Lisen Stromberg is a culture innovation consultant, award-winning independent journalist, and the author of Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. She recently teamed up with Sarah Robb O’Hagan, former executive at Nike, Gatorade, and Equinox, and author of the forthcoming book ExtremeYOU: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat, for a Heleo Conversation at Soho House in Manhattan. They discussed how pausing your career doesn’t have to end it, and how women (and men) are finding their way by taking a long view and focusing on what matters most.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Lisen: We’re saying [essentially] the same message, which is if you’re not navigating your career, empowering your journey, and being informed, you’re not going to make it in the way that you want.
Sarah: [Right. When] you hear the title of my book, Extreme You, it sounds like at all times you’re going full ahead. Actually, from my research and the people I interviewed, what I learned was those who pause were the ones who took the time to regroup and unleash their potential.
Lisen: I interviewed 186 women and surveyed 1,500 more because I really wanted to understand women’s career paths. “How did you do it with your kids? What’s the message that the next generation needs to hear?”
I was stunned that 72% of respondents had actually taken more than six months out of their career. What is interesting is that many of them never called it a pause. They didn’t say, “I paused my career,” but they said, “I moved to Hawaii for a year.” That’s a pause. The owning of our journey is something we need to do.
Those times were incredibly empowering. When they re-engaged with the workforce—and 89% of the women did re-engage—they said that moment taught them to be better employees, more inspired, and on their path.
Sarah: My career journey involved getting fired twice, back-to-back, in my 20s. “Canyon of career despair” is how I describe it. That was a pause. It was done to me, it wasn’t something I was planning for, but it happened. I contrast that to almost a year ago when I made this unbelievably scary decision to step into the void. I go from having this full-on job with 13,000 employees and overnight I walk into my daughter’s pink bedroom with a laptop and 80,000 words to write. I’m like, “Holy shit, what have I just done?”
But because I was intentional about that pause, I feel like I got so much more out of the experience than when it got done to me. Getting fired is clearly an extreme example, but I would imagine plenty of women have these experiences of suddenly being somewhere they didn’t mean to.
Lisen: You’re absolutely right. Although 72% [of the women surveyed] had paused, only 11% planned to pause. There’s this complete disconnect between expectations and reality. A lot of times it was done to them.
A lot of the women who downshifted their careers, either by completely leaving the paid workforce or working part-time or in some reduced way, [did it] because their partner had a career that was all-in. With young kids, it was hard to do both.
How do you do that? How did you rock it and how are you doing it now?
Sarah: I believe, from having talked to a lot of incredibly accomplished people, you can’t be Extreme You unless you have extreme support. For every incredibly successful person in the world, there’s a village around them that’s helping them to be their best. In my personal circumstance, I am married to this guy, Liam, who said, “I’m going to be the lead parent,” which in itself is extreme.
There’s so much media about what it takes to be a woman breaking into a men’s world of business. It’s a hell of a lot harder to be a dude breaking into woman-ville, honestly. It makes me realize that, on both sides, we have to figure out how to make it possible for people to thrive. I’ve learned a ton from watching his process of being in this world and being the only guy.
Lisen: He’s completely disrupting gender norms. He’s fighting against the bias that we have around caregiving. I hear about so many men who are the lead parents and their deep frustration that this has to exist.
Sarah: I want to hear your perspective on couples that both have high-powered careers. What happens when both of them are fully going for it?
“There’s this concept of the ideal worker. You know this person. Typically, he’s a man. Typically, he works 24/7… and typically he has somebody at home caring for his needs. That’s just not realistic today.”
Lisen: Anne-Marie Slaughter, her partner is the lead parent. She tells this story in her book, Unfinished Business, that she went to the Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women event. There are 15 women in the room that are running our world. She asks the question, “How many of you have kids?” Most of them raised their hands. “Okay, how many of you have a stay-at-home spouse?” All of them raised their hands.
The answer is the workplace is the problem. There’s this concept of the ideal worker. You know this person. Typically, he’s a man. Typically, he works 24/7 and typically he has somebody at home caring for his needs. Mad Men, that’s the ideal worker, all-in all the time, totally able to commit, to be engaged. But where’s that partner at home?
Unfortunately, that’s just not realistic today. Financially, we have to have two people to do what one career used to be able to do. What broke my heart was talking to millennial women. 60% of college graduates are women.
I interviewed so many young women who can’t work because they can’t cover the cost of childcare and the cost of their student loans. What do you do with that? You end up having all these issues around women engaging in work, back to the one-career couple. I see 64 million millennials about to become parents and think, “Nothing has changed.”
Sarah: I’ve read a lot of research that indicates that millennials of both genders actually ask, “Who wants to work this crazy insane pace and have no life? I’d quite like to have a life and have balance.”
