Navigating Work & Life – a Discussion w/UBS Moms@Work

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

9 January 2015

On Wednesday, I had the incredible honor of being invited to present to and have a conversation with the UBS Moms@Work group – an affinity group started by 2 amazing women – Manuela Andaloro and Ladina Jenal – who, while pregnant, wanted to have a more focused conversation around navigating work and life.  They invited me to share my own journey, experiences, struggles, and learnings.  What was extra special was that I was able to also bring my husband, Eric, to participate in the discussion. Since I’ve been an Ambassador – he has really stepped up to be the primary one focusing on our kids and our household (in addition to having his own business!) so his perspective was really valuable.

Within the event, I was able to share some perspectives on self-defining success (you can see a version of my presentation here) and then did a sit down question session with Mara Harvey – the executive sponsor for UBS Moms @ Work.  After that, we opened it up to the very attentive audience.

I felt that the conversation was fascinating, engaging, and thought-provoking.  I was moved by the candor, compassion, and motivation of the women and men who attended. Several of the questions have really been rolling around in my mind – but one, in particular, really struck me:

One of the attendees asked me to share thoughts on how to deal with those times when parenting impacts working hours – especially if those around you might not understand that impact.  This grew into a discussion on how to set boundaries, manage your manager, and to set expectation among those around you in terms of your availability.  It then evolved into a conversation on setting priorities.  A bunch of us got into the action on answering that one.  My husband joined in, Mara had some great comments, and then other members of the audience chimed in with their wisdom.

Net net – the thoughts were:

  • YOU are the one who trains those around you and sets your boundaries of availability.  If you respond to emails at all hours, accept meeting requests outside of business hours, and such – then people will expect to be able to reach you/leverage your skills at those times.  IF – instead – you share that “I am very available during these times/days and will give you my very best during those times, but otherwise – unless there’s an emergency – I am not available and am really focused on my family/activity” – and then stick to that commitment.  Then those around you will know when they can/can’t reach you.  Personally – the approach that I try (although I’m still working on this one) has been to get home at a reasonable hour from work, spend quality time with the kids, and then do a bit more work before finishing for the day.
  • Rocks, pebbles, sand: Mara shared this concept with the group that I thought was so beautiful (I have since looked it up online and found that it is a well-known metaphor.  The funny thing is – I’ve been living it, but just didn’t know the phrase).  She shared this experience from earlier in her career:

Something urgent came up at work – so the manager held a meeting at 7pm to address it.  At that evening meeting, when they went to schedule the follow-up meeting, he suggested 7pm the next night so as not to affect the next business day.  She suggested that, if it’s so urgent, then it should be prioritized into the regular working day.  The manager hadn’t even considered that, but appreciated the feedback.

The answer continued with a focus on how to prioritize – and that’s when Mara shared the metaphor.  If you put sand into a cup of water first, and then the pebbles and the rocks, you won’t get everything in.  But if you put the rocks in first, and then the pebbles and, lastly, the sand – the smaller items will fill in the gaps and you will be able to do all of them.  The same goes in life – start with the big priorities and then do the medium and then the smaller items.

  • Multi-tasking is a special skill that parents develop as a survival technique.  As a parent – we look at creative ways to multi-task and leverage our time.  For example – in my former job at Microsoft, I would stack up my conference calls on Fridays so that, in the afternoon, I could bake bread for our Friday evenings while doing the conference calls.  OR – if someone needed to meet with me and it didn’t require I wear a suit, I’d ask them to bring their sneakers and do a walk with me while we discussed whatever it was we needed to discuss.

And that was just 1 of the questions that came up!

It is clear that there’s a real dialogue and progress happening – within UBS – AND also in the greater Swiss working world – for women who have children to choose whether or not to work for pay (I recognize that being a Mom can be, in and of itself, work – so I try to avoid the term “working mom” as I feel that’s redundant).

From my own experience in the United States I know that, even from my first pregnancy in 2002, conditions in the United States have improved greatly to enable that choice.  As someone who has made both choices – to go back to paid employment and then, separately, to stay home with my kids, It will be exciting to see what we can continue to learn from each other and do together over the coming years!