In this episode, our The 100% Project host Hilary Lamb speaks with Jono Willis, General Counsel, Lion New Zealand and Lion Little World Beverages on the “Breaking Dad” research series into the psychological safety for men when requesting non-traditional working conditions.
Jono has been with Lion since 2012 and assumed the role of General Counsel , Lion New Zealand and Little World Beverages in 2018. Jono’s role has him sitting on the executive team for two of Lion’s business units: Little World Beverages, Lion’s fast-growing international business with operations in the UK and USA, and its well-established New Zealand business. The dual role requires managing two very distinct teams with different strategic visions and ways of operating, and working across multiple jurisdictions. Jono brings a commercial and pragmatic approach to his legal role which combined with his strong technical skills sees him as a trusted and key strategic advisor.
Jono has been a loud and proud advocate for improved parental policies for a number of years. Jono is a passionate believer that having workplace policies that give parents the choice to equally share parenting is an important component to achieving fairer outcomes in the workplace. Jono is a hands-on dad to his young toddler, Pippa, and took three months parental leave to be the primary caregiver when Pippa was five months old so his wife Kate, also a lawyer, could return to work.
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Hillary Lamb: My name is Hillary Lamb, and this is The 100% Project podcast series. In this series we are talking about psychological safety for men, specifically when requesting flexible working conditions so that they can share in home and family responsibilities. Our new research, ‘Breaking Dad’ has found that men don’t always get a good reception from employers and colleagues when requesting this flexibility. So we’re exploring the personal stories of men who have firsthand experience of making these requests.
Today I’m talking with Jono Willis, Legal Counsel for Lion in New Zealand. Welcome Jono.
Jono Willis: Thank you, Hillary. Great to be here.
Hillary Lamb: Great to have you to talk to Jono. Thank you for your time. So can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
Jono Willis: I am based in New Zealand and Auckland and I’ve been with Lion for almost nine years now. I am the General Counsel for New Zealand, and also the UK and the US. I have a wife, Katie, who’s got a very busy role as a lawyer at a law firm where she’s a partner and we have our lovely daughter Pippa who’s 18 months old.
Hillary Lamb: So 18 months old, I guess she is starting to grow and develop her own personality and character at the moment. So it’s something, obviously you’ve enjoyed spending a bit of time with her as she’s been growing in that first 18 months.
Jono Willis: Yeah. She’s getting a huge amount of personality at the moment. At the moment she’s going through a real finding herself and finding her voice.
My sort of parenting story is, um, because both me and my wife both have jobs and careers that we take quite seriously we always had a real focus on wanting to both be heavily involved in the parenting and share that between us. So my wife took parental leave for the first five months when Pippa was born and then she went back to work and I then stepped back from work and took three months parental leave looking after Pippa myself. Which was one of the best three months of my life. It was great.
Hillary Lamb: What prompted you initially to decide to take, or apply for, that extended parental leave.
Jono Willis: My wife and I, Katie, have always talked about how we wanted to approach parenting. And we both, it was important to us that we shared that between us. And with Katie’s career where it was, she’d only just become a partner at a law firm, so it was going to be a hard time for her to step back and she wanted to continue the momentum she had in her own career. And so it was just, for us, it was about not only was it something we both want to do for our child, Pippa, in terms of both of us being there and present, but it was also about being equal and fair from a career perspective and making sure we both had the right, you know, fair amount of opportunity and shared the workload, so to speak, of parenting between us so that it didn’t impact our careers.
So we made a decision pretty early on. We talked about it before Katie was pregnant, but, uh, you know, pretty early on in the pregnancy we aligned that Katie was going to go back to work sometime in the first six months. And then I was going to then take an extended period of being the primary caregiver.
Hillary Lamb: Were you a trailblazer at Lion? Were you one of the first men to apply for extended parental leave?
Jono Willis: I’m certainly the first to actually utilise Lion’s paternity leave policy. So just before I went on parental leave, Lion did roll out a new parental policy, which allowed the primary caregiver to have three months fully paid if they became the primary caregiver at any time in the first two years.
Hillary Lamb: How did they make you feel when you approached the organisation and asked for that period of leave?
