In 2008, I got a call from Andy Rubin, the former CEO of Android. He wanted my company, The Astonishing Tribe, to design the UI for Google’s first Android phone. So I spent five months commuting between my home in Malmö, Sweden, and Mountain View. During that time my wife became pregnant with our first child. I took six months paternity leave when she went back to work. I also took three months leave after our twins were born.
Netflix announced on Tuesday that it will let employees take unlimited maternity or paternity leave during the first year of their child’s life. Microsoft quickly followed suit by adding a 12-week parental leave program (four paid, eight unpaid), which can be used by either parent, to the existing eight weeks of what they rather disturbingly call "paid maternity disability leave." To Americans, these measures must seem amazingly progressive. To Swedes, not so much.
Swedish parents are entitled by law to a total of 480 days of paid parental leave split between them. Two months of that is reserved for Dads and the Swedish government plans to increase that to three months in 2016. At Netflix, the exact number of days leave you can take is undefined, which means that every case will involve a negotiation. A fixed number of days, as in the Swedish system, seems clearer for both parties. Microsoft’s measure is a good start but, at 12 weeks, strikes Scandinavians as short.
Paternity leave is normal in Sweden. In fact, American visitors sometimes mistake Dads on paternity leave for male nannies since there are so many of us. When I told my co-founders we were pregnant they said “Oh that’s awesome! When are you going on paternity leave?” They didn’t ask “Are you going?” This is a good thing, both for families and ultimately for businesses.
In some ways paternity leave is more difficult for entrepreneurs than for employees. We have control issues. We think it’s our personal responsibility to solve every problem. We invest too much of our personal identity in the success of our companies, as Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings admitted a few years ago. While on leave, I learned to empower other people in my company rather than to try doing everything myself. I learned to trust my colleagues more.
Most decisions are neither terminal nor irreversible. What’s the worst that can happen? Hand over all key responsibilities. Do not demand to be consulted on every decision, unless it’s a decision like an investment round or an acquisition that could change everything.
To use the late, great Jim Collins’ analogy, I want to be a clock-builder rather than a time-teller. Paternity leave helped me to achieve that. A person who can look at the sun or the stars and state the exact time and date is a time teller. Having a great idea is often “time telling”. If that same person constructed a clock that could tell the time forever, he is a clock maker. Clock making means building a company that can prosper well beyond the tenure of any single CEO. It means letting go.
Paternity leave gave me distance from the everyday issues at TAT and allowed me to zoom out. I learned to prioritize work-related issues so I could handle the most important ones in a few hours a week. When I returned to work, I was ready to take the company to the next level. In fact, the reason that I took only three months paternity leave when the twins arrived was that the company which had just acquired TAT for $150 million -- Blackberry -- was understandably unhappy with the idea of a longer absence a mere two months after the acquisition.
At my latest startup Brisk, we want people to take parental leave. Brisk’s VP of engineering took paternity leave for three months and the company’s head of design just started working part-time so he can spend more time with his new baby.
Ask employees how much they want to be in contact and how much they want to be left alone when on paternal leave. Keep them informed about the company’s activities. Continue to invite them to your company’s social activities. Trust them to come back better. I wouldn’t have missed my paternity leave for the world. It made me not only a better spouse and father, but also a better leader.