As CEO of digital innovation agency T3, I have worked alongside hundreds of working mothers. Twenty-five years ago I started “T3 & Under,” a company program encouraging parents to bring their babies to work after their leave. Since then, we’ve welcomed almost 100 infants into our office, and this past summer two “T3 & Under” babies returned as young adult interns. In my career, this is the program I am most proud of.
Among these new moms and dads, I see great focus on their families and their careers. However, too often — as busy parents — they’re so focused on short-term needs that they forget to consider the long game. Life has many uncertainties, but its major stages are predictable. If you’re planning to have children at a certain age, or have them already, you know when they’ll start preschool, when they’ll be teens and when they’ll go off to college or work.
How to plan ahead? Get a big roll of paper and map it out. Put everyone’s ages down at the major milestones, like a 10-year anniversary or your last student loan payment or mortgage payment. Next, focus on the kids and what opportunities and life experiences you want to provide for them. How does it all fit in? When would they best benefit from a cross-country road trip or a visit to relatives who live abroad? How will you afford to create these experiences?
Think of you. What else do you want for yourself? Beyond your family, what do you love? What do you want to accomplish? How do you want to distinguish yourself? What are the financial realities you face? Can you support your children through college and save enough for retirement? What do you want to learn? What expertise and life skills do you want to develop to share and teach? Determine your most urgent priorities and map out how you can achieve them step by step while your kids are still in the house. Then create a milestone on the year your last child leaves home and begin to sketch out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’ll have many years in front of you.
Now, bring in your partner if you have one. This is where the exercise gets messy and exciting. Explain your timeline as a working draft, incomplete without their input. Add their feedback along the timeline. Don’t rush — this could take time and start some major discussions. Face your realities and constraints. Write them down, and if there are conflicts, circle them in red and agree to resolve them. It’s just as important to record your aspirations. Do this together with candor and open hearts, until you’re both satisfied. If it takes a year to get it all down, that’s fine. The dialogue is what’s important.
My husband and I did this years ago. We have three children, and during our timeline exercise we knew the day that our youngest child would leave for college. I knew I didn’t throw everything I possibly could into T3 when our kids were at home. I split my time as wisely and realistically as I could. My philosophy was if I could get back to a client in one day, rather than immediately, everything would still be fine. Rarely did I miss an evening dinner or reading Goodnight Moon and that was the right choice for me.
But once the screen door hit my youngest on the behind as he walked out, my husband and I set out to achieve our longer-term goal of raising the heat at T3 and growing it from a regional to a national agency. We expanded our management team and added analytics, social media, and mobile to our wheelhouse. I also threw myself into meeting anyone and everyone who could help us grow the business. The strategy was to get me in front of as many companies that could hire T3 as possible. I boarded planes and spent many nights away from home. And it worked.
When you’re ready, introduce your timeline to your children. Tell them it can’t be complete without their input. Explain that you want to set clear goals and design your life — and your kids will start to think ahead, too.
Gay Gaddis is CEO and Founder of T3—The Think Tank. She is the author of Cowgirl Power: How to Kick Ass in Business and Life.