Jono Willis: My leader was really supportive around it and then everyone in and around the organisation that I had a touch point with was very supportive. So I was very lucky on that front, but I’ve heard many different stories of people from different businesses where policies were in place that didn’t have such an open arms approach to someone looking to take advantage of the policy.
Hillary Lamb: It’s great that the leaders in the organisation were really positive and approachable with regards to that. But some of the research that we’ve done, specifically with ‘Breaking Dad’, it’s uncovered that there are in many cases, passive aggressive or micro behaviours from colleagues where men do decide to take extended parental leave because it’s not the norm.
So were there any behaviours that you saw or you received from colleagues, either big or small, that may be indicated they were either unsupportive or maybe just surprised by your request to do that.
Jono Willis: Oh, absolutely. So I’d say firstly, the vast majority of the feedback I got was overwhelmingly supportive. The thing that probably caught me the most was people would say things that they thought were casual or even a bit funny, but they didn’t realise the implications of what that could potentially have on someone’s thought process about taking parental leave. So it would be things like, um, saying things in a slightly demeaning way about taking time off or, you know, having a break or stepping back, as if its not going to be as hard as your normal day job, which I think shows a bit of disrespect to how full on full-time parenting is. And there was a little bit of that, but it never came from a place of malice, I’d say, Hilary. So there’d be the odd sort of jovial comment, but it was more people trying to have a laugh or to be friendly.
But actually, the impact of those sorts of comments is to put doubt in people’s mind and to feel a bit belittled about what they are doing. I’m pretty robust when it comes to those things but it still even impacted me when you sort of hear those sorts of comments. I suppose one of the lessons I took was if anyone’s taking those leaves, those little easy jokes that you think are a bit funny aren’t actually helpful at all.
Hillary Lamb: You mentioned there about doubting or potentially doubting what you’re doing. So did you respond to those in any way or did you think, “Oh, well, I won’t make a big thing about it”? How did you respond to that?
Jono Willis: Um, with a big laugh and smile and a “Oh yeah, we’ll see”. So that’s normally how I responded if I was being honest about it, but again, the vast majority of people were very supportive of it. And the people who did that, I would honestly say it came from a place of, you know, maybe ignorance is a word that’s a bit too harsh, but it often came from people who hadn’t been primary caregivers themselves, or maybe didn’t even have children. So they didn’t really understand. I must say that the people who had children, or were a little bit more closer to what parenting really meant, that was much less likely to be a line or a joke that came out of them.
Hillary Lamb: Yes, I guess it’s human nature isn’t it. You can’t really understand the situation until you’ve been in that position yourself. So part of the benefits of men taking more parental leave, gives them much more insights into what the majority of women go through when they take parental leave.
Jono Willis: One hundred percent Hilary, and I think that’s something that was really telling for me. So if I step back before I went on parental leave and I think about one of the reasons why I think dads taking parental leave is a great thing, not only do I think it’s a good thing for the children that you have to share that, but if we really genuinely believe in breaking the glass ceiling and having 50% of women in senior roles and changing some of those gender imbalances we have at a senior level, I really do think that the fact that it is women that often have to carry the vast majority of the time on parental leave is one of the things that makes it harder for them to get to that position. And if we have more sharing of parenting between males and females, I think that will help create a more equal place in the workforce.
Now that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing if a mother wants to take 12 months to be the primary caregiver herself, that’s a choice thing, but it shouldn’t be something that society expects of anyone.
And then I listen to the second part that sort of flows from that. I think the more men that take parental leave, the more understanding they are of being in the shoes of the primary caregiver. I felt very secure in my role and good about where I was at in life. So I was going on parental leave from a pretty strong base, feeling pretty secure, and I was only away for three months. That’s not a huge amount of time. And when I came back, even I had quite significant self-doubt. In terms of, I was worried about who’d been in my role, how well they’d been doing my role while I was away, you know, whether people were wondering, you know, what did I actually do when I was here? You know, what value was I bringing? I started questioning my own value that I brought and it was probably all slightly irrational thinking, but it was thinking that certainly went through my mind.
And Lion did a great job of supporting me on my return, which helped, but it got me thinking, “Sheesh, if I felt that from a pretty secure place and only your for three months, man, it must be hard for a primary caregiver coming back from parental leave” and made me really understand how much harder it is for mums who have come back but also any other dads that take parental leave. It’s a challenge and you need to put a framework in place to help those people return to work and to make them feel secure coming back into their roles.
