With all of the conflicting advice about how to “have it all” (or not) out there now, we wanted to offer some practical advice about how it is possible to achieve a balance of work and family from the start. Early childhood (0-5) is a vital and intense period. This time is when the “bank of empathy” is opened for a human being with parents making the first deposits. Being there for your children while doing fulfilling work is the goal (i.e., having positive impact on it all), and many are quietly achieving it. Here we present one model, as written by Angela Thompson, a former McKinsey colleague, currently an independent consultant/marketer and mother of a 3 year old son with another on the way. We hope this is helpful for all of the talented women or men planning to “lean in” with integrity (without leaning away from their families), especially before corporate environments shift. In subsequent posts, we will also deal with the issue of gaining power and getting more women in leadership positions. Step 1 is to stay in the game.
By Angela Thompson
Is it possible to stay at home and maintain a professional career? Does a true work/family life balance exist? Observing female colleagues, both as a Management Consultant and then as a Marketer, led me to believe that this was a utopic vision and that reality required a choice – either you stepped off the professional track and stayed at home full time or you continued to maintain your career and utilized third party child care. Reading news articles about the topic painted a bleaker picture – one that often suggested that the balance was not possible and it would be best to stop searching for it, lest a woman find herself coming to terms with the fact that no one would support her desire to have it all. The truth is having that balance is possible. I’ve found it, as have other moms, by creating an alternate working arrangement within my role as a stay at home mom in order to maintain my professional career.
I felt fortunate to have the choice to stay at home, knowing that many moms did not have this option, but stepping away from my full time career was difficult. After several months of focusing on being a stay at home mom, I realized how much I missed that part of my life and I knew that I needed to tap back into the business world. I was determined that I could do both successfully. I just had to figure out how I could make it happen. The key was understanding that this would be a paradigm shift for me and, likely, the clients I hoped to serve.
I am not the only stay at home mom who has felt the pull to keep her foot in the professional pool then figured out a way to make it work. Amy G., an Independent Marketing and Business Development Specialist, and Becky K., a Science Marketing Professional both have created alternate working models while staying at home. Each of us has a slightly different structure, but all of us have made it work. Here is how we’ve done it.
1. Carve out a role
As a Marketer with a background in Retail and Consumer Product Goods and a former Management Consultant, I felt it was best to be specific about the type of work that I could do in my new arrangement. It turns out that many companies, large and small, have a need to fill roles, but aren’t able to justify a full time employee. By positioning myself as an Independent Marketing Strategy and Analytics Consultant, I would highlight my specific skill set within two industries in order to become a valuable asset to my clients.
2. Establish your guidelines…then be prepared to stick to them
I knew I could only work 2 hours a day while my son napped from 1-3pm until he started going to preschool three mornings a week and I could add more work time. Amy sometimes works in the evenings, while Becky also works during her baby’s nap time and balances her schedule against that of her husband so that she can be on-site for a weekly 2 hour meeting. I have found that as long as I’m clear about my availability, my clients are very respectful of my limits. When I am asked about having a meeting or conducting work outside of my designated “work time,” I have to say “No” and provide another solution. Even though I see an email come across in the morning, I know I need to be present for my son and wait until the afternoon to respond; otherwise, it appears my time limits are more flexible than they really are. At first I was apprehensive that a 10 hour work week would have potential clients uneasy about hiring me, but by demonstrating a strong work ethic and quality deliverables, that quickly became a non-issue.
Amy, Becky and I all agree that having the guidelines recognized and respected at home by our spouses is critical for success. Ensure that your spouse/partner is on the same page with your plan, just as you support them in their professional endeavors.
3. Be your own HR, Legal CPA representative
When my first opportunity arose, I needed to provide an hourly rate. My previous positions had been salary-based with benefits and everything that comes with being a full time employee, including tax withholdings and a work infrastructure (such as a computer and phone). Breaking down those figures and benefits into an hourly rate was something I’d never done before. I did some online research and reached out to a former HR colleague to get some guidance. I also needed to feel comfortable signing a contract for the work I would do. As a consultant, I would need to understand the details of non-compete agreements and confidentiality requirements, especially if I planned to serve more than one client at a time. At the beginning, I turned to an attorney friend to ensure that I completely understood the demands of the contracts and could ask the right questions of my clients. Since taxes would not be withheld for me, it was important to know what I’d need to “withhold” on my own in order to pay my taxes at year end, so I connected with our CPA to ensure that I was clear on how that would impact my final “take home” pay.
4. Start promoting your services
Reach out to your professional network and let them know what you are doing. My first opportunity arose from a conversation with a former colleague who was the Director of Marketing for a specialty retailer. He needed additional strategy and analytics assistance and was amenable to my working arrangement. Send out emails and schedule follow ups on your calendar to get back in touch with folks. Ask what you can do to be helpful. The project work may or may not be exactly what you did prior, but make it clear that you’re willing to be an asset to your future client. Many women may not feel comfortable selling their service, but this is truly the only way that a potential client will know of your availability and most will be happy to hear that you’re interested in working with them again in some capacity. Becky acknowledges that the professional relationships she developed and nurtured before her baby was born have supported her in her current arrangement with her former full time employer. Without them, she feels that she wouldn’t have people within the organization she works for commending her services as a contractor.
Be open to speaking with recruiters, even if they are initially looking for full time employees. One of my current clients resulted in a discussion with a talent agency looking for someone to commit to a schedule that I knew would not be doable, but through the course of the conversation, an opportunity came to fruition. Amy was approached for full time work by her client as well. Rather than miss out on her talents, the company was willing to conform its role around her alternate work arrangement.
5. Stay connected and informed
Maintain connections with old colleagues and clients with yearly or bi-annual emails letting them know what you have been doing and asking if you can be helpful to them may turn into a future client opportunity.
Consider subscribing to print and online publications specific to your industry and skills in order to stay informed on the latest trends and news. Since you may be working remotely or operating your business independently, create a support system by networking with other professionals in your field or even moms who have alternate working models.
Maintaining a professional career while staying home full time is not easy, but with the right approach and support system it can be done. Amy and Becky concur that this work model can be complicated, but rewarding. “When I log onto my computer, I seem to get a surge of energy and feeling of pride that I am doing something for my family, while also fulfilling my desire to still have a professional life,” says Amy. Becky agrees, stating that this working arrangement “has helped me hold onto that hard-earned professional part of myself without sacrificing my wish to be able to spend as much time with my baby as possible.” I personally feel that my life right now is more balanced than it’s ever been. Even after my children are in school full time, I’m not sure I’d enter the traditional full time workforce; rather I’d envision scaling up my business. An alternate work model evolves as our lives do, to allow us to reach toward the goal of having it all.