EPISODE 644: Return to Work Strategies for Women in Sales After Giving Birth with Lori Mihalich-Levin and Rebecca Kwei

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Today’s show featured an interview with Lori Mihalich-Levin, founder of Mindful Return, and Rebecca Kwei, sales leader at Phathom Pharmaceuticals.

The interview was conducted by Gina Stracuzzi, IES Women in Sales Program Director.  Read more about the PWISE designation and program here.

Find Lori on LinkedIn. Find Rebecca on LinkedIn.

LORI’S ADVICE:  “For employers, I’d say, what is the current experience that your new parents are having? Ask that question. Can you answer the question, what is the experience that they’re having? If you don’t really know the answer, then go talk to them and do exactly what Rebecca’s employer did, which is to ask for their feedback.”

REBECCA’S ADVICE:  “Be bold and ask the questions that need to be asked. But we need to take it one step further and think of how what you’re saying will be received, or what you’re asking will be received to that particular audience. Because that can really help you adapt and ask it the right way where you’re going to get the response that you really need.”


Gina Stracuzzi: We have some amazing guests today, two of them. We have Rebecca Kwei and Lori Mihalich-Levin as our guests. We’re going to be talking about something that comes up in the Women in Sales Forum that IES sponsors, or it’s our program, quite a bit. That is the time, the energy, the position that is lost sometimes when you take maternity leave and you come back into the workforce. A lot of companies will guarantee you that you have an equal job, but you may not get the same job. It’s definitely a topic that we need to discuss. Welcome, Rebecca and Lori.

Rebecca Kwei: Thanks for having us.

Lori Mihalich-Levin: We’re delighted to be here, Gina. Thank you.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, I like to start the conversation with having our guests talk a little bit about themselves and how they got to doing what they’re doing, and then we’ll get into the topic. Lori, do you want to go first?

Lori Mihalich-Levin: I’m Lori Mihalich-Levin. I’m joining you today from Washington, DC. I like to say that I wear three main hats in life, although as a working parent, I think we probably wear like 782 hats on a given day. But my three main hats are, one, I am mom to two wonderful redheaded boys who are ages 10 and 12, and my older son’s feet are larger than mine, so I’m in a different life stage than when I started this program, Mindful Return. Hat number two is that I’m the CEO and founder of a program called Mindful Return that helps new parents transition back to work after parental leave, and that supports working parents and helps employers to retain their working parent talent. This is a program I created nine and a half years ago, out of sheer desperation when I returned to work both times after my boys.

Hat number three is that I am a Medicare reimbursement lawyer in private practice. I now practice law as my side gig, but I’ve done the whole big law thing, and as a partner and an associate and all those things. I guess the last thing I’ll mention is that I wrote a book called Back to Work After Baby, which is all about how to make that smoother transition than I had back to work after you go through parental leave.

Gina Stracuzzi: Wow, that’s a lot. That’s great.

Lori Mihalich-Levin: It’s a lot. It’s good. It’s full.

Gina Stracuzzi: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say that they’re a lawyer as a side gig. That’s pretty interesting. Rebecca, tell us a little bit about your journey.

Rebecca Kwei: My name’s Rebecca Kwei. I’m coming to you from Midtown Manhattan in New York. I’ve been in sales leadership now for about six years. I have been working in pharmaceutical sales for the last 20 years, so my career has taken me through several different states. Lots of success, lots of learnings along the way, but primarily just in pharmaceutical sales, so three different companies. I’m now with a startup, that’s where I recently met Lori. Phathom Pharmaceuticals has been wonderful. That is my primary job that I have now, that in addition to new mom of a sweet little boy named Eli, as well as a stepmom to a great little boy named Ben. Really excited to talk to you guys about that today.

Gina Stracuzzi: I like having both sides of the equation here. Why don’t we start with you, Lori, and you can talk to us about some of the common challenges you see amongst new parents? Then, Rebecca, maybe you can give us your version of the challenge.

