How to create an exceptional coverage plan for your parental leave
A step-by-step guide and plug-and-play template for going on leave with peace of mind
👋 Hey, I’m Lenny and welcome to a 🔒 subscriber-only edition 🔒 of my weekly newsletter. Each week I tackle reader questions about building product, driving growth, and accelerating your career.
This week’s very on-topic special paternity-leave guest post comes from Tamara Hinckley. Tamara is a product leader at Pinterest, and in her awesome newsletter, Half Moon Hustle, writes about women’s health, motherhood, and everything else that stresses out ambitious women. You can find Tamara on LinkedIn, and for more, definitely check out her newsletter. Enjoy!
Imagine that you’re snuggling with your precious newborn while he or she is napping in your arms. Suddenly your phone rings, waking the baby. It’s your manager, asking you a question about a project at work.
Don’t let this be you!
If you or your partner is expecting a baby and you plan to take extended leave (more than a few weeks), you’ll need to put together a thorough coverage plan.
A solid coverage plan will help you:
Focus completely on your family without unexpected disturbances
Minimize business disruptions by maintaining continuity for your projects
Build and maintain relationship capital with your manager, peers, and the broader team
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was grateful that my company offered a generous parental leave. I knew I needed to write a coverage plan, but I didn’t know where to start. When I realized there were no templates available, I did a lot of research and created my own.
Since taking leave myself, I’ve helped many people prepare for their own parental leave, including direct reports, peers, and other coworkers. Now people use my coverage plan as a reference across the company, referring to it as the “gold standard” in the product organization.
Here’s a step-by-step playbook for creating an exceptional coverage plan for your parental leave.
1. Start early and socialize often
Your coverage plan will require a lot of input, so start working on it at least a few months before you plan to be out. Then start socializing it early and aim to finish at least a month before the due date.
Follow this suggested timeline to raise awareness and solicit feedback:
T-minus 4 months: Share the news with your manager sometime in the second trimester (suggestion: after the 20-week anatomy scan). Afterward, meet with your skip-level manager and tell them the news directly.
T-minus 3 months: Share a first draft of your coverage plan with your manager in the early third trimester so you have some time to iterate on it. You will likely make changes as things come up and evolve.
T-minus 2 months: Socialize the plan more broadly. Share the news and a revised draft with your team, peers, and others to see if you missed anything. Meet one-on-one with every person who is listed as a DRI (more on that in the next section) to get their buy-in and commitment.
T-minus 1 month: Finalize the plan and send it out to a wide distribution list of key stakeholders. Plan to be fully “done” 3-4 weeks before the due date. You can make final tweaks as you go, but be prepared in case the baby comes early.
Due date: Once you go out, set up an auto-response message on email and Slack with a link to your plan.
Your communication strategy is critical for getting key stakeholders on board with the plan. Once you’ve finalized your coverage, don’t forget to tell people about the details to maximize impact.
2. Determine your parental leave timeline
To start, contact HR to understand your company’s leave policy and what you are eligible for.
If you’re the first person taking parental leave at your company, here is a great resource to help you advocate for the time you deserve. In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for pregnancy and bonding with a new child. Ranges vary widely based on industry (Netflix offers up to 52 weeks!) but typically average 16 weeks for secondary caregivers and 20 weeks for birthing parents.
Once you understand your options, you can determine your timeline. Here are some questions to consider:
Split or all at once? For birthing parents, front-loading their leave tends to be more popular due to the physical recovery needed after birth. Some people stack their leave with their partner to maximize coverage (e.g. birthing parent takes first X months, then partner takes next Y months). If you have flexibility, consider whether there are particular times, like annual planning, when you’d benefit from being around to help shape major decisions. Regardless of how you split it up, my advice is to plan to take all the time you are eligible for.
Start leave before the baby is born? For birthing parents, some states will allow you to receive benefits for up to four weeks before the delivery date (see, for example, California). If you are eligible for this leave, take it! If the baby comes early, you’ll be glad you were prepared. If not, you’ll have extra time to wrap things up before you go into “sleep deprivation with a newborn” mode.
Phased transition or full return? For most people, the transition back to work after becoming a parent is challenging. Some companies offer a phased transition (work X days per week for the first few weeks). If you have this option, take advantage of it so you can slowly ease back into things. If not, start your first day back on a Thursday so that your first week back is a short one!
Ultimately, when deciding on your timeline, I encourage you to optimize for what is best for your family and then be super-clear about the dates you’ll be gone (see “Timeline” here).
