“Truly inspirational and quite a love letter to Anne!” commented one of my closest friends on Facebook about my blog, “Decisions I Don’t Regret – One Parent’s Take on Impossible Choices” (www.sheinthecle.com).
I agree! At least, that’s how it started. I initially wrote the blog because I was deeply touched by another CEO’s genuine act of kindness in reaction to my decision to choose my life over work and spend the day with my daughter – a decision that caused me to miss his meeting! That experience inspired wonderful conversations between my daughter and me about the choices I have made over the years and that she soon will be making in her own life and career. I shared the story to give hope to other parents trying to make these impossible choices between work and life every day. I knew that reading a story like this, particularly when my daughter was young, would have given me the encouragement that I needed to press on.
My story immediately resonated – mostly with working parents – and went viral! Over the past month since my story was posted, it has been shared over 40,000 times. It was featured on local news, reposted on national sites, and inspired engaging conversations on social media. So many of you have contacted me directly and still are!
It seems that my love letter and I have unwittingly waded into the deep end of the ongoing conversation between working parents and their employers. As I think about this now, it all makes sense. I have spent over two decades on both sides of this conversation. I have been a working parent and a CEO. I have always been there for my daughter and “leaned in” to top leadership roles in my career. I have asked for flexibility as I made impossible choices between work and life and afforded that flexibility to others on my teams as they have made theirs.
Yes, I understand both sides of this conversation very well. So while I am thrilled that my story has struck a chord with so many, I am that much more grateful for the valuable lessons I have learned from your thoughtful responses – both as a working parent and as a CEO.
To help move forward and elevate this important conversation, I am posting today to share 3 lessons I learned as a parent when my love letter to my daughter became a blog post that went viral. Tomorrow, I will share 3 lessons I learned as a CEO from this experience. I hope you will continue to share your feedback with me.
- We need to make it about us and them
“We kind of want to sleep w this blog post under our pillows. @SobolJordan you just made 1000 moms feel understood.” Tweet by @MotherBoard_me (May 12, 2016)
Most of you that have reacted to the blog post are parents, both mothers and fathers, with children of all ages. You are grateful – thanking me for giving voice to what it feels like to make these impossible choices every day. You are emotional – often telling me you were in tears as you read and connected with my story.
You have helped me understand that what started as a love letter to my daughter actually is about much more. There are real lessons here about leadership and workplace culture. My story and your reactions contain clues for leaders about how to get the very best from their teams, and how most workplace cultures actually work against just that.
We, as parents, talk with each other all the time about our struggles with impossible choices. My story was about having that conversation with another CEO – honest and out loud – and it went well! I may have put into words what many parents are feeling, but I believe it went viral because it carried a clear message to our employers about what we want them to know and understand about us.
When an employer supports our desire to do good work and live a good life, we are better positioned to support her success. That’s a message every CEO needs to pay attention to. Talking with our employers about our need for “work/life” balance alone is not enough. The conversation should be about our needs and theirs – our need for flexibility, their need to get results, and how we work together to achieve both for each other.
- We need to bring our “whole self” to work
“I took my 1 year old son to the doctor today in the middle of the work day and, because of your story, I don’t feel guilty!” – Comment by working parent that sought me out at a conference just to share this with me
“I never tell people I’m working from home because of sick kids, etc. I’m just “working at home”. As a woman, I don’t want to be labeled as “the mom” who can’t hold her weight at work because she’s got kids….” - Comment by Sharon B on She In The Cle, May 12, 2016
“….One time I was in a meeting after returning to work after taking care of my [sick] son. I wasn’t up-to-speed on the discussion since I was out of the office. One my colleagues said, “Well, Mike wasn’t here. He was babysitting.” ….There is still an expectation of “sacrifice” in order to get ahead – which is fine except for the fact that neglecting your children’s needs (physical or emotional) isn’t optional. Thanks for writing this and offering the perspective. I’ll use this example to continue to fight the good fight.”- Comment by Mike on SheInTheCLE, May 12, 2016
In my blog post, I told a story about getting the dreaded call at work from the school nurse telling me that my daughter was sick and needed to be taken to the doctor. You really responded to this! Going to doctor’s visits and taking care of sick children (or ailing loved ones) during the work day seem to be the epitome of impossible choices.