Lori Mihalich-Levin: There’s a very long list of challenges that one faces when one has a child, but some of the things that bubble up to the top with the people, particularly who are in our program, are things like the personal and professional identity transition that happens. The who am I in this new role? Who am I in the world and what does that mean as I go back? Did people miss me while I was gone? Did they really need me? If they were able to do the work while I was out, am I actually essential here? All sorts of questions run through people’s heads. Their confidence can sometimes get shaken.

Another really big one is lack of sleep. That interrupted sleep for many, many consecutive nights in a row can throw one off kilter a little bit. Then I think another really, really huge stressor for many, many people who go back, particularly in the United States, is childcare. There’s a massive childcare crisis and shortage in this country. We lost more than 10% of our childcare spaces during COVID, and they haven’t come back. If you thought it was hard to get people to care for your child before, it’s even harder now and it’s expensive and hard to come by. What do I do when the kid gets sick and how do I find backup care? These are all challenges new parents are facing.

Gina Stracuzzi: Rebecca, tell us a little bit about your side of those things.

Rebecca Kwei: I could not agree more. I think probably the number one biggest challenge coming from someone who is used to getting at least eight or nine hours of sleep every night is the lack of sleep and how you can cognitively function and continue to do the job, and still sound confident and competent in the role that you previously had. It’s such a challenge if you’ve never had such severe sleep deprivation. If you get a child that doesn’t like to sleep or isn’t a good sleeper, it can make it even worse, because even when people say, “My child slept for 12 hours from 12 weeks on,” I don’t know them. I wish that I did. That is definitely a challenge.

It’s hard, and to Lori’s point, you have an identity crisis, because for me, I had my first child after 40, so I had already begun the leadership portion of my sales career. Coming back, you wonder, “Is everyone going to still see me as being competent? Are they going to think differently of me now that I have other priorities at home? How are my working hours going to be?” This whole reorganization of how you will perform your duties and the time management that it takes in order to do that, and your priorities have shifted too.

I know before I had my son, I was happy to work throughout the evening, even if my job didn’t require it, but I was happy to do those extra hours. Now, not only am I not as willing to put in an extra six hours in the evening, I can’t. It’s not physically possible. It changes those things. There’s definitely new time boundaries as well, but I think having a child, you go through this whole matrescence where you develop additional skills where you are able to do so much more than you ever thought possible in a shorter amount of time, and still do it well. I think those are some of the challenges, and I think having the right strategies in place to counteract those really set you up for success.

Gina Stracuzzi: I can see too how being a brand-new mom, first time mom, it’s nerve-wracking in itself, and it’s like, “Am I doing this right? Am I going to hurt my baby?” Then you go to work and you feel shaky there too. It just compounds the I don’t feel competent anywhere kind of feeling that I’ve heard women talk about. Let’s talk a little bit about what you think, Lori, employers can do to help and where you see things going these days. Then maybe, Rebecca, you can talk a little bit about how your employer supported you.

Lori Mihalich-Levin: I want to frame my answer by saying, if you’re an employer, there are a lot of things. There are a couple hundred things you can do, and you don’t have to do them all at once. Just pick one thing to improve and work toward it. I’m going to give you a menu. There are six categories of things that I think employers can and should do to support their new parents as they’re transitioning back to work. I’m going to walk through the six pretty quickly so you have a menu to choose from if you’re an employer and pick something off of the menu and implement it. Some of these don’t cost anything, some of them do, but there’s any number of ways that you can help your working parents feel more supported, which of course means that you’re more likely to retain them, which is the gold.

Gina Stracuzzi: I was just going to say, the cost of anything has got to be less than replacing people.

Lori Mihalich-Levin: Turnover. Exactly. The very first category is the mindset piece. It’s what’s your attitude toward the people who are returning? Are you celebrating this as a life event or are you, generally speaking, viewing it as a real hindrance to your business? Are you training your managers on how they can approach their teams and help them navigate it so that they’re in a good mindset? Does your leadership step up and support working parent related initiatives? Do they come to working parent related meetings? Are they vocal about the policies and benefits that they have? Mindset is the first one. You can get into a good headspace around the return and know that there are things you can do to help.