Hillary Lamb: I think you’ve raised some really good, significant issue there to be addressed. Before touching on your return to work, how did you feel during the three months that you took off?
Jono Willis: Yeah, I had a pretty telling moment. Um, it was my first week on parental leave and I was still on their leadership team WhatsApp group, and a message came through saying that we had just suffered a major cyber attack over the weekend and that everything was shut down. We couldn’t brew, we couldn’t sell, we couldn’t do anything.
And a cyber attack, obviously, if someone’s got into your personal data, there’s a lot of legal issues. And I rang my leader to be like, “Hey, do you need my help? Do I need to get involved in this?” and my leader said to me at the time, she was like, “You are the primary caregiver for your child. You can’t be looking after your child as well as being involved with work. We’ve got this. You go enjoy being a dad and looking after your daughter and we will cover this”. And it was really telling for me and I can’t overstate how important it was to me to know that actually I was going to be given the space to be a dad and focus on being a dad and they weren’t going to try and make me keep doing parts of my role and keep me sort of trying to carry both of them. Cause that would have been unmanageable. So that was, that was great.
And then, so the second thing was you do sort of want to stay across what’s happening though. So very early on my key business partners that I work with, but also my leader, they chatted to me about what did I want to stay close to? How did I want to keep in the loop? And we agreed a framework effectively for how I would still be kept in the loop. So I had monthly catch ups with my leader, and I also had a couple of matters where I stayed being copied to just so I was across them, even though I wasn’t having to do the work. And that made me feel like I was across what was happening. I wasn’t completely in the dark, but I knew I had the support of the business to focus on being a dad, which was, which was right for me.
Hillary Lamb: It’s easy to try and have a foot in each camp, isn’t it? You feel maybe an obligation, even though you’re on leave, to check your emails regularly and talk to people and find out what’s going on. The way that Lion have approached, it sounds as though it really helped you to disconnect, but still know that you were in the loop with some of the major issues that were going on. Did you find that easy to step into that process of, you know, my role is as primary caregiver to my daughter, I’m going to let the business run or did you still, emotionally, try and keep a foot in each camp?
Jono Willis: The first week or two, it was hard. The first week or two, you’d still be seeing emails or you’d be copied to emails and you’d want to respond or get involved. Um, or people would be calling your mobile with, you know, questions, not knowing that you are on parental leave. So in those first couple of weeks, it was hard to emotionally disengage from work, but once you sort of got comfortable in your new role and got comfortable with how you are going to deal with those queries that came in, and frankly, you started getting copied to less emails as you stopped being responsive to them and being all over your inbox. I very quickly got quite comfortable in being very much focused on being the primary caregiver to Pippa. And so much so, I’d say that by the third month I was on parental leave, I was very much engaged on parent life very much more so than, um, being in my inbox all day, every day. So, you know, the old habit, when you’re in a job like I am, is to be pulling your phone out and scrolling through your emails and as time went on, my screen time, and my screen report will tell you, I was looking at my phone a lot, lot less.
Hillary Lamb: Was there any thought of applying for a further extension of your leave?
Jono Willis: I’ll tell you what, my last month, it was quite funny. Another lockdown hit here in Auckland and I just happened to be down in Wanaka, which is down in the south island of New Zealand. It’s a beautiful part of the country. And so I didn’t go into lockdown cause it didn’t have any COVID cases. So I had this amazing month where I was, and it’s beautiful scenery, I was going on these walks with Pippa in a front pack each day and finishing the day having a beer with Pippa at the Speights Ale House on the waterfront of Lake Wanaka.
And I did think long and hard. I was like, “This is pretty good”. I was certainly living a pretty good life at that point, but I wanted to get back to work. I wanted to get back into it. So I was happy. I was happy to end when I did.
Hillary Lamb: Yeah. Perfect. So do you think you were treated the same way as a woman would have been treated had she been taking parental leave? I mean that societal norm it’s just, “Oh yes. You go off on parental leave, this is what you do. It’s fairly standard”. Do you think you received maybe more attention because you’re a man?
