I got promoted at Salesforce during my 6-month maternity leave. Here’s how my experience helped shape our company culture.

Abigail Hollingsworth was up for a promotion when she went on maternity leave. She worried taking time off would affect her chances, but then her boss called with good news. This is her story, as told to Robin Madell for Business Insider.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Abigail Hollingsworth, the head of global benefits at Salesforce, and was originally published by Business Insider.

My path to parenthood was a long and complicated one.

My husband, Kevin, and I were like many young couples: married, working in fulfilling careers, and owners of a golden retriever, Freddie.

We very much wanted a child, but after 10 years of marriage and trying to get pregnant, we weren’t having any success. So after years of extreme highs and heart-wrenching lows, we decided to take a break to heal.

It was during this time, in 2014, that I joined Salesforce’s global employee benefits team. It was — and is — a wonderful role: I spend my days thinking about how we can best support our employees, including me.

About 2 years after I started at Salesforce — and after a dinner where
everything made me nauseous — I took a pregnancy test.

It was positive, and I soon gave birth to a healthy baby girl, Lena.

Before I went on maternity leave, colleagues congratulated me on my pregnancy and asked if I was planning to take the full six months off. I answered unequivocally: “Yes, of course I’ll take the full leave.” The reason we develop these benefits is so people can use them to balance work and life. If I don’t model that behavior, who else will?

But as most parents — or anyone who’s been on an extended leave from work — can attest, there’s always a part of you that wonders if you’ll be forgotten or passed over for new opportunities while you’re away: “Will I end up out of sight, out of mind?”

I was also up for a promotion. I wondered whether taking time away to be with my daughter would put my career on hold and prevent me from taking the next step professionally.

Turns out, those worries were all for naught

About three months into my leave, I was promoted. I got a call from my manager, who first checked in to see how my family was doing and how my leave was going. Then he shared that I’d been promoted to vice president of global employee benefits.

I was surprised and thrilled. It’s difficult to express how utterly exhausting it is to take care of a newborn while believing that, by doing so, you’re making a professional sacrifice. But then to realize that you aren’t making the trade-offs you thought, that you’re continuing to be valued for all of your professional accomplishments, even when you’re away — that’s a mixture of gratitude and exhalation, knowing that you can truly take time off during this monumental milestone and not be penalized.

When I returned to work, Lena was sleeping more regularly — which meant my
husband and I were, too — and was on a consistent schedule, which made me feel more comfortable putting her in childcare while we worked during the day.

Today, as the head of global employee benefits, I think about my own life and what would help me in the moments that matter. Experiencing maternity leave firsthand was invaluable in helping me realize the importance of a robust parental-leave program in cultivating happy, healthy, and productive employees. I’ve brought that deeper level of insight to my work since then.

Here are some things Salesforce does particularly well in terms of parental leave — and what other companies can learn from us

Increased parental-leave and fertility benefits: Family planning had a significant effect on my life, and my firsthand experience led to increasing some of the programs and benefits we offer at Salesforce, including our fertility benefits and parental-leave program.

After I joined Salesforce, my team significantly expanded Salesforce’s parental-leave program from three months at 80% pay to six months with 100% pay for all parents. Expanding the program to six months of parental leave happened before my leave. The change to 100% pay took place after my leave. And the key here is all parents, so no one is penalized for taking time away.

I also used the family-benefits platform Cleo throughout my motherhood journey as a resource to answer the many questions new parents have. This wasn’t initially offered by Salesforce, but after I realized how useful it was during my maternity leave, I asked my team to look into it. Today, we offer it as a global benefit, and we’ve expanded support to include families with kids up to age 12.

Culture change at the leadership level: Offering great benefits is only half the battle. We have to make sure employees actually use them.

As a leader on my team, it’s critical that I model this behavior — maximizing my leave, taking time off when I need to recharge, and setting boundaries on my work hours. These behaviors are what create real change and influence culture.

When I returned to work, I was rested (or as rested as a new mom can be), I had childcare in place, and my mental health was supported. As a result, I was able to excel in my expanded role.

Supporting all employees: My own experiences have reinforced the deep connection that benefits have on employee success, which ultimately leads to greater business success. As a result, my team has made it our mission to deepen our support of all employees through their unique journeys, whether it be family planning, mental well-being, LGBTQ-specic healthcare, or something else.