Many people worry that becoming a parent, particularly a mum, could have a negative impact on their career. However, for Fiona McDonnell, European Director of Beer, Wine and Spirits at Amazon, becoming a mum was a transformational step on her leadership journey.
I have spent the majority of my career in the consumer products industry, in various commercial and general management roles close to manufacturing and distribution of products. In 2015 I joined Amazon in Germany as Director of Toys and later in 2016 became Director of our Beer, Wines and Spirits business across Europe.
I have always had a natural drive and am not afraid to tackle things that look difficult or impossible. That adventure has followed through my career as I have worked in Germany, Poland, The Netherlands and Singapore. I relocated to London earlier this year where I live with my Dutch husband and our two boys who are aged seven and four. I always aspired to be a leader and just expected I would be a mum.
When I had my first child I was Managing Director of a Dutch manufacturing business. At that time, I was working late and intensely, and I did wonder how I would be able to still do the job. I returned to work after 16 weeks leave (the Dutch standard) and had chosen to still feed the baby myself.
Logistically, the first few months were brutally organised to be able to feed and work, but it mattered to me to do this for my kids. I didn’t have extended family nearby, but my husband and I became a real team and we found a way. What sounded impossible became a routine and I quickly found that I dropped the stuff that didn’t matter, made choices and got way more productive in the process. I have never looked back.
Prioritisation is not the only thing I have taken away from being a mum. Driven by the initial sleep deprivation, my coping mechanism was to notice where I got my energy and where not. I realised that it takes energy trying to be someone you are not and, as I was striving to be an authentic leader, becoming a mum really helped me let go. Having children let me drop the rigid perception of what ‘a successful career woman’ looked like, and it let me be more ‘me’.
When pregnant with my second baby, I was working in Poland in a factory environment and still held general meetings up until my last two weeks, with my baby ‘bump’ and still wearing my heels. I remember a group of ladies who came up to tell me how much they valued me carrying on ‘as normal’ and looking like I enjoyed it too. I probably just stopped trying so hard and in doing so was more relaxed, effective and certainly contented.
Now at Amazon, my day starts with the family; having breakfast, getting ready, the general running around and then a long commute, which I use as working time and to focus on the day ahead. I have no typical days but a mixture of meetings, developing my team, meeting vendors and spending time creating new things. I leave at 5pm and wrap up work on the train to be home for some bedtime stories with the kids about 6.30pm.
I am lucky that I have the tools and the freedom at Amazon to work flexibly and I fit the job in when and where it works best. Amazon also supports the early years of parenthood with paternity leave and return to work policies, which are really valuable in giving new parents the room to find their own new routines too.
I don’t bring work home or on holiday so when I do work I am focused, productive and refreshed. When I first started at Amazon my kids would tell people, “Mummy works at the toys shop where the man brings everything to the door”. I love their accurate view of the world. I take a lot of inspiration from the time I spend with my kids and use it at work. When I did a keynote speech for International Women’s Day, many of my examples had their origin in my personal life and colleagues told me that they were more easily able to connect to my story.
“Can women have it all?” is such an incomplete question. Women are not all the same, and mothers are not all the same. We may all have different priorities in life. There are so many opportunities today in terms of technology or policies that employers can deliver to support employees’ various preferences or functions and industries to work in to find something that resonates for you. The key thing I believe is making sure you define ‘having it all’ in your own way.
Don’t measure yourself against other people’s definition of success as it doesn’t guarantee you’ll feel fulfilled. My advice would be to know your own values, make your own choices to support your priorities, don’t be any less ambitious, but do it on your own terms. It matters only that YOU feel you have it all, and at the end of the day only you will know if you do.