Jono Willis: It’s a challenging question because I probably haven’t thought about it in much detail, but if I reflect on that, I’d say, yes I did get treated differently. I probably got given more encouragement and support and you know, “good on you and well done” maybe than a mum would have, because there’s more expected for mum to do it. I mean, I don’t know that cause I’ve never been in the shoes of a mother. But I do feel like there was a bit of over and above, you know, support for me.
And partly maybe that’s because I was the first one of the first males within our organisation to be taking the paternity leave. It was more known and talked about, so it could have driven it a little bit, but if we get to a world where there are more men taking parental leave and it’s more evenly shared off the back of people like me being supported into it, then I don’t think that’s a bad outcome in the long-run.
Hillary Lamb: I was going through my head, “How do I feel about this, Jono getting more attention than a woman?” because women do it all the time and they’re supposed to be able to, you know, move from the working environment, look after the children and go back and slot in seamlessly back into work. You know, why should a man get more attention?
But I think as you said, the more visibility that those situations are getting or more visibility they’re having, uh, and normalising it, I think more men will take up that opportunity.
Jono Willis: I think that’s right. And I think, back to what we were talking about earlier, that’s going to mean more men having more genuine empathy for what a mother’s going through when she’s leaving work and coming back than they otherwise may have, which is going to be helpful in the workforce.
And it means more men taking parental leave, hopefully, in the long run which equally brings, you know, positive outcomes. And I think if I think about what I’ve seen in New Zealand in particular since I took my paternity leave, I know of at least five other guys within the business, who’ve gone on to take paternity leave.
Each of them reached out to me pretty soon after I’d taken it, asking me about it, how it had worked, how I’d approached my leader, what feedback I’d receive, and a bit nervous about it, I’d say, to start with. And I was very glowing in my recommendation of taking it and saying that I’d had all the support I could’ve hoped for, and it was great to see other guys taking it up.
And I’m really, really excited that it hasn’t just been me who’s done it and talked about it, but there are more and more men within our organisation taking up the policy. I think it’s a great thing for everyone, and for Lion, in the long-run.
Hillary Lamb: Definitely. Have you heard anything that, you know, the reaction of their employers was, “Ohh, not sure about that? We’ll have to check it out”. Or being maybe less supportive than the reaction that you received?
Jono Willis: Yep. I absolutely have. A friend of mine, he worked at a law firm and they had a policy and he double checked the policy that allowed for a primary caregiver, for the male, to take that and be paid for an extended period.
And then when he approached his leader about it. They were not very supportive at all. They made it clear that while it was a policy, it wasn’t the expectation that it would be taken up. He was let know that it might impact his ability to get his next promotion or progression and made to feel very, you know, questioned in his decision-making and taking that. Which I just think is absolutely outrageous because the whole point of these policies, if they’re not supported, then they’re literally just being put up in lights and window washing to try and recruit people in a misleading way, or to pretend that they’ve got a better approach to inclusion and parenting and diversity. So I think, and I’m casting aspersions here, but while some companies have the policies, not all of them live by those standards to the same degree that I think Lion genuinely has.
Hillary Lamb: It’s one thing, having the policy in place. It’s another thing somebody actually coming in, applying for it, and what the reality is of that. So that’s what our ‘Breaking Dad’ research found, is that not all employers are accepting of those requests. And interesting you were saying that the men were anxious about going to their employers and asking for extended parental leave. So organisations have to really talk about what benefits there are of having men taking parental, leave, sharing their family responsibilities.
But one of the things there you mentioned intrigues me a bit – your colleague, or the person you were talking to – said that their manager told them it may affect future leadership opportunities, future promotional opportunities, which is something that women worry about all the time. It’s out of sight, out of mind. So how do you feel about that? Having heard that from somebody else and applying that to maybe women who go through this every time they take 3, 6, 12 months off, has that been something that you’ve thought about since then?
Jono Willis: I must admit I probably had a bit of a blind spot, Hillary. There are things that you know about that are unfair or that are tough on other people, but you don’t truly understand it until you see it for yourself in some ways. And it sad that that’s the case, but I I’d say I absolutely had a bit of a blind spot for how hard it was for women or men taking parental leave and the doubt that would put on them about whether it’s going to impact their future career prospects or whether it’s going to make it harder for them to get promotions or grow their role within a company. But looking at it now, absolutely I can see why people would have those concerns and without the organisation putting in place really clear frameworks that go wider than just the leader and the person taking leave, where there is a wider organisational response to support someone going on parental leave, that’s always going to be the case.
