Contributor: Jacob Adler
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
Karen is the Managing Director for Talking Talent North America, where she and her colleagues have coached over 14,000 women and their managers at companies including Deutsche Bank, McKinsey, and many others across the globe. In her work a certified coach Karen is helping Fortune 500 companies to develop the female talent pipeline and bring more women to the top. She spoke with Stew Friedman about why she’s committed herself to helping women at all different stages in their career succeed in the workplace, and the programs she is helping to establish that enable women and their managers to successfully manage the maternity transition and the child-raising years.
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation and the full podcast.
Stewart Friedman: What do you think about the Netflix parental leave deal?
Karen Rubin: I think it’s an exciting announcement and certainly a step in the right direction. It’s really wonderful to see some U. S. companies offering more generous benefits for the parent transition. With that said, I think that the danger of this type of policy is that a company might say, “OK, now we’re done. We’re offering a year of paid leave, so we don’t need to do anything else.” And not everybody is going to feel comfortable taking that leave. Everybody wants it, but the concern is if an individual actually takes it, what will the perception be? Will they be perceived as somebody who is no longer committed to their career, and what if somebody else takes two months? Is that person on track for a promotion in leadership? So it puts a company into a gray area.
SF: There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to manage the expectations and stigma.
KR: Absolutely. Management really has to be behind it. There needs to be a cultural acceptance of taking that type of leave for it to really work in practice. Otherwise, it’s a carrot that’s dangled that nobody can actually take advantage of.
SF: Right, so it has to be used, and that’s what we know to be a problem with unlimited vacation policies. The problem isn’t that people take too much time, it’s that they take too little for the very same reason.
KR: It’s the work martyr syndrome, where in some cases it’s better to just have a defined period of time. But with that said, I am all for companies offering more generous maternity leaves. As you probably know, the U.S. lags behind just about every developed country in the world.
SF: Yes, a topic we’ve reviewed many times on this show.
KR: So it’s good that everybody is starting to pay attention to it. The tech sector in particular is one where it’s very difficult for women to stay engaged. There’s a lot of dropout, and very low numbers in terms of women making it into senior leadership. So these tech companies, I applaud their effort, but it needs to be supplemented by more support.
SF: You can see just today, Adobe announced that they’re going to be doubling the amount of time that they’re devoting to maternity leave following the announcements by Netflix and then Microsoft. These announcements, they’re steps in the right direction, and they do have ripple effects as they create competitive pressures on other companies who are now trying to keep up in order to be able to win the war for talent.
KR: Absolutely, and when Google found that when they increased their maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, they saw a 50% increase in retention of women going through their maternity transitions, that was certainly helpful.
SF: Let’s get to the work you do with your company. You worked for 16+ years at companies including DirecTV and Showtime Networks, then you took a career break to stay at home full-time with your three girls who are now teenagers. During that time, you trained and became a certified coach at one of the top coaching programs in the country. What was the catalyst that inspired you to make this career shift?
KR: When I left the corporate arena, and I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to be home with my kids, but after a certain period of time, I was really itching to get back to work.
SF: So when you say you were fortunate, you mean you had the financial resources?
KR: I had choices available to me. Not everybody has that. But I had invested years in my career, I had gotten an MBA, I loved working, and I looked around and I wasn’t sure what I should do next. But I also knew that when I exited from that corporate arena, and between my second and third child, I knew that if I had had the benefit of a coach during that time, I absolutely would have stayed.
SF: Do you regret not having stayed, Karen? You’re saying that looking back, you’d rather have stayed?
KR: No, no, no. Absolutely not. I love the time that I had at home with my girls and I am fortunate that I landed on my feet and I was able to get back into the workforce. But I also know a lot of women don’t. About 40% of women who leave the workforce to stay at home with their kids never make it back, and often they want to, they just can’t find a way back in. So I loved that I had the time with my girls and that I was able to go back, but that’s why this work is so meaningful to me. I know that there are a lot of women out there who love their careers, they also love their families, and they’re just looking for a way to make it work.
SF: What drove you to take this up as your primary work?
KR: I had so many smart, educated friends who were sort of unhappy being full-time, stay-at-home moms, and this is not a judgment in any way. It’s a wonderful thing to do for many people, but I know a lot of women who wished they could get back to work and couldn’t figure it out. I know there are companies like iRelaunch that help women get back to work, but I thought, “what could companies do to hold on to their women?” [Friedman’s interview with iRelaunch founder, Carol Fishman Cohen.]And that’s what Talking Talent specializes in. So I was able to connect with this wonderful company that works with organizations to help them figure out how to coach employees and managers throughout this really important inflection point in your life so that if you want to continue with your career that you can.