Number two is policies. What do your policies look like? If you do not have a gender-neutral parental leave policy, one that views everybody who becomes a parent as worthy of taking the time, please work on that. Flexible work policies are super helpful for working parents. A ramp up and ramp down period as people are going into and coming out of leave can be really helpful. Take a look at your policies. There are organizations that will help you to benchmark them to make sure that you’re in line with what your peers are doing.

Number three, communications. How are you communicating your policies and benefits and your support of the working parents? You can create conversation guides between managers and employees. You can make sure that the benefits and supports that you do provide are well known. I entered a law firm a number of years ago as a partner, and it took me 18 months, and I was an eagle eye looking for these things, it took me 18 months to learn that we had backup childcare available at the law firm. There are some companies that have amazing benefits and no one knows about them. How you communicate them really matters.

Number four, what programs do you have in place to specifically support the transition? There are companies that come to me and say, “Hey, I’m spending all this money on someone’s parental leave.” Then I say, “Well, you want to get the return on that investment by actually helping support them when they come back so that you haven’t invested unwisely.” You can provide coaching programs. You can provide backup care. Lactation support is a really important one for a lot of new parents who are breastfeeding children.

Number five is what sort of community and connection can you enable at your organization? Programs like Mindful Return that I run help connect people who are in that phase of life with other returners at the same time so that they don’t feel alone. If you have somebody on your team, can you think of another new parent who has recently been through it that you can pair them up with? Mentorship programs, affinity groups and ERGs are really important. I run a group called the Working Parent Group Network, which is the leaders of about 300 caregiver and working parent ERGs, or employee resource groups. If your organization has one, you can feel free to tap into that resource.

Then number six, my last thing that employers can do is collect data. Do you know how many employees have taken leave? How about your moms versus your dads? Are your dads taking the leave that is offered? I truly believe that we will not get to a state where we are able to do away with gender inequality in the workforce until dads are taking the leave in as large quantities as moms are. Are you tracking your program utilization for the programs that you are offering to new parents? What are your retention rates among new parents? We’ve studied them at Mindful Return and they’re about 20 percentage points higher than the national average. We know that providing support really helps. Are you tracking the promotions of your parents, watching their careers, seeing how they’re unfolding? Mindset, policies, communications, programs, community, and data is my rundown very quickly.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s all good stuff. That’s a podcast onto itself. Rebecca, let’s talk a little bit about some of your real life experiences in those areas.

Rebecca Kwei: I have to say, I think the company that I work for, it’s a startup, it’s Phathom Pharma, I think they took a page out of your book, Lori, because they seem to be doing everything right. I feel, first of all, very humbled and grateful that I have the opportunity to work here, because this is the third pharma company I’ve worked for, and I’ve never seen such amazing benefits that they have.

The first thing is attitude. I was with the company less than two months when I told my boss that I was pregnant and he was just as excited for me as my husband and I were. This was quite a journey. The policies are so generous too, because I had to go through IVF and our company has a zero prior authorization for IVF, which is almost unheard of for fertility clinics. We’ve never heard this, any company, what are you talking about? They make sure that you do have all of the opportunities and all of the resources that you need.

The other thing that they did that was great is the head of HR and one of the HR business partners, they scheduled a meeting with me. I was the first sales employee to actually go out on parental leave. They explained everything to me, specifically in the state of New York, what was different than in other states, to make sure that I understood about short-term disability, exactly how it would work, how I would be paid. They made sure to explain the parental leave, how they had it structured. They were open to feedback, to whether it worked well, whether it did not work well, as well as communication while I was on parental leave.

They also had additional resources that made it so easy through our insurance provider to provide breast pumps, both travel and regular pumps, very nice Medela pumps, to make it even easier than using the insurance company’s website. When I found out about this, it was a quick registration. They made it easy. The HR business partner actually sent me an email with a link. I filled it out and two days later, I have a pump already. It was so fast, I couldn’t believe it. They had great programs.

