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“Be a supporter, not a fixer”: What Kelly McKenzie’s return to work taught her about allyship

When she found out she was expecting twin boys, Kelly McKenzie was in the midst of leading a team while supporting some major business transformations she’d been wanting to sink her teeth into for years. On sharing her wonderful news with colleagues, the then Commercial Marketing Manager at Microsoft Australia received nothing but support. Life, in short, was good.

But in October 2017, when Kelly’s twins entered the world three months early, everything changed.

Instead of taking a short period off before returning to Microsoft, Kelly would devote the next 19 months to nurturing her premature babies back to health. “It was gruelling, but it was exhilarating,” she remembers. “At times it was demoralising, but it was also extraordinary.”

Today, with three-year-old Archie and Leo healthy and thriving, Kelly has reached the other side. She’s back at work and achieving amazing things as Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence Marketing Manager. And while her story is unique, returning to work after a big personal upheaval or long break is something many of us can relate to. So, how did she do it?

Maintaining a connection

As Kelly’s manager, CMO & Communications Director Pip Arthur was one of the first people to find out she was pregnant. Then, when Kelly went into labour at 27 weeks, Pip received a text: “My waters have broken! En route to hospital.”

For the next two years, Kelly’s life was filled with the stress of intensive care units as well as the joy of new love. But through it all, she never lost touch with Pip.

“We would check in all the time,” says Kelly. “Feeling connected to a situation outside of what was immediately in front of me, and having someone listen and care, that was so important.

Those honest, real conversations helped me assess what was possible – ultimately, what easing back into work might look like.

Expectations versus reality

After 19 months, with the boys doing well and her own sense of equilibrium beginning to return, Kelly began to plan for a return to life at Microsoft. “I started to feel this desire for the joy and energy that my work brings me. I had always felt like the truest version of myself when I was at work, and I wanted to experience that again,” she says. “That’s how I knew I was ready.”

Before long, however, a new set of concerns arose in her mind. Like many people who re-join the workforce after an extended period of leave, Kelly worried that the world had moved on without her. Would the impact she’d made at Microsoft be forgotten? Would the speed with which she’d left be held against her?

Kelly’s fears were genuine. But after receiving reassurance from Pip and a warm welcome from her peers, she realised they were unfounded. “The only story that had been created about my return to work was the story I’d created in my own head,” she says. “The reality was entirely different. I found a lot of support and comfort – it was a very natural re-entry.”

As she found her feet during those first few months as a working parent, Kelly continued to confide in those around her. “I surrounded myself with allies, with great listeners. Having raw and honest dialogues allayed a lot of my fears and just made me feel listened to.”

Paying it forward

As well as returning to work, Kelly wanted to use her recovered strength to give back to the Gold Coast University Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which had nursed her boys back to health. So, on the days she wasn’t at Microsoft, Kelly devoted herself to raising $25,000 for the unit to spend on medical equipment.

Kelly couldn’t be prouder of this achievement, which will enable premature babies like Archie and Leo to get home faster. But while she still serves as an ambassador for the hospital, these days Kelly is also giving back in other ways.

As part of REAL Mates, Microsoft’s mental health peer support program, Kelly has undergone intensive training to learn how to support colleagues in need. “The way I see it, my own experience was an invitation to help the people around me,” she says. “And that’s what REAL Mates is all about – coping through connection.”

With first-hand insight into the importance of peer support during a difficult time, does she have any advice for those who want to help colleagues in need?

“Be a supporter, not a fixer,” she says,

It’s certainly not your job to solve anyone else’s problem, but you can listen, validate their reality and ultimately just connect with them as a human being. That’s what helped me the most, anyway.

The magic formula? Not quite

Plenty of people struggle to balance their work and home lives. But the unique needs of Kelly’s family have compelled her to work extra hard at it, and she’s learned a thing or two in the process.

“There’s no magic formula, but one thing is that I try to be completely honest and open about what I need in all my conversations with my manager and my team,” she says. “Second, I make sure I look after myself – and I mean really look after myself, which is different from just intending to.”

“But finally, I plan my days down to the minutes – inside and outside of work. If someone requests something of me, I no longer just automatically agree. Time will always be in short supply, but I’m determined to extract as much value from the time I do have as humanly possible.”