WORKING (AND MANAGING) AS AN ENTERPRISING PARENT
You may have been busy lately muting your early morning conference call to make sure your kids each have a snack in their backpack and shoes on their feet before they get on the bus and thus missed the memo that apparently yesterday was National Working Parents Day. And so as much as every executive women dreads answering the pervasive questions about how she balances work and family, I decided to break my general silence on the issue, because it -IS- important to discuss. (In fact, more often than not in my experience, the questions come to me from young women in their 20s who love their jobs and want children but can’t FATHOM how they’re going to do both.)
First of all, let me start by saying I don’t juggle all of this alone (and isn’t that the insinuation that makes the question so offensive in the first place?). My children have fathers, we have a nanny, and I have a staff of 15 people executing in the office. Having said that, this wasn’t always the case, and early on in my parenting journey, there were many nights as a single mom in business school that I spent crying myself to sleep, wondering if I were prioritizing correctly and what the long-term implications would be for my toddler son if not. It was tough, and I wouldn’t have made it without the support of my friends, mentors, and employers (though to be candid, some were definitely more supportive than others.)
I will never forget a meeting I had with a kind HR executive during my summer MBA internship at Nestle, which I was attempting to balance while being the sole caretaker of a toddler. I confided to this woman that I was overcome with guilt, having had to hire an evening sitter several nights a week so that I could get all of the work on my summer project finished, and hopefully snag a coveted full-time job offer. She told me that my job was to keep a roof over the kid’s head and food in his mouth, and that everything else was secondary, because your kid isn’t going to remember who read him every bedtime story, but he WILL remember if he grew up without having his basic necessities provided for. (The fact that I now have a clearer understanding that her job was to act in the best interests of the company really only taints the profundity of that truth a little bit.)
While I think that HR executive’s advice was spot-on for that particular situation, those early career experiences have informed how I now, as a leader, work hard to create a company culture where parents never feel pressured to choose work over tending to the needs of their children. I won’t pretend that it’s never frustrating – Have you ever noticed how school schedules seem to ASSUME that one or both parents must not have jobs? – but when it comes down to it, my personal value system states that family always comes first, and I wouldn’t be operating in integrity if I didn’t apply that same standard when my employees have work-family conflicts. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s also a selfish motive: when I create a company culture that prioritizes family, it gives me permission to prioritize my own family.
I have witnessed too many of my friends, especially my mom friends, give up their entire future career potential because they felt like there was no other way to make sure their young children were adequately cared for in the five years or so that their children’s care needs were most acute. It’s a shame that ANYONE has to ever make that sacrifice, and while I don’t have much say over what our government does or doesn’t do to alleviate the pressures on working parents that make it seem necessary, I can make sure that in MY company nobody ever feels that they need to make such a dire choice.
It all comes down to prioritizing the long term over the short term, a skill that is necessary for EVERY entrepreneur regardless of parental status. Creating a culture that emphasizes work-life balance, compensates everyone fairly, and provides full benefits makes for happier, healthier employees (and bosses!). In the long run, this means decreased turnover and increased productivity. It’s essential to understand that even the quickest-exit business models need to run sustainably for 5-10 years, and most models are designed to sustain for decades, so grinding your people down on short-term deliverables is short-sighted at best and disastrous at worst.
In the end, when it comes down to it, you have decades to work, but only 18 years to raise each one of your kids, and after the first few years, that time flies by. It’s the privilege of my life to get to watch my boys grow up, and I refuse to rob myself or anyone that works for me of that experience.
Michelle Coyle is the founder of BGSD Strategies. You can learn more about her work here.