SF: What do you do? How can you help?
KR: We work with both the women as well as their managers. I say women but we also work with men who are becoming parents. It’s another group that really needs support. But we help them figure out how they should make the announcement, how do they transition their work, what do they want, what type of parent do they want to be, what role models can they find within their companies, how connected do they want to be while they’re out on leave? We help them think through all of the important issues along the way. How do you reenter, how do you make sure that your key stakeholders know what you want so that false assumptions aren’t made?
SF: It’s so important to communicate and find out from the people around you what’s going to make this a win for them. So you help people, coach people through that process and that’s naturally going to result in better outcomes. I want to hear more about this, but we’ve got Jason calling from Chicago, who has a question about what we’re talking about here. Jason, welcome to Work and Life. What’s your question?
Jason: I’m a recent father of twins and today was actually the first time my wife went back to work, something that was hard for her. She works for a large corporation, a large retail store based in Chicago. She went back today, obviously that’s hard for her, she would like to stay home but where we live, we can’t afford it. How do we go about finding a stay-at-home job where salaries and benefits can match that corporate world?
KR: I’m sorry, that’s not really my area of expertise, helping people find stay-at-home jobs, so I don’t really have too much to offer.
SF: Stay on the line and we’ll provide some resources.
SF: Karen, let’s get back to what you were saying about how you work with people who are making this transition. It’s critical to know what your goals are, to be able to find out what people around you, what they expect. What else do you do that makes a difference?
KR: This brings up a really interesting point. The guilt that many working mothers feel is a big topic of conversation in the coaching. So often, women feel they can’t have a successful career and also be the type of parent that they want to be, and that leads to sometimes, they’re working so hard at home and working so hard at work to be the perfect professional and the perfect mother and ultimately, that leads to burnout. What we often will think about or help our clients consider is what is really important to them, what might they be able to let go of, what might they delegate, because you can’t give 100% in both place without burning out at some point.
SF: What are the keys to reducing that guilt? How do you get past that, because I’m sure that’s something you hear about a lot and what helps, and what really makes a difference in having people feel better about the choices they are making?
KR: Well, one thing is to consider what’s most important to you as a parent. So if it’s being available for a pickup or a bath or appointments with the pediatrician, you figure out what are those things and make sure that you are available for those things. But there are probably lots of things that you do because you think you should, but that you may not enjoy and you could really delegate to somebody else.
SF: So for example?
KR: For example, there are people who do drop-offs to childcare that they could hire that out, they could have somebody else do that, they could figure out another way. It’s not necessarily the best time with your child, or you could figure out perhaps a different childcare arrangement where it makes your life a little bit easier and it makes it more sustainable. Another area in the workplace and thinking about are you constantly involved with office chores? Sometimes women get delegated planning things, mentoring, things that are good in a small quantity but over time can really lead to exhaustion and burnout. So it’s trying to figure out what is most important, where are your strengths, where do you shine, what lights you up, and really letting go of some of the things that don’t.
SF: And perhaps helping other people to take up those responsibilities in ways that would be good for them, right? How else do you help people in terms of how they get to you. How does someone in an organization, small, medium, or large, know that they need help with making the transition to parenthood, because it’s not something that anybody ever told me about when I was young, and sounds like you didn’t get that support either and you’re way younger than I am. This is something that’s new, right?
KR: It is fairly new, in particular in the United States it’s a new concept, so I would check with your HR group, find out if this is a benefit that’s offered to you through work, usually that’s how organizations provide it to their employees. If you can get it through your organization, that’s really a wonderful way. You can also look at the Talking Talent website for some tips. The other thing that’s really important is managers. Sometimes managers think, “I’ve had lots of women become parents, I know what I’m doing.” But that relationship between the employee and the manager really predicts how successful that transition is going to be, so I would encourage managers to learn all you can about what conversations you should have with your employee. How would you present this to your team so that it’s a positive situation?
SF: So let’s take the employee who works in an environment that hasn’t been focused on the question of how to help you become a better parent – most businesses. So if you’re 27, you’ve just had your first child, you want to be the best parent you could possibly be, but you also want to continue to advance in your career, how do you work with your colleagues, your supervisor, when that’s not a normal thing to talk about? How do you coach people to do that?
