Embrace the Chaos: Navigating the C-Suite as a Working Mom
I’m the head of marketing for a 950-person consulting firm. I’m also the mother of a 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. Both roles are demanding, challenging and enormously fulfilling. I’m committed to each of them, and I’m not willing to sacrifice one for the sake of the other.
This is not a story about how I manage to be an executive and a mother and magically keep everything in balance. When you have multiple passions, a perfect balance becomes an unachievable ideal. Instead, I focus on embracing the chaos and looking for opportunities to have fun along the way.
Disruption was always in the cards for me. As a woman in a male-dominated field, I learned early on that individuality matters and that there is not a single approach to achieving success. So, when I became a mother, I didn’t worry about how it would be perceived. I just focused on how it would work.
At first, I dove back into work full-time, which meant long days and late nights. I quickly found myself overextended. So I rethought my own expectations, communicated them and scaled back my work schedule to four days a week. That arrangement worked for 10 months, but when my daughter was a year, I chose to go back full-time. I had the confidence to do right by family and to focus on success by my standards vs. trying to be everything to everyone.
There’s no guidebook for “balancing” new motherhood with a leadership role. And while there are times when I feel like I’m failing on all fronts, I’ve learned a few things to live by that help me manage and welcome the challenges of executive motherhood.
1. Develop a workable routine.
My life could easily descend into chaos; I use my routine to establish some semblance of order. That routine begins at 4:30 a.m. every morning with a workout while my house is still quiet. While this seems crazy to most people, my morning run gives me the energy I need for the day ahead. My routine continues after work when I transition to a slew of more kid-friendly activities.
2. Compartmentalize effectively.
Most days I stay at the office until the last possible second, then literally sprint to the train. Once home, I turn off work emails and turn my focus to my kids -- enjoying some playtime before bed. I try to be totally present with them. Similarly, when I’m at work I’m singularly focused on the tasks that require my attention the most. To be clear, this is a goal; I’m not perfect and this is not every day. There are days when my professional goals require me to trade time at home for more time at work and vice versa.
3. Get leadership support.
One of the most important things for me was ensuring I had support from my company’s leadership team. As I approached motherhood, I talked to our CEO and other members of our executive team about my career goals. As a new mother, I discussed the challenges of keeping everything in balance. I focused on what was both realistic and sustainable. While I was hesitant to ask for things like the ability to work from home one day a week, I’m glad I did. And from all my partners -- men and women alike -- I received nothing but support.
4. Build a support system.
My imperfect balance would never work if I was afraid to ask for help. Being a working mother has taught me that it’s not only acceptable to ask for support from colleagues, friends and family -- it’s imperative. At home, I coordinate with family and friends to balance responsibility for the kids. If I’m on a business trip, my husband fills both of our roles at home. If I’m in a meeting, a friend may grab my daughter for ballet. And at work, I’ve built a support network of people across the firm who are there to listen and partner on common goals.
5. Don’t try to figure it all out.
When it comes to merging motherhood and business leadership, nothing is preordained. As a Type A obsessive planner, embracing my unpredictable life required a period of adjustment. It was about accepting chaos as part of the life I chose -- and not trying too hard to control it. But more importantly, it was about knowing when good enough is enough, deciding what really matters and knowing my limits. I’ve built a team around me that I trust to play their positions on the field, so I can focus on mine.
I realize that a large part of my imperfect balance is good fortune. I’m fortunate to work at a company that cares about my professional and personal aspirations and encourages the unique path I’ve chosen. I’m fortunate to have colleagues who support me beyond the call of duty. And I’m lucky to have a husband, friends and family who are just as dedicated to my family as I am.
By building strong working relationships, learning to compartmentalize, taking the time I need and knowing when to ask for help, I’ve achieved success on my terms. That success is defined, first and foremost, by me and by my choice to never compromise my passions. I’m reminded of that when I sprint to the train after work. And I’m grateful for it when I tuck my kids in at night.
(By Casey Foss. Foss is director of marketing and a member of the executive team at West Monroe Partners, a business and technology consultancy. She leads West Monroe’s marketing team and multifaceted brand-building program.