CEO Secrets: 'Mums at work don't take any nonsense, there's no time'

By Dougal Shaw
Business reporter, BBC News

Published
media captionLouise O'Shea of Confused.com shares her CEO Secrets

Louise O'Shea is a firm believer that new mums make formidable employees. Like many working parents, the chief executive of price comparison site Confused.com, says lockdown is a challenge, but reckons it might bring benefits in the future.

"I was in hospital in the labour ward and I had a little mini-office set up around me," remembers O'Shea of her first pregnancy.

She had a senior role at insurers Admiral Group at the time.

"I actually interviewed an employee while I was in the ward waiting to give birth." She recalls having to explain why a woman was screaming in the background.

Today O'Shea has two daughters, aged five and three.

image copyrightLouise O'Shea
image captionLouise O'Shea often takes her daughters to visit work

She was heavily pregnant with her second daughter when she successfully applied for the role of CEO at Confused.com in 2017, having been finance director at the company.

She was so keen to get stuck into her first CEO role that she took only eight weeks maternity leave. On her first day as CEO, she had to bring her newborn into work, because her husband couldn't help that day.

"I never want to let being a mum stop me from being a great CEO," explains O'Shea.

But she admits she has had doubts during her journey to the top.

"About a year after returning to work, when I was packing away my second daughter's baby clothes, I was crying because I could remember her elder sister wearing all her clothes and I couldn't remember her wearing them, because I wasn't there.

"It was this moment [when I recognised] what a big sacrifice I had made - but I'd still probably do it again."

image copyrightLouise O'Shea
image captionLouise O'Shea went on maternity leave just before being promoted from finance director to CEO at Confused.com

A lot of the battles she now fights are underpinned by her desire to create a better working environment for her daughters in the future.

She says she frequently spots small signs of sexism in the business world and she feels a moral duty to confront it now that she has the power of being a CEO.

She has challenged radio shows for giving male panellists more airtime than female ones. She also called out male colleagues for mistakenly congratulating her for being "female Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) leader of the year" - when she was simply "Stem leader of the year", competing against men.

Parental power

A lot of women fear losing momentum in their career when they have children, arguably more so in the intensely male-dominated world of financial tech.

However, it was a chat with a male boss that reassured O'Shea that she could keep her career on track, and his words have stayed with her to this day.

He said: "I love it when women have babies. When they come back, they don't take any nonsense because they don't have time."

She has found this to be true, and she breaks it down to three points when passing it on to her female employees.

Firstly, you will be super-organised. When you have babies, getting everything ready for a day trip is like a military operation, says O'Shea. "You're on it."

Secondly, after going through childbirth, nothing will ever scare you again. "Well my old boss was right about that," she laughs.

"Thirdly, you're going to have this clock ticking in the back of your head, because you know you want to get home to feed the kids. So when you are in those meetings where people aren't making a decision or procrastinating, you're going to cut through the nonsense."

image copyrightLouise O'Shea
image captionChildren are encouraged to celebrate Halloween at an office party

She passes on this advice so new mums don't need to feel self doubt when they are at home, worrying about the return to work.

"You need to think about everything that you're learning and bring that with you to the workplace," she says.

I ask O'Shea if principles like being super-organised don't just apply to new mums, but to parents in general - in other words, men too?

She's not so sure.

Even though men are better at contributing to child rearing these days, she argues it is mothers who tend to bear the mental load of project managing family life.

"Do men remember to take nappy bags with them when they go out the house?" she asks me.

Well that's me busted!

Flexible future

The current lockdown, combined with school closures, has hit working parents hard.

O'Shea says she has tried to support parents at Confused.com by offering flexible hours and even laying on online entertainment for children at home.

She thinks working conditions will end up actually being better for parents once lockdown conditions are eased.

"I think the more flexible approach to work that we're experiencing now is going to significantly help parents," she says.

She thinks every business leader should reflect on what legacy they are leaving. And one of hers is that employees who are about to become parents should be valued as an asset, rather than treated as an inconvenience.

You can follow CEO Secrets series producer Dougal on Twitter: @dougalshawbbc

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