By Reesa Staten, Robert Half International
Sunday, May 12, is Mother’s Day, and there is no shortage of personal stories reflecting the struggles working moms face as they balance job and family obligations, all the while reaching for the next rung on the career ladder.
Full disclosure: I am a female executive, but not a mother. My biggest career influence, however, is a working mom. My own mom. She was ambitious at a time when few women openly admitted to having career aspirations.
My mom’s career started shortly after high school when she left her small town in Maine for a bigger small town in Iowa to look for her first job and take courses at the local college.
Mom was married a few years later and, within a year, was a new mother to my older sister. She kept working, first out of financial necessity and later, as she has confided, because she couldn’t picture herself not working. It was the best example she could set for her two daughters. When I was a young girl, my mom was the family’s chief breadwinner. She never missed an opportunity to ask for a raise or promotion when she felt she deserved one, and she didn’t shy away from changing jobs when it meant more money or better benefits.
Her primary goal was always to build a better life for her girls. Mom once told me of the time she set her sights on a long-vacant property in town, a fixer-upper built in the early 1900s. (I think of George Bailey’s drafty old house in the film It’s a Wonderful Life.) The house wasn’t for sale, so she researched public records to find its history. She learned the home was in a family trust and, determined to have the home, she made an offer.
I can envision my mom (5’1”, 90 pounds) in 1960s middle-America marching into the trust attorney’s office with a verbal offer and little collateral — except courage and a personality that told others she was someone to bet on. My mom taught me the importance of not backing down from a challenge. She also taught me the value of asking for what you want. We got the house, and it was the first of many steps-up for our family as my parents worked to build a future for their children.
Times are different today, but the lessons my mom taught me guide the decisions I make every day. Below are seven things I learned from watching my mother be both a successful working woman and a dedicated mom.
1. Be someone others can count on. In a healthy office environment, people look out for each other. Managers and colleagues will be more likely to provide you with flexibility if you have earned their trust. Show you are part of the team by volunteering for assignments, covering for a sick colleague and returning the favor when someone asks you for assistance with a project. In doing so, you will have a better chance of getting the support you need when you’re faced with conflicting work and personal demands.
2. Get organized. My mom’s favorite quote is, “When you want something done, ask the busiest person you know.” She was precisely that person at work and at home. I try to be that go-to person in my office, too. Busy people have a gift for multitasking. They make (and complete) to-do lists. They tackle challenges head on; they don’t wait to be asked, they do what needs to be done. It’s this level of initiative that makes it possible to accomplish more than you thought possible. When my mom eventually retired, it took two full-time people to replace her.
3. Be stingy with your personal time. My mom did not burn the midnight oil. She was home by 5:30 every night, and she didn’t work weekends. She also didn’t take the job home with her — mentally or physically. This separation of career and family is important. You need that mental divide between the “you” at work and the “you” that is mom, wife, friend or family member. This advice applies whether or not you are a parent.
4. Prioritize. Consider everything you would like to accomplish at work and outside the office and then rank these tasks in terms of importance and immediacy. At work, there are times when a project will be both business-critical and time-sensitive — it has to be on the boss’s desk tomorrow, for example. A longer-term assignment may be equally important, but have a longer lead time — researching potential locations for an off-site meeting, for instance — which means it can wait until you handle more urgent matters. When you can prioritize in this way, you will be better able to direct your efforts where they are needed most and avoid becoming overly stressed.
5. Stand up for yourself. If you don’t, no one else will. Mom once told me of the time she covered for an absentee coworker whose job required using a Burroughs adding machine — state-of-the-art for its day. When the woman eventually left the company, mom quietly stepped in, balancing the books to the penny each month. When she learned the firm had advertised to fill the vacancy with a Burroughs expert, mom asked for a meeting with the company president, where she politely explained that she was already doing the job and had been for several months. She felt the position should be hers, and the company president agreed. She was just 22 at the time, and it was the first of many promotions in mom’s career.
6. Ask for help. The reality is that sometimes we can’t do it all. Accept this fact and look for ways to build your support network. Stay close to family members. Get involved in your local community. Attend school or church fundraisers. Make friends. These network connections will help you down the road because they are all sources of advice, referrals and direct support.
Do the same thing at work. If your job is one where you can delegate all or parts of assignments to others, don’t be afraid to do so. Some people are afraid to delegate either because they don’t think the other person will do as good a job at the task, or they fear the person might do a better job than them, which could put their own job at risk. The problem with that logic is that if you let your work back up, you risk missing deadlines, which also reflects poorly on your performance. You could end up in the very situation you were trying to avoid by keeping projects for yourself.
7. Look for alternatives to traditional work hours. My mom did not work in the era of telecommuting and job sharing. Fortunately, we do. In many offices, alternative work arrangements are becoming commonplace. Try to investigate the possibility of flexible scheduling options that might give you more balance, such as part-time work or a compressed workweek.
Even if your company doesn’t offer these programs on a formal basis, it’s worth talking to your manager about any possibilities that might exist. For example, many employers allow workers to arrive early on occasion so they can leave the office in time to meet personal obligations. Just keep in mind tip #1 above.
Be prepared to make a case for how such a work arrangement could benefit your employer and not just you. For instance, a compressed workweek, during which you work four ten-hour days and have three days off, might allow your company to extend its business hours. If you can show clear advantages with a flexible scheduling option and make it easy for your manager to implement, you’re less likely to meet resistance.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a good “momager,” just as there is no easy way to balance work and personal demands. As a working parent, you will always have a long list of activities, events and projects competing for your time. If you have a strategy in place for managing them, you may find work/life balance a little less difficult to achieve.
It will never be easy — but then that’s why we have a special day set aside each May to recognize the super moms who perform miracles and magic tricks every single day. Happy Mother’s Day.
Reesa Staten is senior vice president of Corporate Communications and director of workplace research for Robert Half International, the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm. Staten has been writing job search advice for more than 15 years and oversees Robert Half’s extensive workplace research program. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.