And so I think that you not only have to do that, but even if you do that, people are going to have those doubts. Because people do worry that when they’re away, it’s going to impact their career. So if you know that no matter what you do, people are going to have concerns, that means that you need to be doing even more. You know, that means that organisations need to be taking even bigger steps, more overt steps to give comfort to those people that they will still be front of mind, they’re still going to be on the talent matrix. They’re still going to be considered when they’re talking about their benching for key roles. They’re still getting feedback at achievement review time for the work they did in the three months before they went on parental leave. They still have a development plan that they’ve got in place that is relevant. All of that stuff should still be there and then it should be a conversation with the person going on, parental leave about how much they want to be engaged with those things while they’re on parental leave. Because some people will want less and some people will want more for making sure that they know that all of those things are available and they will still be in the system and considered for all opportunities. It’s critical.
Hillary Lamb: You seem as though you’ve had a great number of insights from actually walking in the shoes of mostly women in the past. So the research has found that men need to be involved in gender issues if we’re going to accelerate the pace of change and as you said, give women the opportunity to take on promotional opportunities and more leadership opportunities.
So you’re a leader and an influencer within your organisation and, no doubt, within your industry and profession as well. So what do you think you’ll do with those new insights that will benefit women and of course, men?
Jono Willis: Yeah, it’s a good challenge, I suppose. I suppose what I’ve been doing to-date has been every opportunity I have to talk about my experiences and the blind spot that I had, which I just talked about, about how I didn’t realise just how hard it is, and I think continuing to talk on things like this. To share with your network. To talk to your influential people within your own organisation and other organisations. You just to take every opportunity you can to spread the message.
So I know when I talk to law firms that we work with, our external law firms, I often talk about it with them and ask them what they’re doing. And it’s about taking the opportunities you have to share your views on that. And, um, what I’ve found interesting is that the more people see it working for Lion and they see the positive response happening to us by putting in place policies that help support men and women going on and coming back from parental leave, the more it sets the standard. And the more that a standard is set, that becomes a competitive advantage for recruiting key talent, hopefully that forces more organisations to follow suit and it becomes a cultural norm.
I mean, that’s the ultimate goal is it becomes a societal norm that shared parenting is normal and that it is a choice of the parents about how they want to do it, but it is not looked at any differently whether you’re a male or a female taking it. It’s a decision for the parents and what’s best for that particular parental unit. Because right now, it is looked at differently, which I think is just wrong. And then secondly, the frameworks we have in place, both from a legislative support, you get in terms of the government support you’re given, but also a lot of the policies within organisations are structured in such a way that you’ve got to be the primary caregiver in the first few months, which effectively rules out men. So we’ve got these structural setups that mean that it’s not going to be shared equally. And that’s a problem. So the more we can create a shift and the norms of people’s thinking and create the structures to make sure it can be done equally, the better.
Hillary Lamb: I’ve read a lot of research that says the majority of men, and we’re talking maybe 75% of men who are fathers, want to spend more time with their family. So I guess my question is what is stopping them? If 75% of men would like to spend more time – obviously, economics come into play because unfortunately in a lot of organisations, men still are in a leadership position, so they are paid more than the women. But if we can address that separately, what is it that stopping men from taking this time off?
Jono Willis: Yeah, I’ll start with the structural point first and then I’ll talk about the mindset that that creates. So let’s take a Joe Blogs company in New Zealand or Australia that has a parental leave policy that says you are entitled to three months parental leave if you’re the primary caregiver. To be the primary caregiver, you must have predominant care for the child from day one, effectively. Now that means that if you choose to breastfeed your child, it is almost impossible for that to be the male. And that means that the way that that policy is viewed, if you are a male is I don’t want to be the primary caregiver from day one, that’s not going to work for us as parents, and therefore that’s not an option available to me. There might technically still be an ability for them to take an extended leave for example, to do it, but that’s a whole different mentality and thought so if you go to approach your organisation and say, I’d like to take six months extended leave to look after my child, it doesn’t have the same feeling of absolutely that will be given and support that you have if it’s applying for a parental leave policy.