They had additional programs, on-demand nursing through an app. If you had questions, problems, if you were trying to breastfeed, if you had other issues, they made sure to stress what type of mental health resources we went through, because we know so many women, they go through postpartum depression, they go through postpartum anxiety, and understanding how to access those resources and even get reimbursed for those, are very important. They utilize Mindful Return, which is where I met Lori and her great community of other parents that have been through this. You can really talk about what that feels like and how to have a good reentry program.

One of the other things that I think was phenomenal that Phathom did, and they really did right, is they have a bridge back program. I hadn’t really heard of this before, but I know lots and lots of people that I grew up with that I previously worked for, they ask you a lot of questions like, “Are you going to return to work or are you going to look for something else? Are you going to do part-time? Are you going to use up your maternity leave and then quit?” “No, I want to return to work. I’ve worked hard for my career.” They offered a bridge back program, which meant that after the short-term disability and after the full parental leave, which was 16 weeks, was up, then we had a four-week bridge back program, which is where you work part-time, or 20 hours a week, even though you’re a salaried employee, you still get your full-time pay for that. Then a month after that, after that four weeks, then you start back full-time.

I cannot tell you how helpful and valuable that was to me as a first-time mom, especially going through all of the things where I see, “I took this new job, I’m expecting great things with my career. I see my friends getting promoted even faster in their job.” You feel like, what’s happening? You’re not really sure. Also, those things we talked about earlier with lack of sleep, reorganizing your priorities, how you’re getting your work done, finding childcare, making sure you have backup childcare as well, which I found out very quickly is very important, especially given what Lori was talking about, about the childcare crisis that we have in our country right now.

All of those things, that bridge back time was crucial for me to feel like I really could get my feet back under me and really manage things as I needed to, so that when I came back full-time, I was fully ready. My head was in the right space. I had great conversations with my sales leader and with others and people in my team about what the expectations were, making sure that they knew my intent for my job and that the impression, so to speak, didn’t change of me and how I could in my qualifications and skills, if that makes sense.

Gina Stracuzzi: You’re in sales, and you’re in sales management. Speak to us a little bit about your experience moving back into sales after coming off parent leave, because that’s something that a lot of our listeners have been through or are going through, or might go through soon.

Rebecca Kwei: I was very curious about if the expectations would change for me and for my team as well, because it was twofold. It was, what are the expectations from my boss and then my direct reports, they’re looking to me as the example of what does this mean for the company? For me, I had to make sure that I had a clear slate. I had to be very organized with how I was going to have childcare and backup care and what to do in case something happened. I think having the clear and open communication with my husband as well, making sure that we were on the same page with that, helped me to feel more confident in returning to full responsibilities. Because I think so often, unfortunately, it falls to the female. Backup care, something goes wrong, who’s going to watch the kid? Who’s going to stay home from work and who’s going to do those things? Having that was a huge consideration before I went back into the field or into the sales organization and running the team and that type of thing. That was one thing.

The other thing was planning in advance the conversations that I would have with my boss and with my team and with my peers around expectations, making sure that I had thought through those before I was thrown into it and back on the job. Having those conversations helped me to feel more confident in how I would handle that, because there’s always someone who will just assume that you maybe can’t do everything that you used to do, or the way that you used to do it, because you now have a child. Just making sure that you’re prepared for that and you know how to handle that, and that you’re not trying to be defensive about it, but just thoughtful and appreciating where that could be coming from. Because it might not necessarily be coming from a place of you’re not capable because you now have a child, just really caring and making sure that you feel comfortable and you feel like you’re in a good place and that you feel supported in your role, even though you’ve had a big life change, which was good.

The other thing too, and I think Lori mentioned this earlier, is leaning into that community at work, and people that you know that can reach out to within the current company who’ve just gone through the leave, who have small children, who are managing these things. For me, it really helped to have that village and to have those people that I could go to that I could speak about things that come up, both privately and then even more publicly when needed. Having that helped me to feel more confident in not just my skills and my abilities, but also to make sure that I knew that I was on the right track for the same success trajectory that I had before.

