Joann Lublin is management news editor for the Wall Street Journal. She frequently appears at conferences to discuss leadership, executive pay and corporate governance. She created the Journal‘s first career advice column in 1993, and in 2003, she shared its Pulitzer Prize for stories about corporate scandals. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with honors from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in communications from Stanford University.
Below, Joann shares 5 key insights from her new book, Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life (available now from Amazon). Download the Next Big Idea App to enjoy more audio “Book Bites,” plus Ideas of the Day, ad-free podcast episodes, and more.
1. Choose the right life partner.
“Will you marry me?” It’s the question that we all hope to hear from someone we love deeply, but pause before you say yes. Instead, ask your potential mate, “will you co-parent with me?” The two of you should fully explore your mutual expectations for managing kids and careers. Make sure that he or she commits to parenting equally, splitting household chores, and advancing each other’s career.
It’s far too late to debate childcare duties once that baby arrives and neither of you has slept well for six days. Consider Julie, a gen X-er whom I interviewed for Power Moms. She’s been chief executive of a publicly held company called Lifeway Foods since she was 27 years old. Years ago, Julie picked Jason as her life partner, partly because she had already recognized that he has strong nurturing skills. And her hunch was right.
When their eldest daughter was an infant, he gave up his gemology career at his family-owned firm. This stay-at-home dad learned to braid both of their daughters’ hair. He even let them paint his nails. In 2017, Jason rejoined the workforce as an artist manager. Now, he works part-time from home, and he remains the primary parent for their girls. Studies have shown that most millennials want romantic relationships in which both partners share moneymaking and homemaking tasks, but once kids arrive, most change that point of view. They then say that the woman should be the primary caregiver, so be sure that you and your partner are on the same page.
2. Let’s embrace work-life sway.
For too long, we have chased the impossible ideal of work-life balance. It’s the ridiculous equivalent of holding a shaky yoga pose for 24 hours straight. No one can do it. I prefer the notion of “work-life sway.” It could restore some sanity to our crazy crammed lives. If we embraced it, we would recognize that our lives are fluid, and we could sway back and forth as needed. At some moments, we have to be 110% focused on a work task, but at other times, we have to be 110% focused on a task that’s related to our responsibilities as a parent.
“Make sure the technology works for you, rather than the other way around.”
In other words, it’s okay to go with the flow—in fact, it’s better. I first learned about work-life sway when I began to report Power Moms. As part of that process, I visited Vanessa Hallet, a gen X-er at her office in Manhattan. She’s an executive at Phillips, a boutique auction house, and she also has two young sons. Late one afternoon several years ago, Vanessa was busy working past 5:00 when a video from her nanny popped up on our smartphone.
She watched her 11-month-old son take his first steps at home, and she immediately left work to rush home and to watch his next steps. She deeply appreciates how work-life sway enables her to enjoy both a fulfilling career plus treasured regular peeks at her boys’ activities. They are everyday moments that allow her to feel more connected.
3. Being always “on” is almost always a bad idea.
Technological breakthroughs are great of course, but unfortunately, they also foster an “always on” work culture. We’re essentially tethered to our mobile devices 24/7. We worship work—indeed, more than four in 10 U.S. adults check their work email every few hours outside of normal work hours, according to a 2019 survey. Young adults sense an even greater compulsion to be always accessible for work, another 2019 study found. Investigators have linked burnout to the constant checking of email, texts, and social media accounts. Some researchers coined the term “tele-pressure” to describe this prevalent practice.
Tele-pressure is defined as the urge to quickly answer emails, texts, and voicemails, whether or not you’re officially working. And clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated that pressure to be always on, because so many of us have been allowed to work from home. My best advice: Make sure the technology works for you, rather than the other way around. But how? Ask your employer to let you set aside protected hours during the workweek. You’ll then have extra time to deal with family needs, such as educating your kids from home. Never check email during vacation, and turn off your work devices on weekends. And at bedtime, leave them far from nightstand—after all, no one ever found romance sleeping with their smartphone.
“Motherhood gives many women extra insights that make them better leaders.”
4. Great moms often make great bosses.
You can use your parenting prowess to propel your career. Raising children teaches us how to multitask, set priorities, and delegate effectively, skills that also make you an effective supervisor. Motherhood gives many women extra insights that make them better leaders. Firstly, they’re highly empathetic listeners. As a mom, you walk in your kid’s shoes—you know what’s causing those temper tantrums. And so as a boss, you should make sure you understand what’s going on in the lives of your employees, and listen for their unspoken messages so you can react empathetically.
A second skill is patience. Non-parents who couldn’t tolerate their slow coworkers gain boundless patience when they become mothers. Such women are less prone to anger, and that makes them better bosses. The third skill is mentorship. Moms’ savvy at guiding their kids’ behavior allows them to effectively mentor their team members as well.
5. Smart employers make work workable for parents.
In Power Moms, I highlight several big U.S. businesses that excel at serving their employees with kids. Among them is PWC, the U.S. arm of a global professional services company. PWC pioneered parent-friendly practices years ago.
In 2008, for example, the firm created a Mentor Moms Program. It matched expected and new mothers with more senior internal counterparts. Later, PWC exempted new mothers and anyone else off work for at least 16 weeks from being measured for their annual performance review against their peers who had stayed on the job the whole year. That practice significantly improved its retention of new mothers when they came back to work. As the pandemic raged in summer 2021, PWC offered employees six months’ leave at 20% pay. It also doubled its $2,000 reimbursement for backup childcare for its employees.
COVID-19 triggered a nationwide experiment in working from home for millions of white-collar Americans. Several studies predict that it will become a permanent and pervasive arrangement, which is why committed employers must do more to attract and retain remote staffers, especially those with children. Businesses should trust work-from-home parents to get their work done at whatever hour makes the most sense for them.
In addition, companies should offer generous paid family leave. America remains one of the few industrialized nations without such leave. And let’s not forget the need for creative, additional perks. Turn empty offices into remote schools, for example. End most workdays at mid-afternoon, the same time that schools end. And we must never forget that people don’t stop being parents when they start working. In the long run, working parents will benefit, their children will benefit, and so will the U.S. economy.
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