring to the Asda Wal-Mart Home Offices. Since then more than 200 returners have been mentored to date.

“Mentoring done well delivers a long-term pay back, increasing retention, continuation of careers and improving the gender balance of your talent pipeline,” said Nicki. 

The majority of mentees are mothers taking maternity leave, but Nicki takes an inclusive approach to recognise the social and political ambitions for shared parenting, and against a backdrop of gender pay gap reports, all of which is making mentoring equally important for new fathers taking shared parental leave.

The Parent Mentor services include workshops and webinars to prepare both mentors and mentees, one-to-one executive coaching for senior leaders, practice materials and workshops to prepare line managers, and tailored materials, tools, techniques and frameworks to support effective mentoring conversations.

“I like to work with people before they start maternity leave, so the connection is there and we can start to build a rapport. It’s a lot easier to pick up the phone to a person you’ve met before if you’re in crisis or experiencing difficulties. But the model is applicable at any stage – those about to finish, already off, and those who’ve been back for a few months.”

What Nicki calls her ‘practical pragmatic approach’ to mentoring returning parents is one she is keen to share.

“Businesses can start tapping into the resources they have in their own organisation – the cohort of working mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents who can help people by keeping in touch on the latest company goings-on, who have currency of knowledge and experience to share and who ‘get’ their situation. It’s easier to build that arc of the relationship with someone who works in the same building and understands the cultural context of the company.

“But they can’t do that without proper training, so I have a framework of appropriate development and preparation that helps get people mentor-ready. It’s about the programme being owned by the people themselves. Mentees come to me to say ‘I’m ready to help someone else’ and it becomes self-sustaining.

“A lot of parent returners say ‘I’m really lucky to have flexibility at work’ but it shouldn’t be about luck – it should be about managing people strategically and doing the right thing by returning talent.

“People’s journeys are always highly personal, but it’s in all our interests to get returning talent back feeling supported and engaged.”

Added Nicki: “Mentoring can’t fix everything, though. It can help at an individual level but if nothing changes at a cultural level, nothing will change full stop.”