‘Parental Leave Must Be Possible’ - Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA

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Arvato | Gütersloh, 05/12/2017

‘Parental Leave Must Be Possible’

Christina Bensai and Hannes Gmelin of Arvato CRM Solutions

Subject: Employees
Country: Germany
Category: Project

For many parents, teams and supervisors, parental leave and part-time work represent a challenge: The new gap has to be filled, and additional work covered. Christina Bensai, a member of the senior management at Arvato CRM Solutions, took eight months’ parental leave. Following the experience, she and her boss Hannes Gmelin, Managing Director at Arvato CRM solutions, agree that with flexibility, foresight and preparation, it can be done, and done well. 

Ms. Bensai, you took eight months’ parental leave – yet you are in charge of a department of around 2,000 employees. Do you consider yourself to be a pioneer? 

Christina Bensai: The businesses at Arvato are very fast-moving and the markets very dynamic. We work at a fast pace. Good organization is therefore part of my daily business as it is. Nothing works without sound planning – we’d be drowned by work. With my parental leave it wasn’t necessarily different. Thanks to the great support of our senior management and my team, we intensively used the time until the birth to coordinate my eight months of parental leave. This included clear targets, defined milestones, and detailed implementation plans including responsibilities. I don't consider myselfa trailblazer – it just had to work. Also, I'm not the first person who ever took parental leave. 

Hannes Gmelin: As I see it, one prerequisite was the well-functioning cooperation across several hierarchical levels. From Managing Director to Customer Manager, everyone here needs to be aware of their role and help out if necessary. Our customers pay for fast, professional-problem solving, even during our executives’ vacations. Nothing can be swept under the table or left undone. We can only offer this if we have excellent decision-making and communication structures, and excellent staff. This is why we go the extra mile for good employees. As Managing Director, it was also important for me to send a signal: Parental leave must be possible, regardless of the [hierarchical] level. That is our aspiration today. 

The sabbatical of XING CEO Thomas Vollmoeller also showed what modern corporate structures are capable of withstanding. And yet, Mr. Gmelin, it is not a given that executives can leave a company for several months. 

Hannes Gmelin: If we don't want to lose our top women – and an increasing number of fathers – we have to show that it works! So we thought about various solutions, including interim managers. However, the businesses are so complex that a high degree of familiarity with the organization is required at management levels. In the end, Christina delegated a lot of responsibility to her team, with proven team members given more responsibility. In other words, we deliberately favored an internal solution. 

Christina Bensai: Prior to my parental leave, it was clear to me that I would have to start involving my team, my colleagues and the senior management in the planning at an early stage – 360-degree stakeholder management, so to speak! The backing of the management – especially Daniel Welzer, CEO of Arvato CRM Solutions Germany, and my boss Hannes Gmelin – and of the HR department was essential to making my parental leave a reality. At first, it was odd for me to suddenly be out. During the parental leave, I stayed in touch with my colleagues, so that on my return I was quickly reintegrated. That’s very motivating, of course – and at the same time advertises Arvato CRM Solutions as a great employer. 

Hannes Gmelin: Christina's comprehensive knowledge of the organization and large network is very valuable for Arvato. Despite all the changes, it’s already like she was never gone. 

What is recommendable in such a project and what isn't? Is there any advice that you would want to give other expectant parents and/or managers? 

Hannes Gmelin: Christina had clear ideas, communicated openly, and made clear agreements. She made well thought-out suggestions about how everyone could gainfully bridge her parental leave. That was important. The support of the HR department with a clear roadmap was just as important. Ultimately, you need to find individual solutions at these levels so that the focus remains firmly on our performance and on the customer. Flexibility and openness are high on the list of recommendations. 

Christina Bensai: I agree. And of course, besides the professional arrangements, personal agreements also play an important role. My partner is taking six months’ parental leave just to be there for our child and to allow me to go back to work quickly. In our circle of friends, our parental model is no exception. There are many "new” and heterogeneous types of family. Fortunately, the traditional distribution of roles is gradually dissolving, so that more and more working mothers are finding their way into management positions. At Arvato CRM Solutions, too, much has changed in this respect in the last three to five years. There are more and more women in management positions. 

That sounds promising, but let’s be honest: While parental leave is an important time, achieving and maintaining a healthy work-life balance only starts afterwards. What happens now? 

Christina Bensai: Aha - would you ask a man that question, too? For me, it’s quite clear: Although parental leave was very nice, I always looked forward to coming back and getting stuck in again. Prerequisites are day-care centers and childcare facilities in schools with appropriate opening times, and with a bit of luck, a supportive personal environment. For now, I travel less frequently and take advantage of the home-office options in CRM department. The whole package works out beautifully for me! 

Hannes Gmelin: Ms. Bensai is a good example of work and family being compatible at Arvato. This is important if we want to retain our talents. Instead of requiring office presence and attendance of evening meetings, we focus on results and availability, independent of location. Even if I do think we are already on the right track, we are constantly optimizing our conditions. We need the best people! 

What benefits does Arvato CRM Solutions offer employees beyond the home-office options for executives? 

Christina Bensai: Besides granting me parental leave, Arvato CRM Solutions entrusted me with autonomy and management responsibilities at an early stage. This is a typical principle for Arvato. If you want to make things happen, this is the right place for you: dynamic markets, quick decisions, and short communication channels. It has the character of a startup, but offers more structure and prospects. 

Hannes Gmelin: For example, our "Future Leaders” program enables junior managers to get themselves assigned elsewhere, nationally and internationally, for six months. The openness for allowing talents to move to different Solution Groups within Arvato is also growing. We benefit from this higher permeability, because it encourages our top people’s loyalty to the company. 

And what offers are there for employees without management responsibilities? 

Hannes Gmelin: We are offering more and more programs and flexibility options for employees without management responsibilities as well, and continually expand on them - for example, our "Work@Home” initiative. We have also done real cultural work and expanded our staff development, which is positively reflected in the number of applications.  

Checklist for parental leave - Recommendations from Hannes Gmelin and Christina Bensai 

Early coordination with team and supervisors regarding parental leave and prospects for re-entry - for expectant fathers and mothers alike
360° management: Involve various hierarchical levels and stakeholders, if agreed also communicate to the customer
Operations planning/Roadmap: Definition of clear structures, roles and responsibilities
Creative, reliable bridging by team members, job rotation, dual leadership, interim managers, etc.
Stay in touch during parental leave, including joint decisions on key topics, if possible face-to-face meetings as well
Re-entry:Possible adjustments to the job profile and/or further training, early-stage organization of post-parental leave childcare
And last but not least: great openness towards new things and change   

If you have any questions or suggestions, please send an email to Henrik Teipel, Head of HR at Arvato CRM Solutions Germany ( ).