“How do you make it work when you're a working mother with big career aspirations?”
This is a question I was asked by a woman who’s going to have her first baby in a few months.
For 18 out of my 24 years in a corporate career, I was a working mother. Our three wonderful daughters, born within 6 years of each other, were all under the age of 10 during the “driving years” in my career on the path to becoming COO for Morgan Stanley Europe.
Having three children and being a working parent while driving an ambitious career path was definitely challenging at times, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
With the luxury of hindsight, here are 7 Success Factors that I found worked well for me over my 24-year corporate career. Most of them I learned the hard way, which involved lots of trial and error! And they apply whether you're an experienced mother, a first-time mother, a working parent, or just starting to consider having children.
I truly hope they serve you well and help you avoid some of the struggles I had at times.
7 Success Factors for Working Mothers
1. Marry Well
I know by the time you're having children you've likely already found your partner, so I don't mean that you need to find somebody different.
What I mean by “marry well” is making sure you've done everything you can to cultivate a supportive partner. And to be a supportive partner yourself too.
Supportive partners respect your desire to have your career, encourage you in your career goals, and take on their fair share at home. You’ll have enough headwinds at work, so you need someone squarely in your corner on the home front.
Frankly, the single most important thing in my career success was and still is having a super supportive husband.
Since people who are “practically perfect in every way” (to quote Mary Poppins!) don’t exist in real life, we have to do the next best thing, which is to work toward being the best version of ourselves.
Cultivating a supportive partner begins by having conversations and discussions on a regular basis. And there’ll be times you need to negotiate for what you need at home just as much as you need to negotiate at work.
This applies to household tasks (like who does the laundry, takes out the garbage, pays the bills, makes travel plans, etc.) as well as childcare coverage (school runs, emergency coverage, attending school events, etc.).
Reaching a mutual understanding of what “good” looks like on the home front is a good place to start. Which brings us to success factor #2.
2. Get Clear on What Good Looks Like
The second success factor is you need to get clear on what “good” looks like. This is not about shooting for “perfect” or being “the best”.
Sure, you want to do your best under the circumstances. But rather than trying to be the best employee ever or the best mother in the world, get in touch with what “good” looks like for each of your roles.
For example, what does it mean to you to be a good parent, a good partner, and a good professional at the office?
Once you've identified what “good” looks like for each of the roles you play, you can start to set some boundaries and priorities. This can be really freeing.
Make sure you write down these criteria so you can come back to them when you need some perspective.
3. Set Up Your Systems & Processes at Work and at Home
Success factor number three is to set up your systems and processes both at work and at home.
The most important one in my experience is to set up your childcare situation. If you don't have peace of mind with the safety of your child, then you're not going to be able to concentrate at work.
Beyond childcare, there are also other ongoing responsibilities to consider, like housekeeping, meals, commuting, and so forth.
Then there’s the unexpected: How are you going to handle different emergencies that come up? Are you staffed appropriately at home and in your office team?
When it comes to making decisions about what to outsource versus do yourself, keep in mind that as a working mother, you have very little time to spare. On the other hand, you are making money.
So, to give yourself peace of mind that your family is taken care of, I’ve found it’s worth it to invest money in making sure things in the household are taken care of.
I call this “throwing money at the problem”. As my mother reminded me, the period of time when you need childcare is finite. If the money you make can buy you time and peace of mind, go ahead and do it.
This will make it easier for you to be your best self for your children and for yourself at work.
4. Stop Judging Yourself
The next success factor is to stop judging yourself. It’s so easy for high achievers to be hard on themselves but resist the urge.
From personal experience, judging myself usually means I haven’t lived up to my (unrealistic) expectations. This often leads to a dark place laden with self-doubt, guilt and frustration. As a working mother, you’re way too busy for that!
And when others judge you, stop allowing it to affect you. While that’s easier said than done, a great first step is to start recognizing when you feel judged by others. When you notice that feeling of being judged, you can choose what you want to do about it.
For me, it was when family members, colleagues and well-meaning friends would give me unsolicited advice. Back in those days, I was so defensive that even helpful advice landed as a criticism.
Eventually, I figured out that it was just a piece of advice or feedback and not something that I had to wrestle to the ground or argue about. And like any feedback situation, the single best strategy is to say, “thank you” and leave it at that.
The technique that worked best for me was to smile, nod and listen. Then say, “thank you so much”. After all, they cared enough to take the time to share their views, right?
Then you can go home and take whatever bits sound helpful and throw out the rest. Remember, you have permission to disregard all their advice and do whatever you think is the right thing to do. It’s your life, not theirs. And most of the time, there’s no one right answer.
5. Communicate Your Aspirations and Ambitions
The fifth success factor is to communicate, especially at work, because when people don't know what you're thinking and don't know what you want or need, they start making assumptions about you.
For example, it would be a real possibility that an uninformed boss might assume, “she’s a new mother and won’t want to take an overnight trip because she has children”. When, in reality, that overnight trip could be for a crucial client meeting that you really want to be at, but you don’t hear about it until it’s too late.
So, make sure you're sharing what your aspirations and ambitions are, and what you are willing or not willing to do, with the people that need to know.
6. Be Ruthless with Your Time
Number six is to be ruthless with your time. After all, time is the only thing you can't get back.
For me, every day after work I wanted to get home to my family. So being ruthless with my time meant that I made some decisions about things I was and wasn't going to do.
For example, I never went out for drinks with the work gang to bond with my colleagues after work. I’m not a big drinker and that was prime time for seeing my husband and kids. Instead, I created other opportunities to do team bonding by going to lunch or having coffee meet ups. Don’t be afraid to get creative with other bonding opportunities.
Maybe for you, being ruthless with your time is about meetings. It could be that you decide, “I'm not going to any meetings unless there's an agenda and it's clear that I personally have to be there.”
So, figure out what you do and don't want to do with your time and then be absolutely ruthless about it. If you have an assistant, you can take this a step further and get him or her to help you protect your time on your calendar.
7. Just Keep Going
Finally, the seventh success factor is to just keep going.
Yes, you're going to have challenges.
Yes, there will be bumps in the road.
And sometimes in the morning you may even have to have your partner prop you up and push you out the door… just like my husband did for me.
But years later, I'm so glad I kept going because I did have the career I wanted. And it has given me a lifetime of insights, learnings and practical strategies to share with others and help them succeed.
You want to live with no regrets. And that's one of the reasons you must keep going in whatever direction you decide is right for you. So, keep your career and family goals in mind as you make your choices.
There’s No One “Right Way”
In the end, remember there is no single right way to make it work. It's so personal and you need to make sure it's tailored to you.
So, I invite you to take these 7 Success Factors as guidelines or guidepost examples and then figure out how it will work for you.
Which of these 7 Success Factors is a strength for you? And which one will you work on?
And if you have other success factors that you'd like to share, leave a comment below and let me know.