Marie Lees is managing director of a PR agency. It’s a full-on job, but she is able to work flexibly. She joined as a director after the birth of her son Ben, who suffers from a congenital heart defect and was not sure about making such a big move and taking on a promotion at the time. It turns out to have been a good decision.
Marie has been working in PR marketing for 15 years since she graduated, with one six-month break to travel, and has worked in a variety of PR agencies as well as being a press officer for supermarket chain Morrisons. She says she has always been very driven and announced early on in her career that she wanted to set up her own agency. She is now managing director of Wolfstar, a creative communications consultancy, having moved there in 2015 from Good Relations Regional, formerly known as Bell Pottinger North.
Marie has two sons, aged four and one. She says when she had her first son, Ben, she always intended to come back to work, but going on maternity leave and her treatment on her return to work led her to reflect on the kind of work culture she wanted. She was also considering a move to Leeds to be nearer family.
So when the chair of Wolfstar approached her and offered her a director role it seemed too good an opportunity to miss, even if it was a hard decision. Taking on a new role after maternity leave was difficult. Marie’s son was born with a congenital heart defect which meant he spent his first month in hospital and had to have open heart surgery twice in his first year. The experience made her realise, however, what real stress was and not to sweat the small stuff.
She had not come across any positive role models of working mums in senior positions around her. “Everyone senior was either a man or a woman who didn’t have children. Other women who had had children had gone freelance,” she says. “It seemed that being a working parent and having a senior role did not work in my industry.”
She has, however, made it work for her because Wolfstar allows flexible working. This is something she feels strongly about – the need for a flexible culture for all staff. Marie is clear that the flexibility she has works both ways, which means that, although she doesn’t generally work on Fridays outside of checking emails, she sometimes works in the evenings and at weekends. “That’s just the nature of the job,” she says.
She also has a good support network around her, including a mentor who she can pick up the phone to if she needs advice. Her husband is a director at one of Deloitte’s regional offices and she says they share childcare responsibilities.
Marie has also had some life coaching from someone in the PR industry and has learned to delegate more and give them more responsibility. “I’m very independent so it was difficult to ask for help, but it helps to see it as empowering other people,” she says. The life coach also taught her to own her decisions and be more confident about them being right for her family. She states: “I think women need to support each other more and support the decisions we make.”
“I do feel working mum guilt, but I enjoy working and my role is a big part of who I am,” she says. “My children are the most important thing in my life and I am a happier, better mum because I work. I am also drawing on my strengths as a parent in my manager role. I want to lead by example.”
It helps that Wolfstar’s chair is a dad of four and is understanding of the pressures facing working parents. She says: “We want to be an agency where we support each other and where people stay because it has a good reputation and a good culture. It looks good to our clients that we can retain our staff. Many agencies don’t. People spend a lot of time at work. It should be somewhere which supports them.”