By Scott Kucirek The last three months have provided an interesting lesson in working through unusual challenges. It all started three months ago, when Mackie, our "mentor manager," left on maternity leave four weeks early. Hers was having a difficult pregnancy and she was in jeopardy of being ordered to bed by her doctor for the final months if she didn't stop working right away.
Mackie was 25% of our management team, so we all had to scramble when she left earlier than planned. Then, three weeks ago, our vice-president of recruiting and training, Leslie, took leave to have her first child. Although we knew it was coming and were very happy for Leslie, the reality of living without two of our four key managers hit home with a thud.
Over the past two weeks, we have finally reached some level of stability. I attribute this in part to some very dedicated team members, and also to our commitment to the following four rules:
Plan ahead. One of the advantages of maternity leave is that you have plenty of advance warning that key people will be out of the office for extended periods. By early February, we realized the team was going to be without two execs for an extended time during the summer. I worked with both Leslie and Mackie to taper their schedules (no new projects the last 45 days) while training other team members to assume the job functions that, up until then, only the two moms-to-be knew how to accomplish. Even though Mackie left 30 days ahead of schedule, we were still able to train replacements, which made the transition when she actually left that much easier.
No new projects. Sure, it seems obvious, but other departments in the company just didn't grasp what we were facing, so they continued trying to get us involved in all sorts of "essential" projects.
Over one particular four-week period, I had to say "No!" more often than I have in the entire history of the company. I also had to convince my own team to turn down new projects, or delay starting them, in order to make sure we would only be working on essential tasks. Now that things are once again running somewhat smoothly, everyone sees the wisdom of this rule.
Distribute the workload. I had two choices facing me once Mackie and Leslie were out of the office: Do all their work myself, or delegate tasks to the other 10 people. Since my schedule was already so loaded that I barely have time for family and sleeping, guess which one I selected?
The good news was that, after explaining clearly to the team the challenges ahead and what I expected from them, nobody balked at the added responsibility. We all knew this was a temporary staffing shortfall, and everyone in our department was determined to make sure we succeeded in continuing to do our jobs. In addition, this has been a great growing experience for many of the team members, who are getting their first opportunity to branch out and take additional leadership responsibilities.
Recruit an intern. Although we didn't want to hire anybody full-time, we did hire an intern as a temporary stopgap. Luckily for us, the maternity leaves coincided with summer vacation, which made finding an intern so much easier.
We started searching in April and were approached right away by one of this column's readers. As fate would have it, the applicant was a perfect fit: He was looking to learn more about how a real estate company works and was willing to assist in the recruiting, training, and HR worlds. After finalizing the paperwork, he stared in June and has been an immense help.
LABOR PAINS, COMPANY GAINS. The good news is that the worst has passed without the department suffering too much. In two weeks, Mackie will return, which will leave us only one person short. Before we know it, Labor Day will be here, Leslie will return, and we will be firing on all cylinders again.
The best part, however, is that we will have made an important statement to both our team and the company that valuable members who need time off to start a family can do so -- and do so in the knowledge that their positions will be waiting for them when they return. That's how you build a great culture. See you soon. Scott Kucirek is president and co-founder of zipRealty.com, an online real estate brokerage. The company's Internet site and online real estate agents let people complete the entire purchase or sale of a house via the Web. The company's Web site is www.zipRealty.com, and you can E-mail Scott at Scott@zipRealty.com.