Within days of my first positive pregnancy test, I had a fat stack of books on my nightstand covering every aspect of prenatal development: What to expect, what to eat (and not eat), what exercises to do (and not do). I was hungry to learn about how to foster healthy fetal development and how to nurture this tiny thing that was barely big enough to see on an ultrasound. I was thinking about nuchal translucencies, gestational diabetes screening and birth plans.
What I was not thinking about: The life going on outside my belly. It wasn’t until many months later, after my up-to-that-point-super-successful career had essentially evaporated, that I realized that I should have been focused on nurturing, protecting and insulating my professional life, as well.
Since then, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I could have done—or could have done better—in the years leading up to having a baby and in the months while I was pregnant. Some of these are lessons I learned the hard way, and some are based on the advice of the dozens of women I interviewed when writing Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood. I think of these recommendations as folic acid for your career: Good for you anytime but critically important if you’re thinking about having a baby.
Relentlessly build your network
This goes for both inside and outside of your company. When you hear someone blithely say, “I was in the right place at the right time,” what they really mean is, “I knew the right people.” It’s not about luck: It takes diligence, organization and assertiveness.
How to do it: Aim for two coffee meetings a week with people who could help advance your career, now or in the future. (LinkedIn is a great way to identify connections to people you want to meet and also identify who in a particular company you should connect with.) When I’m reaching out to someone new, I always get specific about why I’d like to meet, and I frame it in terms of what’s in it for them. Phrases like, “Can I pick your brain?” are off-putting to busy people. Instead, think about what you can offer them, and try something like, “I’d love to hear about your experiences with ABC and also understand more about how I could help you with XYZ.”
Document your wins
Women tend to spend a lot of time worrying about what they haven’t done, rather than celebrating what they’ve actually accomplished (which is often more than they think). Reflect on your successes, and keep track of the specifics related to them—then make them your talking points when you’re pitching your boss on a promotion or raise.
How to do it: Start a folder called “Wins” in your email. When you get a message praising your work, file it there. Also, set up a document on the cloud called “Weekly Accomplishments.” Set a recurring calendar item for 15 minutes every Friday afternoon, and use that time to jot down what you’ve achieved that week, including specific metrics whenever possible. I’ve found it personally empowering to force myself to regularly reflect on what I’ve accomplished, but this document is also enormously helpful when I need to draft a progress update for my company’s investors. I couldn’t begin to count the number of achievements I would have otherwise forgotten had I not noted them when they’d happened.
Be a broken record about what you want
Even the most feminist and egalitarian people fall prey to unconscious bias, making assumptions about the needs and wants of mothers, pregnant women or even just women of childbearing age. Mitigate this by being proactive about conveying what you actually need or want, whether it’s getting assigned to a big client or representing the company at a half dozen conferences in the next year. (As much as you might want her to, your boss can’t read your mind.)
How to do it: First, reflect on what you need to achieve to advance to the next level (leading a project? spending time in offices in other parts of the country?), and pay special attention to the components of your job that might be considered especially demanding or an intrusion on your personal life. Speak up at regular intervals about both what you want to do and what you’re willing to do. After returning from her maternity leave, attorney Jennifer Hill sat down with the partners in her law firm and said, “Here are the three things I want to do in the next quarter. How can we make this happen?” Another woman told me that, when sharing the news of her pregnancy, she added, “My doctor tells me I can safely travel until my eighth month, and I would like to continue to do so.”
Put everything on paper
People will warn you about “pregnancy brain” or “mommy brain,” but keeping careful records isn’t just about accommodating for the forgetfulness that comes from sleep deprivation. You’re relieving your brain of mundane administrative tasks (like remembering who you know at Nestle or when the project bids are due) and freeing it to think creatively and strategically.
How to do it: Start with two documents—“Relationships” and “Action Items.” In your “Relationships” file (I recommend Excel or Google Sheets), track the people you’ve met with and want to meet with, along with notes on what you discussed and when. For your “Action Items,” break the file down into Today, This Week, This Month, and Someday to mitigate that sense of panic about how much is on your to-do list. Once you’ve mastered those, consider creating “how-to” guides for yourself for things you do repeatedly but not often enough that they’re automatic, listing out all the steps so you can run through a checklist rather than worry you’ve forgotten something. For instance, I have a document on my Google Drive that lists in detail all of the things my team needs to do when hosting a cross-promotion with another brand. And since drafting it, I spend much less time worrying whether we’ve forgotten something important.
Consider what you can do for other people before thinking about what they can do for you
Every time you meet or talk with someone, ask yourself, “How can I help this person?” More often than not, this will come down to connecting them with another person—a journalist who could write about their work, a senior executive in a company they’d like to partner with, a potential mentor. And frequently, the person on the other end of the introduction derives value from that connection as well, so you’re earning double the karma points.
How to do it: Always be in the mindset of helping and connecting others. Get into the habit of identifying at least one introduction for every person you meet. Try to close every interaction by asking, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” Being generous invites generosity, and cultivating a reputation as a connector means you’ll be top of mind when others are thinking about making connections.
Allyson Downey is the founder of weeSpring, which has been called “Yelp for baby products” by InStyle. She is also the author of Here’s the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood (Seal Press, April 2016).