KR: That’s a good question. It’s really about being clear and communicating what you see for yourself in your future. So if you want to continue on that same career trajectory that you had before, you want to make sure that everybody knows that that’s what you want. Yes, you are 100% committed still, so that they don’t make assumptions. Sometimes after a woman has a child, it will be assumed that she won’t want a high-visibility project, she wouldn’t want a promotion, so she may be overlooked.
SF: It’s an unconscious bias that exists for young mothers, so you have to overcome that both from the perspective of the men and others in positions of power, but from the perspective of the young mother who wants to create some change. What should she do?
KR: She should definitely have a conversation with her manager. She should be talking to mentors, sponsors, all key stakeholders, letting them know what she wants. Not everybody wants to continue along that same career path. Sometimes people want to stay at the same level for a while. Maybe they want to make a lateral move, and that’s okay, too. What’s important is to make sure that people know when you are ready to start on that promotion track, that you’re having those conversations, that you’re letting people know what you want.
SF: I could see how it could be kind of frightening, though, for some people to raise those issues, especially in an environment that hasn’t traditionally been open to having conversations like that. What are the kinds of fears that people have, and how do you help people overcome them?
KR: One big fear from the manager’s perspective is that they’re going to say the wrong thing and they’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that sometimes they don’t say anything at all. From the manager perspective, you really want to ask, “What do you want? Where do you see yourself? How can we be supportive here?” If you’re the employee and you’re thinking, “Wow, I really don’t want to travel so much, I maybe want a flexible work arrangement,” then you need to think of how can you align what you want with the business needs so that when you’re crafting a proposal for something like that, you’re not just saying this would be good for me, but this is how I’m going to make it work for everybody.
SF: So it’s going to be a different solution for different people because some young parents want to take a lot of time off, they want to be super involved in their children’s lives. Others, perhaps, less so, and everything in between. There’s no one-size-fits-all, is there?
KR: There’s not, and you want to look around and see what’s working for other people and maybe cobble together different elements that you’re seeing. If you talk to 10 parents, they might be making it work in 10 different ways, so you really need to look at all the role models available to you and not make assumptions. What I see happening with women, especially if they’re in a heavily-male-dominated industry or a type of work that’s very time-consuming, is that they’ll say, “I don’t see anybody doing this job in a way that I want to do, therefore, I’m going to leave right now.” That’s not necessarily the best way to approach it. You might want to look at different ways that people are doing things and maybe you need to become the role model.
SF: That requires courage. Again, how do you help people overcome what must inhibit many people from speaking honestly with people who might say, “ No” or “That’s a bad idea.” How do you help people to put that out there in a way that is seen not as selfish but really as intended to make a positive impact on the business.
KR: Sometimes it does feel for some that it’s a gutsy move to be able to come out and say what you want, and we encourage the employees to do it, we give them the tools for having that conversation, and ideally, we’re also working with their manager so that the manager understands the perspective of that employee, what it must be like for them. How can they engage in that conversation, if somebody provides them with a proposal for a flexible work arrangement, how do you evaluate that? If you have to say no, what might that mean for others who want to request it? Or if you’re not sure it’s going to work, could you consider a trial. The beauty of coaching about this is it’s not that we’re prescriptive and saying, “Just do these five things and it’s all going to work out.” It’s helping people understand what’s important to them and what their fears might be, but also knowing when you can make it work, you can have the career that you want and the family that you want, you have a beautiful life.
SF: What’s the most important thing you want our listeners to know about this topic and the work that you do?
KR: I think the most important thing is that it can work, and that for women who are out there who are feeling exhausted and discouraged that it’s important to look around, see what others are doing, just to know that there are ways to be a great mother and a great professional and that you can do both and that we can make this work.
SF: You have three daughters, Karen. 20 years from now, if I were to be talking to the three of them sitting around in the studio, what do you think they’re going to be telling me about their lives and careers?
KR: I think they will be glad that their mom worked and that she went back to work and that she was a role model to them. They see how happy I am being back to work, so I think that even though life is crazier and clothes aren’t folded beautifully and sometimes we run out of milk that it’s okay.
About the Author
Jacob Adler , W’18, is a sophomore at Wharton and a contributor at The Daily Pennsylvanian, numberFire, andFake Teams.