Perhaps a better way to approach the topic is your career is a long journey. It doesn’t have to be all-in or all out. I’m a huge fan of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s work, as well, because she advocates this notion of coming in and out of different parts of what is needed in your life.
Whether it be work or caregiving, it’s taking the experiences from both to inform who you are going forward. This notion that you want to be a CEO, one of Fortune‘s most powerful women, and not grind it out and work full-on at certain parts of your career is misguided.
Listen, I’ve been there. My third baby came out at the same time I was turning around Gatorade, working 90 hour weeks. That happens, but that wasn’t forever. I was very conscious about, “Okay, now I’ve got to pull back and take me time.”
“If you view your career as temporary, it’s a flawed model. You are going to have a career until you retire, whatever that looks like.”
Lisen: In the middle of that moment, when you were at Gatorade and pregnant with baby number three, if you had known eight years later that you would be at a phase in your career where you could say, “Okay, now I’m stepping back,” it might have released the tension.
I’ve interviewed a lot of women who are asking, “How do I do this right now? I’m working and I’ve got these young babies at home. My career is at this moment where I can drive it.” My answer is, “Keep doing it,” because you’re going to. You’re a mother forever. You’re going to have a career forever.
If you view your career as temporary, it’s a flawed model. You are going to have a career until you retire, whatever that looks like. For most of us, financially that is later and later. If you have that longitudinal view, then you say, “Okay, now I’m all in in my career.” Then, later on I can do it this way.
A lot of women pause, and then when their kids got a little older, they work on their career. Patricia Nakache is one of the 4% of [female] venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. She paused for five years and then relaunched. Now she’s one of the best venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.
If you had said to her while she was pausing, “Is that what the future is going to look like?” she would’ve said, “No.” She had the great support of great companies, great allies. If you take that long view, any given moment might be skewed one way or the other, but not in the lifetime.
Sarah: Definitely, you have different parts of your life that you may want to go full-in at different times. For example, I’m really into fitness. It’s a huge part of who I am. Times when I sign up to do a Tough Mudder might not be when I’m full-on in my career. You’re playing with different engines that fire you in different ways.
Lisen: I interviewed a couple of men who wanted to run marathons. Their reason for downshifting [at work] wasn’t because they had children at home. It was because they wanted to practice to run a marathon. They only downshifted for a period of time, but that was their choice. I wrote my book with focus on parenthood, [but] it could be a marathon. It could be all kinds of things.
Do you look ahead and say, “I’m going to be all-in in the future in a different way?” What’s that look like as a leader?
“When you pause for the first time there’s just silence around you. You start recognizing that the path doesn’t have to be the one you were on. There’s many different ways that might inspire you.”
Sarah: The pause, for me, was so much more game-changing than I ever believed it would be. At the time, it was this scary thing. I knew I was writing a book. What I didn’t know was the time away. When you are in the workplace, in a high-pressure job, you tend to have your eyes down all the time. You have to-do lists and you’re checking shit off as fast as you can.
It’s very unusual to pull your eyes up and look at the horizon. When you pause for the first time there’s just silence around you. You start recognizing that the path doesn’t have to be the one you were on. There’s many different ways that might inspire you.
I found opportunities started coming towards me because I had signaled to the universe, “I’m in this open place,” as opposed to, “I’m not taking your calls. I’m so busy I can’t get to anything.” Opportunities come along. You dabble in a few things.
Then, you start to get this much clearer filter of what you care about. I have such a stronger focus. I know what I want to do. I know where I like spending my time and I’m going to be better at saying no than I otherwise would have if I had not paused.
Lisen: From the research, I found there are three paths. There were the cruisers, people who downshifted but never left the paid workforce. They typically work part-time, stayed in their industry, even stayed in their jobs, and just cruised along.
Then, you have the boomerangs, who left the paid workforce, but then relaunched into the same industry, in some cases the same job.
The third group are the pivoters—like you—who took that time and got to that place of who am I? What’s my legacy in the world? They ended up becoming all kinds of things. One woman went from business to nutritional science. We as a culture don’t give enough time to that quiet space, because we’re so go, go, go.
Sarah: I would argue that there’s fear associated with taking the pause: “My career is over. The phone isn’t going to ring anymore.”
Don’t be scared. For me, it’s because I’d been fired a couple of times. The first time I was fired, my severance was a week’s pay and a one-way ticket to New Zealand. I lost my green card application. Like, “We really don’t like you. We want you out of our country.”
You don’t even know how much fight you have in you until you’re in a situation like that. I kept telling myself, “I will survive. I’ve been through this.” That’s the thing I would say: don’t be fearful. Even if everything goes really wrong and it isn’t what you expected, you’ll climb out of it.
“If you’re going to elect to pause, be strategic about it.”
