Having it all?

Published: 10/09/2014

Leadership and Personal Happiness



The recent comments made by PepsiCo CEO, Indra K Nooyi, have once again fueled the debate on the topic of whether women can “have it all”; attain a high level of corporate success while enjoying a happy home life.  As countless numbers of career women, who invested thousands of dollars on their education and training, begin the climb up the corporate ladder, this huge soaking blanket is thrust upon their efforts, and, sadly, thrown by one of the most powerful women in corporate America.  Thanks a ton.

I’m not one who says it’s easy – for anyone, woman or man, to find success in both a high-flying career as well as a wonderful family life.  But to say it’s impossible is just wrong.  Yes, it’s tough.  And yes, the critical years we invest in our careers often coincide with the years that women have children.  But it can be done with support and involvement of people who have a stake and interest in our success.

The proof point that Ms. Nooyi cites is a comment made by her mother, when told of the exciting news that her daughter was joining the Board Of Directors of PepsiCo.  At that moment, rather than celebrating the amazing news of her professional success, here are the comments she recalls from her mother:

Let me explain something to you. You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage. And don’t bring it into the house. You know I’ve never seen that crown.”

I won’t try to take too many guesses as to why she said what she did.  Perhaps this was a mother who wanted her daughter to keep her ego in check. But in my opinion, what Ms. Nooyi needed to hear at that moment were words expressing excitement about what was happening, and from someone who was interested in helping to make it all work.  Every senior executive is faced with the dilemma of how to juggle many balls and achieve success for all of the stakeholders in our lives.  What we need is support from family and friends, and wisdom from mentors and leaders who have been in our shoes.

Rather than accept defeat, I share some advice based on personal experience as well as what I have observed over the years watching many people who actually do “make it all work”.

  • The household works on a partnership.  If a woman is holding an incredibly demanding job, then maybe she shouldn’t be made to feel like she has to pick up all the groceries on the way home.  Of course no one can “take the place” of a mother.  But the role of mother doesn’t mean she has to do 100% of everything at home.  Husbands and partners need to be willing to cook, clean, iron, run errands, give baths, and help with homework.  By the way, this is always totally expected when the man is the executive, right?  So why do we hold executive women to a different set of standards?
  • The kids need to understand the program.  Kids at a young age will realize that yours is not a “traditional” family.  It’s okay.  They turn out fine.  In fact, kids from these families develop a wonderful set of values that men and women are capable of doing all kinds of things.  What a novel idea.  Mom can work in a business just like dad can, and dad can cook dinner just like mom!  Boys and girls who grow up in this environment have a healthy outlook on gender issues, feel loved by both of their parents, and don’t get hung up on whether someone is there for every soccer game or school play.  Communicate with them, and tell them why yours is a wonderful family.
  • Set realistic expectations for yourself.  Popular culture places incredible pressure on what a woman is supposed to do.  If we’re executives, we’re supposed to be a darling of Wall Street.  At the same time, we’re led to think we have to run a household like Mary Poppins, be a homemaker to rival Martha Stewart, while all the time, look like the cover of a fashion magazine.  Stop feeling guilty about not doing everything perfectly.  After all, it’s not about impressing everyone else in the world.  It’s about performing on a job, and making things right for those you love.
  • Ask for help when needed.  It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a privilege that you have earned!  Hire someone to do the things you’d rather not do.  It might be housecleaning, it might be yard work, it might be cooking.  Doing this does not make you a bad wife or mother.  And don’t let anyone make you feel that way.  You are doing amazing things, and you deserve some help.

The biggest takeaway I got from reading this article was that leaders, like Ms. Nooyi, should realize the impact of what they say.  When I became a senior manager, I realized that whether it was deserved or not, women looked at me as a role model.  They wanted my advice on how to manage a career when they were starting a family.  They wanted to hear about the difficulties as well as some tricks to make things work.  They wanted to know about mistakes I had made, and what I’d do differently with 20/20 hindsight.  The most important thing leaders can do in these instances is to be honest – but don’t dash hope!  Become their biggest cheerleaders, create networks of support, and spread the news of their success!

I don’t doubt that it’s hard, and there are many women who, for whatever reasons, have chosen the career over the family, or vice versa.  I respect that, and in the end, believe that the ultimate objective of the feminine movement is to ensure that women have options from which to choose.  For those who are seeking both professional success and family happiness, the key lies in the people with whom you choose to take that journey.  With the right group of partners and supporters, it CAN be done, ladies!

I thought I could balance work and motherhood. My company did not agree, The Guardian, August 2014