Many of us struggle with work cultures like this: To show we are serious about our careers, we believe we must put our work above all else in our life – our children, our parents and ourselves. To have a seat at the table, we believe we must check our humanity at the door. To be promoted to leadership, we believe that, when our life bumps into our work, it is our problem to manage and resolve alone, quickly and with the least disruption to work.
This type of work culture requires everyone and everything that we value in our life to be subordinate to our work. It forces us to be something we are not to get ahead. It leaves us with guilt, regret and pain.
Why must getting ahead at work require sacrifice at home? I shared a story about getting my work done in a different way than requested, but in a way that satisfied my responsibilities at work without sacrificing my time with my daughter. My choice was not just tolerated, but applauded as a “great decision” by another CEO! I felt valued as a whole person for my work and my parenting.
We are at our best at work when we are valued for all that we authentically are. It is time for the workplace to accept and value us as both the dedicated professionals and devoted parents that we are and aspire to be.
- We need to opt in and lead
Two weeks after the blog was posted, I received an email from Paul Clark, PNC Regional President. It was his email that inspired me to write my first blog post. This email from Paul said, “Wow! I must have received 20 of these from as far away as Philadelphia!” He was referring to this email from a member of his team:
“I met with a customer today who shared with me a story told by wonderful single mom who so beautifully expressed the challenges working mothers face. I have to tell you I sat at my desk with tears in my eyes when I realized the support you gave to her decision to spend the day with her daughter vs. going to a meeting. Furthermore I felt inspired in regards to how our children are impacted by our decision; her daughter’s comment about the “PNC guy” made me grateful for your leadership in both my work and home life because I know my children are benefitting. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.” – Email from a PNC Vice President & Branch Manager
Two weeks later, he sent me a second email that said, “Grand Rapids, Philadelphia, Raleigh, Pittsburgh… these are still coming in from all over the PNC footprint!” But this time he forwarded an email from another CEO, a PNC Regional President from Michigan, who wrote to Paul:
“Got this forwarded to me by a Wealth Client. She and her husband are busy doctors and have raised 4 amazing kids. Your thoughtful comment had a long positive ripple!”
We need to lift up leaders and work cultures that get it. It was my privilege to shine a spotlight on Paul Clark and PNC as a part of my story. Storytelling is a powerful catalyst for change, but we can and must do more. We need to make a commitment to act. We need people that get it to opt in and lead. That is the game changer.
What does this mean for those of you that are on track to lead at work? We are counting on you to stay in the game so we all benefit from your enlightened leadership – informed by your experience in making impossible choices – as you rise to the top of your organization. I understand how difficult this is – I have done what I am asking of you. I have opted in at top leadership levels throughout my career and parenting experience, and still am today.
What does this mean for those of you that are not in leadership roles at work? You don’t need positional authority to cause positive culture change. What can you do? Start by asking for what you need to make it all work. I know this is more difficult for some than others. No matter what your situation, the truth is that you can wish your supervisor would honor your choices, but she won’t unless you ask.
Rachel said it best in her comment describing how she got the flexibility she needed – she asked for it:
“Thank you for sharing your story! I hope women take your word to heart. And, I would challenge themselves to ask (or simply say) when they need to miss work or adjust their schedules. I went down to a 4-day work week after my son was born. I kept that same schedule when my daughter came 17 months later. I was not only promoted but also carried this schedule to a different company. People made comments like, ‘well, aren’t you lucky.’ To which I replied, ‘or maybe I just asked?!’….” – Rachel Stallard, SheInTheCLE.com, May 12, 2016
If you are not sure how to have this dialogue with your supervisor, it is a skill worth learning. It begins with your mindset – instead of focusing on what isn’t working, start by asking “what if?” It takes practice – role play the discussion with someone you trust to help organize your thoughts and boost your confidence. It is worth it – as a CEO, I always respect my team members for initiating these courageous conversations with me.
My story started as a love letter to my daughter. It is a very personal story that went viral. That experience has taught me so much. I hope you will share your lessons learned.
Please check back tomorrow for 3 lessons I learned as a CEO from this experience.