Gina Stracuzzi: We are the Institute for Excellence in Sales, and I think with every position regardless, it’s difficult to leave and come back. In sales, it can be even trickier because you have so many forward-facing relationships, and making sure that you hang onto those and that you don’t lose the traction that you’ve worked so hard to get. This is a question that both of you can probably answer. One of the things that we talk about a lot in the forum is when companies don’t pay women sales commissions on deals that they’ve worked really hard on and really long on, it’s a tricky situation because somebody has to take it over, clearly, and they deserve something too. But it had been that women were cut out of the equation completely, and that’s obviously not fair. Life is not fair, but some things could be fair if people put effort into them. Lori, why don’t you talk a little bit about how you coach companies on that, and then Rebecca, your feelings on it after that?

Lori Mihalich-Levin: I want to go back to one thing that Rebecca was describing earlier, which was benevolent discrimination. It’s a term that we use to talk about the ways that people think that they might be helping the situation, but in reality, they are disadvantaging women’s careers. If you have a manager, for example, who takes you off of a project that will require a lot of travel because he or she believes that, “We’re just protecting you from the travel during the first couple of months of baby,” but you really wanted to go on the travel, and you’ve got all the backup ways of handling the travel. Today, there are backup care locations in lots of sites. People bring their babies with them, they have other arrangements. There’s milk shipping, that you can ship your milk back home through things like Milk Stork. What we try to help managers and employers do is to stop making assumptions.

To your question, Gina, about what we do about the commissions, or in the billable hour world, what about your bonus and how should your hours be compensated or prorated? We all just need to rewind and have the open conversations. When we gloss over them and assume we know what the outcome should be, or this is the way it’s been done for 20 years, and this is just how it always pans out, that’s when we get into trouble. But if we can back up and say, “Okay. What is my circumstance? What do I need? What feels fair here? What are we going to look at for the next year?” I think we can reach more one-on-one solutions that aren’t blanket policies that end up disadvantaging women.

If we can put in a policy that says, for example, in law firm world, that there will be a true-up at the end of the year to compensate you for extra hours that you may have worked. Or in the sales world, if there’s a policy that you can put into place that makes a fair distribution according to the time the person was out, I think that those policies can be good platforms for launching good conversations that lead toward more equality.

Rebecca Kwei: I could not agree more. I think that having the policy in place and having those conversations early on, they help prevent having some type of dissonance once it’s happened and you feel like you cannot believe that they would do this to you after the fact. My experience, I haven’t seen that in pharma sales, typically it’s prorated, whatever your quarterly bonus for the time that you were in the field, the time that you were actually working, and they make sure that you have that. One thing that my company did very, very well is they explained exactly how I would get paid, and what I would get paid, and when I would get paid while I was on parental leave, and what that actually looked like. They went a step further to explain what were the legal requirements and then what were they doing to make sure that I still felt a valued part of the organization. Which I think having that conversation throughout was a huge benefit.

They also continued to have conversations when I came back, welcoming me back asking about it. They asked for input and for my feedback on the policies that they had in place, so what worked really well, what did not. I am very fortunate, just even speaking with some other people from the Mindful Return community, I feel like a lot of businesses, a lot of companies could benefit and really not just retain employees until they can find a different place when they come back from leave, but they can become advocates for the company, as I’ve been, because they feel so valued and they feel so well respected because of the policies and because of how they’re implemented and communicated.

Gina Stracuzzi: Lori, let me ask you about why you think it’s important that both parents take leave.

Lori Mihalich-Levin: I truly believe we will not reach gender parity in the workplace until men and women are both seen as equally competent and valued caregivers. Just think of a scenario where a woman is interviewing for a job and someone interviewing her has that thought, “Well, I could hire her, but she’s around the age when she’s going to go on leave. I don’t know.” They may not expressly state that discriminatory remark, but it might be something that they factor in. Now imagine that in their ecosystem, in their company, men and women both take parental leave in equal amounts. That is not a hiring consideration anymore.

