Career and Family – having it all

08 March 2018

Jenine Waters , Partner, People Advisory |

I write this article as I sit in my office on my “day off”. Today I took a call from a client whilst in the baby change room of David Jones (he didn’t know that thankfully), fixed a lego policeman whilst writing this article, spent time with my precocious 2 year old (last one at home… only 3 years to go…), did the grocery shopping and at some point I really need to get to the pile of laundry slowly growing in the corner of my eye (or I could just go out and buy the kids more jocks… which is often my solution).

For me, I wouldn’t have it any other way (well, I would happily skip the washing pile…but who wouldn’t?) but my version of having it all and my colleagues version of having it all may well be very different. In fact, in my experience there is really no such thing. Life is a compromise. You can absolutely have a high flying career with travel and your kids will likely grow up healthy and well adjusted (but you may not see as much of them as you would like). You can also choose to stay home more, spend more time with your kids and partner- but in all likelihood you will make career sacrifices along the way. I hear outrage at that from many people. I am not saying you have to agree with me. You may well have managed to figure out a way yourself to ‘have it all’ – if so I am happy to hear it. I also think guys fundamentally make the same decisions (more time with family, or jet setting around the world). The difference is that most likely they never expected to ‘have it all’ and may not think that their decisions are indeed a sacrifice (I hope that is changing by the way).

So how am I qualified to debate this sentiment? Well firstly I have worked in Human Resources for over 20 years now, I have worked in corporate roles in great organisations such as Merck Sharp & Dohme, Olympus and Johnson & Johnson. I have supported new parents in making changes in their work to support their goals for work life balance (I will lament that there have been very few men I have worked with on part-time solutions, I do hope that is changing too).

Personally, I have 3 children aged 8,6 and 2. I have made really tough decisions about not putting myself forward for jobs that I knew I could do – because it was clear that those jobs came with expectations on travel and hours that would keep me away from my kids more than I was prepared to be. My husband and I have made decisions around our finances and careers to optimise our time with our kids, it is important to both of us that we balance our work and family commitments and we continually reassess whether we are happy with the status quo.

Now, whilst I don’t believe there is a perfect world where we can have everything, I do think companies can support a more balanced environment where we can all make decisions that feel right for us. Since coming to BDO 1 year ago I have found that there is a level of trust and support in this environment that really does help get as close as I think is possible to the utopic work/life balance (for me).

So what can you and your company do to make it work better?

  1. Firstly, having open discussions on part-time. Instead of asking “why” the question that should be asked is ‘why not’? I hold a strong belief that there are very few roles (if, in fact any) that cannot be done part-time if the company and the employee or employees are willing. I have worked with awesome job share managers that are far more impactful as a team then they could be as individual full time managers, my eldest children are lucky enough to be in classes with job share teachers and I believe you can look at most jobs and figure out how to make them part-time or job-share or flexible in some way. But the way to do that is to approach the situation with the attitude of ‘how will we make this work?’ instead of ‘why can’t this work’? I was lucky that BDO took that approach with me. I said I wanted 3 days, they said sure and we figured it out.
  2. Trust. A big part of being able to balance work is trust, and it works both ways. BDO trusts that I will do the right thing by our clients and meet my commitments to the firm. I trust that BDO will support me when things ramp up quickly and that I will be able to tap into additional resources as I build my practice. For me, flexibility also works both ways and is why it is easy to build that trust.  I am lucky, if I need to swap my days off or work 5 days one week and drop back the next then the only person really impacted is my husband who has to step up and take over on the home front. He is fine with that – it was part of how we set things up - so that means I can deliver on what my clients need without too much angst, BDO get the results they need – and it all balances out in the end.
  3. The lynch pin for all of this is being clear on what is important to you. The biggest challenge in “having it all” is that there really will be some sacrifices you need to make along the way. Sometimes things just are what they are. Each time I think about whether I am interested in a new job I make sure I am clear first about what is important to me. Is this a time in my life that I really want to take on more responsibility and need more challenge at work? Or is this a time for my family that I want to have the mental space to be there for them more and will the role on offer provide me with that space? They are not always easy decisions to make and sometimes I am torn but ultimately they are my (and my family’s) decisions and we have to live with the compromises we choose either way.

I am hopeful that when my boys grow up and plan their careers they and their partners will have different options, roles will automatically be more flexible and career decisions will more effectively balance their home and work roles. I hope we can take on more advanced policies with paid parental leave that encourages men to take leave as much as women. I hope discussions about equal pay will no longer be necessary because there will be no inequity. But fundamentally, even if all of this happens I still believe there will be choices we will have to make personally, I still believe there will be no such thing as ‘having it all’. Maybe I am wrong. Hopefully.

Now please excuse me whilst I figure out how to explain to my 6 year why Santa left extra stocking stuffers in my office drawer (true story…any ideas?).