Christina Leafe has managed to rise up the career ranks at engineering firm Atkins because of the firm's willingness to listen to her needs and her ability to be flexible enough to ensure a changing work pattern did not have any detrimental impact on her work.
Christina Leafe has had a steady career rise at engineering firm Atkins despite working a changing flexible plan over the years while her children were young and she puts it all down to the firm’s willingness to listen to its employees.
Christina, who is Divisional Director, Atkins Water & Environment, joined the company after her first maternity leave 18 years ago. Trained as a scientist, she had been working full time as a contaminated land consultant and her job involved a lot of travel. When she became pregnant it was the beginning of the last recession and her company was looking to close their Midlands office where she worked. They offered to relocate her to Milton Keynes, but she and her husband were settled there and she didn’t want to move. She went on maternity leave and when her daughter was nine months old she started looking for another Midlands-based job with less travel and less hours.
She spoke to a recruitment agency and within a week they came back to her and said Atkins had a senior consultant role they were struggling to fill which involved managing bid work and delivering projects. Christina had all the necessary skills, but Atkins they had never hired someone to do the role on a part-time basis before. “I told them how it could work and they were willing to give it a go and they have supported me all the way through,” says Christina. She built a good team around her and, although she initially worked three days a week, she was available on the mobile or laptop for urgent issues and could work in the office or at home. It helped that she had a childminder who was also very flexible.
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Working flexibly and with support from a mentor, Christina has been promoted from a technical consultant to a manager to a business manager to a director. She has worked part time and for four to five years was on a term time only contract – or what she presented to her manager as a 93% contract involving two weeks off at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, school inset days and four weeks over the summer.
She knew that summer was a quiet time business wise, but agreed to take a laptop with her during the holidays in case of emergencies. And she reported back on its success so head office could see it was possible.
After 2010 when she was made a director, Christina decided she could change her work pattern since her children were older and there were no longer the same kind of family summer holidays. Also Atkins has introduced a flexible leave scheme where employees can buy additional leave when they want it. That meant Christina could go full time and buy additional leave as needed on a year by year basis.
The flexibility of Atkins, which won the 2013 Top Employer Overall Award at the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards, has been vital for her career, she says, particularly when her son was born. At six months he was diagnosed with severe eczema and had to be hospitalised for it. For four years, Christina and her husband were going in and out of Birmingham Children’s Hospital for appointments. Because of the severity of the eczema her son didn’t sleep for the first four years. He would spend all night screaming and scratching and Christina and her husband would spend alternate nights staying up with him, essentially not sleeping for that night themselves. “I was a zombie,” says Christina. She told her manager and Atkins once again listened to what she said. “I essentially put my career on hold, but no-one made me feel I was going backwards,” she says.
Christina is on Atkins’ women’s leadership council and has been talking about her personal career story to show women that it is possible to progress while working flexibly. “It’s important that people hear authentic stories which show that you do not have to be like a man to get on in an engineering business,” says Christina.
“When I started at Atkins it was the first time they had employed someone in my position on a part-time basis, but they were willing to listen and I was willing to be flexible too and make it works. It’s important for women to have those conversations and to think about all the questions involved and the possible answers about how it will work. I feel a big loyalty to Atkins. The brand is really good which means we get the most exciting work to do and through flexible working you can have a lifelong career here. Who wouldn’t want to work for a company like Atkins?”
*Read more about Atkins' flexible working practice here. This is an abbridged version of an interview with Christina Leafe which will appear in the forthcoming Workingmums.co.uk Best Practice Report.