Another factor that I want to bring up is there is data that shows that the amount of time that a father takes for parental leave is directly correlated to the career success of his partner. Women end up doing better in their careers when the men are able to stay home and learn how to care for baby. A lot of the, we call it the she-fault caregiver, the default caregiver becomes a she-fault caregiver because she’s just the one who’s always done it. It’s not that the man is not capable of taking on the responsibilities. It’s just that he just hasn’t been given the opportunity and the experience.

My challenge to managers in the workplace is not to ask a man, “Are you planning on taking any time off when your baby’s born?” But to say, “When are you taking your paternity leave?” Let’s plan around that. Let’s have open conversation so that we can normalize this conversation for both men and women, because yes, men and women are both competent caregivers for children. It is not a vacation. Please do not call it a vacation when you take a parental leave.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s anything but.

Lori Mihalich-Levin: Yes. You are keeping a human alive.

Gina Stracuzzi: A future salesperson, or lawyer, or whatever. Rebecca, why don’t you tell us a little bit about that? Then we have to ask for your last comments and last thoughts.

Rebecca Kwei: I cannot applaud what Lori said enough, because it is more than a hundred percent true, and it makes such a difference. Having those policies help to reinforce that it shouldn’t be just a female’s responsibility. That’s one thing that was stressed at the company where I am, it is parental leave. It’s not maternity leave specific, it’s to either gender. Now I know the person having the baby gets the additional short-term disability, the one that actually delivers the baby. However, that time is beyond crucial, and making sure that it’s the same regardless of the parent. I think it sets the example and sets the tone.

I will say that hiring my team, even recently, people still unfortunately feel that they need to provide additional information that employers cannot ask and will not ask. I cannot tell you how many times I have interviewed a female for the job, and they have proactively told me that, “Listen, I do have young children, but you don’t have to worry about childcare.” I’m taken aback because I tell them, “Well, first of all, I would never ask that. Second of all, I would never assume that it would be an issue, for you or anyone else.” I did recently have a male who actually said that in an interview, and it was the first time that I had had a man who said, “I take an active role in parenting and you do not have to worry about childcare, you do not have to worry because of this.” When you’re in the interview process, you’re like, “Well, thank you for sharing, but that is not a question, I would not do that.”

One thing that I do try to stress, and I think everyone should, is being a parent makes you a better leader, makes you a better salesperson by far. Because you are dealing with so many additional things and personalities and how to handle those things. I applaud every employer who makes it an equal parental leave because that is how it should be. It’s multiple parents, whether you’re a single parent, I think that it’s wonderful, it’s an amazing job. I am constantly in awe of my friends who are doing a fabulous job single parenting. I think that there’s a lot of people that it should be more equal for them. It starts with the employer and offering the policy and then trying to enforce it and encouraging that, because that’s how we really change things for women in the workforce, a hundred percent.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, we are out of time, unfortunately, but leave us with one piece of advice that perhaps, Lori, you’re going from the employer standpoint of what they can do to help their employees. Then, Rebecca, something that women sellers can do to improve their situation.

Lori Mihalich-Levin: For employers, I’d say, what is the current experience that your new parents are having? Ask that question. Can you answer the question, what is the experience that they’re having? If you don’t really know the answer, then go talk to them and do exactly what Rebecca’s employer did, which is to ask for their feedback. Then take one baby step, one of the six topic areas that I listed earlier, and just do something to show that you are interested in helping them through the transition. If they gain your loyalty throughout a parental leave transition, they will be amazingly loyal employees afterward.

Rebecca Kwei: Couldn’t agree more, Lori. In terms of what we can do, I think especially as women, you have to be bold and ask the questions that need to be asked. But we need to take it one step further and think of how what you’re saying will be received, or what you’re asking will be received to that particular audience. Because that can really help you adapt and ask it the right way where you’re going to get the response that you really need.

Gina Stracuzzi: Know your audience, as they say. Ladies, thank you very much. It was my pleasure talking to you. I know you’ve given our listeners a lot to think about and I look forward to talking to you again.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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