I started my career as an economist at the Federal Reserve in the mid-1980s. The Fed, like much of Washington, D.C., had a culture of competition to work harder and stay later than the rest. Leaving work at a decent hour was viewed as a sign of weakness. I was fine with this for a while—even after I had my first child. I kept a portable crib in my office so I could pick up my daughter from day care, bring her back to my office and keep working. But it didn’t take long to figure out that this setup wasn’t working. I was too tired to do great work and too tired to be a great mom. My life was totally out of whack.
Within a few years, I succeeded in working my way into a position at the Fed where the hours were more manageable. The predictability of my new position worked well with the demands of having (at that point) two small children. Then a colleague made an off-hand suggestion that I consider applying for a job as a manager.
The job was overseeing a computing network that needed to be up and running 24/7. The person leaving the role worked incredibly long hours, usually more than 12 per day. How could this possibly make sense for me, and how would I be able to ensure that I maintain the balance I had found in my life? I went into the interview process with a very clear frame of mind. I could do this job and I could do it really well, but only if I got to do a really good job of being a mom at the same time.
I had virtually no experience as a manager, so the likelihood of getting the job seemed remote. I treated the application process as a learning experience and didn’t raise any issues about crazy work hours when I interviewed.
So when I was called into the big boss’s office and he began to offer me the job, I was totally taken aback. I interrupted him mid-sentence and actually called for a time out. I told him that, before he offered me the job, he needed to know that I would work incredibly hard, that I was confident that I could be successful and that my kids needed me between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. every night. I went on to say that if this last point were a problem, I would understand and that he should simply withdraw the offer before he finished his sentence. You can imagine what was going on in my head at that moment—I was pretty sure I had just ruined any chance of getting the job. To my surprise, the hiring manager didn’t change his mind. I’m pretty sure no one had asked him for flexibility before, and he looked as surprised as I did when he finished offering me the job.
I accepted on the spot. Looking back, I suspect he agreed to my “terms” because he didn’t believe I would really hold him to them. On the very first day in my new job, I bumped into him in the hallway. It was 5 p.m., and I had my coat over my arm and was heading for the door. He caught my eye, looked quizzically at his watch and asked me where I was headed. I couldn’t believe this was coming up on day one. I took a deep breath and made every effort to exude confidence as I told him I was heading to day care to pick up my kids, take them home, give them dinner and put them to bed.
At that moment, I made a commitment to myself that I was going to stick to this agreement. Of course, sometimes I felt guilty about leaving “early” (even though it was actually on time), and I worried about what my colleagues were saying behind my back. But at the same time, by leaving at 5 p.m., I was telling my staff that I really trusted them (which I did), and I was communicating to my customers that I felt confident that my staff could do the job.
Over time, I grew much more comfortable in my position (and my boss figured out that it worked very well). Going in, I was worried that I would be making compromises. Instead, I found that sticking to my guns allowed me to do better in my work life and in my home life. In the end, it really did have to do with balance.
Janice Shack-Marquez is a master facilitator and speaker who draws on 20 years of experience as a senior executive at the Federal Reserve Board. She is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland and George Washington University.
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