So I think that because we have this structural setups that aren’t fair men feel like they don’t have that option and then they feel like the only option they’ve got is to apply for an extended leave. And extended leave is, as a general rule, not as well supported and as it is often not looked at in the same way, in terms of it being seen as a bit of a jolly, if you’re taking extended leave, or can be. So people feel like it will impact their career prospects, they might feel like it means that it won’t be supported by their organisation and they don’t want to ask. So I think for me, if you solve that structural problem and make it a norm, then you’ll see more of it.
But then I think the second part I’d talk to is the flexible work thing, I think is the other key one. That’s an interesting one to look at. I mean, all of the data that I’ve seen suggests that women are much more inclined to take up part-time and flexi roles over men. And I think that’s the next sort of frontier too, is how do we have more men working four days a week. More men doing co-sharing roles so that they can do more of the parenting.
And, um, and I kinda think that’s the other part. That it’s almost expected more of women to take the part-time role as opposed to men. So that’s the other part I think we need to start encouraging and pushing towards.
Hillary Lamb: Yes, absolutely. I agree with both of those. So what can we do? And I think men in particular, because you know, women have been banging on for this for ages, but what can men in particular do to start promoting this, to start making these changes and encouraging them to take more of the parenting role?
Jono Willis: Really good question. I think the first thing is I’d be encouraging when men are looking for new roles, or looking to move in the workforce, they should be asking companies what their policies are towards parental leave and flexible working structures. So make that something that is clearly driven regardless of gender. So men are putting pressure on employers to think about that as part of their policy.
I think that we should be more overt in celebrating men that take out the flexible work or parental leave policies. So often when you look at even the pamphlets or the language that’s used in these policies, it’s got hidden gender bias in it, often towards the females taking up those policies. So we need to be very considered in the language we use to show that it’s for both.
I think lastly, we need to just be very clear and sharing with people that it is absolutely accepted and encouraged for you to look for flexible opportunities that work for you and your family and parenting styles. Because I think right now there’s a lot of men out there who will be very keen to take up such policies that either don’t know they’re available or they think they’re going to be disadvantaged.
Hillary Lamb: So Jono, having gone through this experience the first time, if you do choose to have any more children, would you do it all over again?
Jono Willis: Absolutely. When we do have another child, I’ll definitely take on another time of parental leave. How I structured it though, I don’t know. So I suppose one thing that’s awesome about the Lion policy, which I like, is you don’t have to be a full-time primary caregiver, five days a week to get access to the policy. So some of the other people I’ve talked to have taken up parental leave since I got back from it, have done it differently.
So the way the policy works is you can get fully supported, full pay for three months, anytime in the first two years. So say their, their wife or partner took a maternity leave for the first 12 months, some of them have taken a day and a half a week for a year or two days a week for six months. So there are multiple different ways you can actually structure it so that you can get dads more involved in parenting. Which I reckon is, is great because it means that there are more opportunities and different ways to do it, that work for more people and more families.
Hillary Lamb: You are one of the few men now who are taking the opportunity to have this extended leave and your experiences are so valuable for the men. And I guess when we started we talked about psychological safety for men, so about having the opportunity to ask without being demeaned or feel embarrassed, and this visibility is going to make it more normal. But do you think that men spending time with their young children specifically, do you think, the time that they spend with those children will be reflected in children’s behaviour. Do you think there is a longer term impact of doing this as well?
Jono Willis: There’s no doubt that that’s the case, right? So like, if you go to a micro level on an individual family unit, it may not be the case with everyone because some families are brought up differently. But if you go to a macro level, I think if you have more men where it’s normalised to be the primary caregiver looking after their child, more children will see that as normal. So I think it’s a no-brainer that that will be creating positive change.
Hillary Lamb: Jono, I think you’re right. And it’s been a pleasure to talk to you about your experiences on taking extended parental leave both from the business perspective, but also about, you know, spending time with Pippa, with your daughter, and how much you enjoyed it.
Jono Willis: Look, it’s been great talking to you as well and I hope plenty of people out there listen to this and get involved and hopefully feel a bit better about taking the opportunity to be a dad and take parental leave… and more companies get better policies in place.
Hillary Lamb: Absolutely, and I think we all need to start advocating for that to make some change.
Jono Willis: Thank you so much, Hillary.
Hillary Lamb: If you’d like to find out more about our research and our podcast, please visit our website for more information.
Thank you for listening today.