Annabel Crookes, legal director of Laing O’Rourke, talks about the challenges of taking maternity leave and how to plan for your return

by Liz Marchant

Annabel Crookes, legal director, Laing O’Rourke
Number of kids: 2
Age of kids: 6 and 3

Can you describe what’s involved in doing your job on a day-to-day basis?

I manage the team that provides the business with legal advice and risk assurance. I also sit on the Board of Laing O’Rourke as an executive director and company secretary.  In this role we set and execute the strategy for the Australian business, signing off on project bids, manage projects as well as looking at the broader business streams. We are part of an international business with a head office in the UK, so I also connect regularly with colleagues in the UK to ensure alignment through consistent and strategic processes and procedures across the broader business.

What’s important to you in a role? 

It’s important that my work provides tangible things connected to my values.  Most importantly, I need to be continually challenged and developed – constantly improving and innovating to keep things fresh; working with like-minded people whose company I enjoy and feel aligned to the culture of the business.

Did you have any personal concerns about going on maternity leave?

Yes, lots. As I had children late in life, I found it really challenging to hand my job over to someone. Letting go and a fear of what’s going to happen when you’re not there, and having to re-establish your professional relationships with your return. Work had been such a big part of my identity that it was hard to imagine what life would be like without work.  I had friends in other industries who were made redundant while on maternity leave, so that created some unease.

Did you have any personal concerns or worries in relation to family or out-of-work commitments when you started combining working and parenting?

I felt uneasy about leaving my first boy, Archie. I felt guilty leaving them with a carer at home, or at child care.  Initially, the separation was really difficult – I felt I wasn’t working as hard at work, and wasn’t giving my child as much attention as I wanted.  In time, this improved but I think it is a constant juggle that is never perfect.

What kind of support do you have at work and outside of work?

At work I have a team to help manage the load, and an amazing and supportive EA who manages my diary and appointments (and my life!). I am fortunate to work for a company, Laing O’Rourke, that wholly supports flexible work practices and also has the best paternity leave policy in the construction industry.

At home I have a nanny four days a week. My husband also works full time but is a huge support – together we juggle school and childcare drop off and pick-up when we don’t have support at home.

Over the last few years the business has encouraged employees to adopt the flexible work policy, which I do when possible. I do however need to balance the need to be present in the office for board level commitments and to lead my team.  For me, I make key events my priority, always trying to be there for sports carnivals, Christmas concerts etc.

What are your work commitments?

I attend monthly board meetings, and also work with some industry bodies that meet regularly to discuss industry topics such as culture change and contracting models.

I have group meetings with my equivalent in the UK to ensure the business is doing things consistently across the group regarding policy and procedures.

I tend to do the UK meetings at night, either at work or home. I like to do bedtime with the kids, and I try to start earlier when I can so I don’t miss this commitment.

Occasionally there are work social functions, which I prioritise and try to do these on a Thursday. As a board member you do a lot internally; development programs, mentoring and trying to get around the different states to show visible leadership, talk about strategy and what’s important to the board. There are also commitments with industry bodies and influencers, and peers within the business ecosystem I want to develop relationships with. I keep these engagements to once or twice a week, and prioritise them.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced finding a balance between work and parenting commitments?

The biggest challenge is to find the time for work, your family and yourself. It’s a challenge finding time and working smarter. The capacity for building things you need personally are the first to go so I am always trying to find ways to prioritise my health and fitness to ensure I bring the best version of myself to my family and work – something I am yet to master.

How long did you take maternity leave/time out of your career with each of your children?

I took 12 months the first time and returned to work four days, which quickly became full time. With baby number two I took nine months, and returned to work gradually, starting at three days a week for a few months, and gradually transitioned to four days then five.

What advice would you give someone before commencing maternity leave?

Try and relax and enjoy your one on one time with your child.  I tried to do lots of things when I was on maternity leave but wish I’d enjoyed the pace of it and settled quicker into the pace of life with a baby. 

What advice would you give someone returning to their career after having kids?

Try and get some support, whether it’s from a friend or a mentor. It’s a hard transition and you need someone to talk to who’s gone through it before. This can help build your confidence and emotional resilience.  Also, find an aspect of your job that you know you do really well. Focus on that when you get back because it will help you quickly win back confidence in your ability and accelerate the transition back.

Are there many women at your level juggling family and work at your organisation?

There are two other women on the Australian Laing O’Rourke Board, one with children. I was the first female appointed to the Australian Board.  Laing O’Rourke has established targets to attract and retain more women in senior roles in our business, particularly in operational roles so that we have more role models for the women starting out in the industry.

I have more friends who are working mums, than those who aren’t, which has been a good support network during my career.

Do you find time for yourself? And if so, how and what do you use it for?

Not often enough. I’m trying to get better at it. My husband loves exercise and is much happier when he does it, and he makes it a priority, which I should also do.  When I do find time, I love to go for long walks.

Do you have a daily routine, and if so, what does it look like?

We keep to a daily routine – breakfast, dinner and bedtime at the same time every day.  I think my children work well with structure and it helps my husband and I to keep things on track, during our busy weeks.

If you could do anything differently in relation to developing your career over the years, what would it be (if anything)?  

I wish I had the confidence in my abilities five or 10 years ago, that I have now. I would select role models or mentors to help accelerate that confidence. I feel if I’d achieved that earlier, I would have championed women more often. Ten years ago I didn’t feel there was a responsibility to be a role model for women; now I do.