From Sundance to Davos, parental leave takes the spotlight – AdAge.com

But as The List members have discovered from their research and their own anecdotal experiences as both parents and business leaders, just because a company has excellent benefits doesn't mean that the company's employees feel empowered to take advantage of them. The List's panel at the Equality Lounge, which kicked off TFQ's Sundance Festival programming, focused on the theme "Why Forward-Thinking Family Leave Policies Are Just the First Step," because the group's members have come to the realization that a company's culture is just as important as the actual leave policies on the books.

Butler told the story of how he was so inspired by the first meeting of The List in New York in April 2019 that he immediately began re-examining BEN's leave policies upon returning to work.

"I realized, holy shit, I have not even thought about our own plan," Butler said. "I was running this company of 200 employees, and I didn't even understand how the plan worked. It was one of those things that just really got me much more involved, and we made some very bold changes, quickly. I made everybody in HR and operations sweat. I was like, 'What's going on here?'"

Similarly, Randolph remembered how, like many ambitious, hard-working execs on the rise, she didn't give much thought to the nuts and bolts of maternity leave until she actually got pregnantwhich came as a surprise after a tortuous and ultimately unsuccessful experience with IVF, and soon after starting at LOL.

"We were a joint venture with Lionsgate," Randolph said. "I was starting a big job. We were launching this new company, and I had resigned myself to the fact that having kids the way I thought I would probably wouldn't happen for me, and I decided to throw myself into work for the foreseeable future. Then, three months after taking the job, I turned up pregnant. It was one of those things where it's kind of like flood insurance: You don't really think about it until you need it, so even as an executive in the company who was leading this P&L and running all the operations for this business unit, I never really thought about what the parental leave package looked like. You don't really consider it until you have to take advantage of it. I was really surprised by how complicated the process was."

While no two List members had exactly the same aha moment, their common experience led the group to decide that its signature initiative would be a marketing and social media campaign called "Ask About It," Randolph told the Equality Lounge audience. "Once we settled on this issue, it was essentially addressing the question, How do you boil the ocean? Should we take a top-down approach? Should we target executives and HR professionals? Or should we issue a rallying cry to everyoneto say, 'Demand better leave.' What was so impactful [going back to the first List meeting in April was], we were having a conversation."

The goal of the campaign, which launches in February to coincide with the anniversary of the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), is "to spread the message to have that conversation," Randolph continued. "Whether or not you're in the stage of family planning, or you're thinking about elder care, or whatever, just know the policy, number one. Have a conversation with the executives in your company. If you're an executive, have a conversation with your team. But say, 'Hey, what do you think about our policy? What is our policy? What options are available? How flexible is this?' Or, 'Did you know that this company is doing x?'"

For Butler, "Ask About It" touches on the revealing and sometimes uncomfortable conversations he had with employees when he first started investigating how to improve BEN's leave policies, and he quickly realized that as the CEO, changing the culture of the company began with himself: When his second child was born, Butler returned to work after just two days, which he regretted asa "horrible message" to send his employees. "It was very inconsiderate of me, not just to my family, but to the overall organization," Butler said. "Leaders need to make these policies happen, and take full advantage of those policies, and give an example that everyone should be doing that. It's just going to make people healthier."

Having those conversations led to the implementation of better leave policies at BEN, which included moving beyond gender-specific policies, like maternity leave and paternity leave. "We have primary caregiver leave and secondary caregiver leave," Butler said. Primary caregiver leave increased from 10 weeks to 16 weeks, with an additional month as a transitional period. "If you need to be home longer, you need to stay home longer and you work from home, or you just have that extra time to transition," Butler explained. Secondary caregiver leave increased from two weeks to a month, with another month for the transition period.

In the past year, LOL spun off from Lionsgate, and so Randolph is experiencing the "Ask About It" initiative in real time. "Now that we're more independent," she said, "I'm actually writing our new leave policy, which has been largely informed by my personal experience and a lot of the feedback that I've been getting from the employees there."

Both Butler and Randolph conceded that just as a company's employees have to find the right work-life balance, they as corporate leaders also have to strike the right balance between providing the optimal benefits packages for their workers and running a successful and profitable business. List member Mike Rothman's parenting site Fatherly has published multiple articles on the business case for offering and encouraging generous paternity leave and the wide-ranging, positive effects doing so can have on the workforce as a whole.

Yet the reality on the ground, particularly at smaller companies, including Fatherly, as Rothman acknowledged during an earlier List panel at Advertising Week New York, is having employees out on parental leave does place added responsibilities on the remainder of the staff. To address this at BEN, Butler decided that "when people are taking leave, we made it so those who take on more responsibility are compensated for taking on more work and wearing more hats. When we made these changes, it was amazing the positive energy that came from our organization. People felt way more valued, and we now have a lot of people trying to work for us. It was beneficial to our employees, prospective employees, and also to ourselves. We've found some rock stars in the process, when key team members and key leaders took parental leave. Certain people were able to accelerate their careers, and show that when they're under pressure and they have a lot more to do, they can make stuff happen."

The positive effects of implementing a more progressive leave policy has extended beyond BEN's walls too, Butler said. "We've had a lot of clients reach out and say, 'You know what, we really respect what you guys are doing.' Who had any idea that a parental leave policy would make that much positive change?"

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