Lisen: The biggest failure I made was quitting my job without a plan. I was the vice president for Foote, Cone & Belding Advertising Agency. I was rocking my career, but I had spent four months on bedrest with my second child. I wanted to work part-time, to downshift just for a short period of time—not an option. My, “Okay, see you,” was the answer, which was in some ways empowering and in some ways really stupid.
If you’re going to elect to pause, be strategic about it. Stay engaged in your career. Say, “I’m taking time out to think through what I want in the next phase of my career. I’m not just doing it in reaction.” For me, the failure was being reactive, not proactive.
We’re in a moment right now where I had fantasized that we would actually get paid leave in our country. That’s clearly four years out. We’re one of two countries in the industrialized world that does not offer paid leave: we and Papua New Guinea. 13% of Americans get paid leave—the vast majority of women in our country do not, which explains why we have a stagnation for the last 20 years of female workforce participation. Every other industrialized country has seen an increase of female workforce participation except for the United States.
Is there something the leaders of the country, the ones running these companies, can and should be doing? It’s not going to happen from the government. How can we create opportunities so women and men, paternity leave, can actually support their lives?
Sarah: It is incumbent upon business leaders to take it into their own hands. If you’ve got a tenured employee with a ton of institutional knowledge, not allowing them to have leave is just going to burn them out.
You’re ultimately going to lose them, as opposed to paying for that leave knowing that you’re going to get an energized employee back. I think it just makes financial sense. The sad reality is, with so few female CEOs, there’s not enough people who have had the experience.
Lisen: There’s some really exciting [longitudinal] research that’s come out of Canada, Norway, and Sweden that when men take parental leave, women stay significantly more engaged in their careers. We get more female workforce participation. The children themselves achieve higher educational attainment and are physically healthier.
Audience: How intentional were you about choosing an ally or a partner that would support you?
Sarah: Allies matter in personal life as well as your professional life. I’m a bit of an extrovert, but I’ve done all my best work when I’m partnered with introverts. It wasn’t intentional. I just found myself drawn to certain people that really brought out the best in me. I think it was the same on the personal side. I tell friends, “Sometimes go against what your natural intention might lead you to do.”
All the dudes I dated before Liam were like captain of the rugby team. I remember when I met Liam, it was so the opposite, I was wired to think that was not what I was going to end up with. My best friend said, “That’s why you should be with him.”
It’s the partnerships that bring out the most in you. You know them once you find them.
“If there’s one way we can disrupt this model, it’s to reach out to our networks and say, ‘How can I help you? What can I do to support you?’”
Lisen: I want to tell you two stories that concern and inspire me. When I sent out [a note], “You’ve already written a book or a bestseller. Would you endorse my book?” within 24 hours the five men I had reached out to said, “Absolutely. Here’s what I’m going to say. Is this something that feels true to you?”
Four weeks later, the women said, “Sure, we’ll do it.”
I’m not disparaging the amazing women who have also been incredibly supportive. What I’m saying is you think that men maybe don’t care about this—they deeply care. How can we disrupt the entire career paradigm so we all can thrive: women, men, those with caregiving responsibilities, those who want to run marathons?
The other thing that broke my heart was, when I did the research, we asked the question, “Have you ever supported a woman who paused their career?”
I was devastated to read that 20-25% of women who had never paused their career said yes, and 20-25% of women who had paused their career said yes. That’s not okay, ladies. If there’s one way we can disrupt this model, it’s to reach out to our networks and say, “How can I help you? What can I do to support you?”
Audience: Once you pause, how do you restart your brain and motivation? I have a nine month old baby—my brain is mush and I very rarely talk to adults. It’s baby talk and rhymes and songs. How do you bring it back?
Sarah: It’s all about momentum and about taking one step at a time. I experienced the same thing in my recent pause moment.
I have recently taken on another big project, and even getting up to get on the 6:00 a.m. train was making me shake. If you take those baby steps, it begins the momentum. Don’t be fearful, your brain is there. It’s like when you haven’t been to the gym for a couple of months and you go back and it’s like, “Oh, that hurt.” Then, you do it a couple times and you’re away. Just give yourself time.
Lisen: You have a great quote about drive—”if you don’t fuel your drive, it will die.”
Sarah: What I learned is, if you don’t keep challenging yourself, your drive starts to ebb away. Knowing that there’s something higher to go after is what seems to trigger people to say, “I’m going to push myself a little further to get there.”
Lisen: Yes, and give yourself permission to say, “I just had a baby. It’s okay for me to be at this place. This is perfectly logical. I know I’ll be totally re-engaged at a certain point.”
Sarah: When looking back on having kids, that is the one thing that I wish I could have known: just to slow down. I can remember two or three months in I still hadn’t lost the weight and I was like, “Why am I not fitting into my pants?”
What was I thinking? Three months? Give yourself a break!