3. Outline a coverage plan
This section is the heart of your coverage document (see “Coverage plan” here). It should cover your primary responsibilities and who will serve as your proxy for each.
Here are two ways to approach this:
Option 1: Bottom-up approach (works best for individual contributors)
Projects: Start by creating a prioritized list of every project that you’re working on. Consider projects that might come up while you’re gone (for example, annual or quarterly planning, feature releases, etc.). Add the major outcomes that need to happen while you’re out. Make sure to highlight upcoming milestones, include key documents, and define what success looks like. Then choose one directly responsible individual (DRI) per project who can step up and lead the work in your absence (consider cross-functional partners like engineering managers and designers who are eager to step in). Align with that person on what specifically they’ll be covering for you (and thank them for their help!).
Upcoming meetings: Look through your calendar for the upcoming month and document all your recurring meetings (excluding 1:1s). If you lead the meeting, find people already in the meeting who can cover for you. Share how you run the meeting (e.g. what outcomes you are driving, who is in charge of the agenda). If you attend the meeting, decide whether you need to send a delegate in your place (sometimes you’ll realize you don’t get much value from the meeting and you can just skip it).
Other: Think about what else you do that will require coverage. Do you oversee a budget that requires managing approvals? Do you send out a recurring newsletter for your department? Incorporate these responsibilities into the plan.
Option 2: Top-down approach (works best for managers)
Area DRIs: Create a list of major focus areas (3-5 maximum) and assign one DRI for each area (choose from your direct reports or peers). Provide context on specific projects, meetings, and other workstreams, but give each DRI full autonomy to handle any new decisions that come up in their area.
De facto proxy (optional): Designate one person as your de facto proxy (“Interim Product Lead”) to serve as the primary point of contact for your manager and your team. Ideally choose a senior member of your team who has held a similar role in the past or is eager for a challenge. List their high-level responsibilities (e.g. set goals for the team, serve as interim manager, liaise with the executive team), and clarify that he or she has final decision-making authority while you’re out.
As you plan for coverage, consider in detail what needs to get done to deliver on the major outcomes you want to drive. Then identify one person for each project or focus area who is willing and able to cover in your absence.
By breaking up your work into smaller chunks, you can distribute your responsibilities across multiple people without overwhelming any one person. Plus, you’ll give multiple people the opportunity to receive credit for the additional work they’ll take on, while maintaining continuity for your projects (a win-win for the business!).
4. Support your team
If you’re a people manager, your job is to support and unblock your team. That’s hard to do if you’re not there, but it is possible if you get creative.
Consider the additional set of responsibilities that will require coverage, and incorporate them into the “People management” section here, if applicable. For example:
If you have direct reports: Confirm whether your manager is willing to provide guidance for your team while you’re out. Ask her/him to pre-commit to recurring 1:1 meetings (at least biweekly) and reiterate that they should prioritize these meetings. Train your direct reports on the best way to work with your manager (e.g. their preferred communication medium, working style, etc.). If this isn’t possible, or if you have more junior reports who require additional coaching, identify a mentor who can serve as a coach or sounding board on your behalf.
If you have open roles: Decide who will be in charge of hiring. Who will help screen candidates on your behalf? Will you have any say in final hiring decisions? Include your recruiting partner in the coverage plan as a key contact, and agree on how each aspect of the hiring process will be managed.
If you’ll be out during a performance review cycle: Write reviews for your team before you go out on leave (especially for anyone who you want to put up for promotion). Share them with your manager and HR before you go out, and incorporate any feedback. Decide if you want to be available for calibrations or whether your manager can represent you (preferred).
As a manager, you’ll need to take some extra steps to set your team up for success while you’re gone. Find someone (ideally their skip level) who can serve as a mentor for each direct report. If relevant, create a system for how to continue hiring new team members, ideally without your involvement.
5. Don’t share your contact information broadly
Now that you’ve identified coverage for yourself and your team, you can be strategic about who you share your contact information with. You get to decide who can get in touch with you, how, and for what reasons (see “Contact information” here).
Tempted to be very available? It’s a trap!
You don’t know what kind of experience you will have as a parent or what your child/family will need. You might require an extra stay in the hospital for yourself/partner or your baby. You may experience postpartum depression (which impacts both men and women) and not be in the right state of mind to make business decisions.
Plan for very limited or no availability, especially for the first few weeks. When you are exhausted with a screaming baby in your hands, you’ll be glad you have one less thing to worry about.
Here are two options for how to present your availability: