Oct. 17–As more women climb the corporate ladder, they are finding that to survive at the top and balance their lives they need supportive families, tremendous organizational skills and the ability to sacrifice sleep.
What sets most executive women apart from executive men is this fact: Most women executives who are married have a spouse who works full-time as opposed to most male executives who have a spouse who is not employed, according to a study by a partnership of nonprofit research organizations.
If you believe that women who get to the top don’t have families, the same study on corporate leaders proves otherwise. While women may delay having children early in their careers, by the time they reach higher corporate levels, three quarters have had children. Perhaps that is why high-ranking women more often than men are asked the career/family juggling question.
For today’s stories, four women who have climbed high in diverse professions were interviewed. Most of them earn in the $1 million-plus range. I asked these women about their work and their home life. I asked them about those things they gave up to keep their careers on track.
They all were extremely candid. Most have supportive husbands; yet for some, it is their second marriage. All have rules they have made for themselves, time management skills they are perfecting and “me time” they are trying to squeeze in.
Their profiles provide clues about the traits that make them successful business women. Also telling is the limits these women have learned to impose to keep their balancing acts in equilibrium.
Ellen Galinsky, director of the New York-based Families and Work Institute — one of the institutions that participated in the study on corporate leaders, has interviewed at least 50 high-ranking women at large companies for a variety of studies. Galinsky said she found the stereotype about them sacrificing their children at the altar of success was not true.
“Woman still take the major responsibility for their families,” Galinsky said. “There are some who outsourced, but an awful lot who didn’t outsource the important things. Most of these women talk about having two priorities, work and children.”
And perhaps most important, Galinsky discovered that high-ranking women are clear about their priorities: “They weren’t beating themselves up over the decisions they made.”
RETAIL EXECUTIVE BALANCES WORK, FAMILY: Being a woman immersed in a world of shopping sounds glamorous. Just imagine overseeing 450 department stores. But managing life high atop the retail industry can be all-consuming when you’re trying to lure customers back and turn around a deepening sales slump.
The job requires that Susan Kronick, vice chairman of Federated Department Stores, spend most of her work week on the road, meeting with executives and trying to figure out what shoppers want before they realize it themselves.
It is not an easy mandate while trying to keep a 20-year marriage alive with a husband whose career also carries demands. Kronick and her husband, Edward Shumsky — who runs the Miami office of Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a human-resources consulting firm — have a rule. They must end all business trips by Friday and return to Miami for the weekend.
“If you miss a Friday night here or there it turns to two or three and then four,” Kronick says. “One thing leads to another and then things start to break down. Balance for me is about sticking to the rules that help support things that are important to you.”
Kronick, who previously had been CEO of Burdines, keeps her main office in the chain’s downtown Miami store. She also has offices in New York, the nation’s retail capital, and Cincinnati, where Federated is headquartered.
Among the benefits of business travel: “If I’m in a city a couple of nights for business, one night I’ll see a friend. I might take one night for myself. I’ll order room service, and it will be just me alone. Balance comes from knowing when you need to decompress,” Kronick says.
During the week, Kronick and her husband communicate on their Blackberries and by phone. So do their secretaries.
“We coordinate events they are going to attend together,” explains Dorcas Piegari, Kronick’s assistant. “If they both are flying to New York at the same time, we make sure they are staying in the same hotel and coordinate car service.”
In any relationship in which both spouses pursue careers, schedule conflicts arise and so do competing career opportunities.
“I have a very supportive spouse,” Kronick says. “You have to have enough sensitivity to know when one person’s schedule needs to supersede the other’s. He makes sacrifices for me, and I for him.”
With each of Kronick’s promotions, Shumsky has followed her — to New York, Atlanta and Miami, landing positions each time that advanced his career as well.
Oddly though, Shumsky says his wife never has outwardly competed to ascend the corporate ladder.
“She really enjoys what she’s doing, and she’s focused,” Shumsky says. “She is a good manager of people, and she can connect disparate things together into a successful business approach.”
Most important for balance, he says, is her ability to compartmentalize, to separate work and personal time.
For Kronick, climbing up the ranks of retail and maintaining balance requires tough choices about how to spend her shrinking personal time. Those choices come with a certain amount of guilt about what gets neglected.
“I would love to be home more, to see my friends in Miami more. I feel guilty about not spending more time with the community. Today the nature of my job is national not local. When it comes to lining up my priorities, my husband comes first,” she says.
Kronick says she did not intentionally choose not to have children.
“I was 32 when I married, and my husband was 34. It just didn’t work out. Life’s about attitude. I don’t regret anything. If I had children today and didn’t have this, I wouldn’t regret it either. You get what you get. Why not be happy about what you get.”
To keep some sanity when working 80-hour weeks, Kronick clings to her vacations, taking four a year and planning them a year to eighteen months in advance. She mostly travels to Europe.
“If you don’t schedule vacations, life intrudes and you don’t go. I believe people should take vacations. Some people don’t take vacations and see it as a badge honor. I think being away helps clear the cobwebs and let’s you breathe.”
TIME MANAGEMENT KEY TO SUCCESS, ROYAL CARIBBEAN EXEC SAYS: Maria Sastre has a lot to do with how well you like your experience on a Royal Caribbean ship. She oversees everyone responsible for the operations on the cruise lines’ 19 vessels — about 23,000 people.
It is a job that requires managing a support staff of 65 in Miami and visiting each ship at least once a year in a variety of ports to get feedback from personnel and passengers and to make changes when necessary.
Sastre’s control extends over culinary and beverage operations, entertainment, guest cabin services and cruise activities for the entire fleet.
To pull it off and sit on two public company boards, as well as the board of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, requires tremendous time management skills.
Sastre plans her calendar months in advance. She also plans daily, prioritizing each task. As soon as she gets assignments, she either handles them or delegates them. She has created a good follow-up system to stay on top of all tasks, which can get tricky while on the road.
Sastre spends about 40 percent of her work week traveling. Though she struggles to find time for her self and her husband of 17 years, she finds juggling a lot easier now that her son is an adult.
“When I’m home, my night time is pretty focused on my husband and my home. If I go out to dinner, we do it together. Sometimes I have business dinners. I try hard to keep weekends for quality time with him,” she said.
It is a second marriage for Sastre, who credits her husband, Robert Wayne Cotton, with providing the home-life stability that allowed her to stay on the upward career track. Her husband works at American Express.
“He’s an incredibly supportive partner, always cheerleading for me. I don’t think you can have a balanced, successful career if you are married without a partner’s support. There is much more required of women in business,” Sastre said.
Sastre joined Royal Caribbean four years ago after serving as a vice president of customer satisfaction at United Airlines, senior director of sales at Continental Airlines and a variety of managerial positions at Eastern Airlines. All the jobs required travel.
While at the airlines, she spent five years as a single mom, relying on a patchwork of relatives, nannies and au pairs to help with her son’s child care.
“It was very hard,” Sastre recalls. “I ascended early in my career. I don’t think I could have done it without the time commitment.”
To get by, Sastre used every time-saving technique she could find to balance work and family.
“My son used to call me microwave mom,” she says.
Her son, Jon Sastre, now an entrepreneur who owns The Academy — a Microsoft school in Miami, said seeing his mother work taught him to be independent at a young age.
“I have very high expectations for myself because she set a benchmark,” he said.
But now, looking back, Sastre says, she wishes she could turn back the clock and attend the Little League games she missed.
“While I was in my 20s and 30s my perspective was different,” Sastre admits. “I was in a highly ambitious state. Sometimes you don’t stop and smell roses.”
Her advice to working parents: “Try to participate in as many activities as you can in the first 10 years. After that, time rapidly goes by and all of a sudden kids are teenagers and don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
Today, Sastre tries to create balance in her life by taking vacations — traveling to Europe by means other than a cruise ship. She also works out at the gym a couple times a week. Her real relaxation, though, is interior design, a hobby she indulges in at her own home and those of her friends.
“I personally think she has missed her calling,” said Jackie Aguayo, her assistant. “Her home is incredible.”
Sastre says she has learned a lot about limits and trade-offs on her way to the top of her profession: “I am happy where I am at. You can’t have everything in life. You are going to have to compromise something. Ideally, it would be great to have it all but idealism is not always reality.”
HOME, WORK BALANCE COMES DOWN TO ORGANIZATION: Vicki O’Meara has a technique for keeping a large company moving in a money-making direction and keeping a household with three boys on track. She is a master organizer.
“I’m a voracious reader and absorber of time management techniques. I read everything that’s out there on organization, and I soak it all up,” O’Meara says.
In Florida, few women hold as high a position as O’Meara at a public company as large as Ryder System of Miami, a nearly $5 billion transportation and logistics business. What’s even more rare is to hold such a position, chief of corporate operations, and be a working mom.
Here are just a few of the tactics O’Meara uses to keep her life under control: At all times, O’Meara has a back-up plan should she not be out of a meeting on time to pick up a child from an activity. When she travels, O’Meara leaves detailed reports for her baby sitter with instructions that include each child’s activities and the materials they need to bring with them.
Her knack for organization allows her to take on more responsibility without feeling overwhelmed. Ryder System CEO Gregory Swienton says that is one reason he elevated O’Meara to an even higher position than the general counsel job she held since 1987.
“She demonstrated her capacity for thinking beyond her current position. It wasn’t just what I personally assigned her to do. It was the things she volunteered to do or thought of on her own that gave me confidence to enlarge her areas of responsibility,” Swienton said.
O’Meara, who travels minimally for work, now oversees key operation-support departments. She considers her home responsibilities on par with her job demands.
“I think it’s more than a full-time job to help my kids have healthy, well-rounded lives, do well in school and grow up happy,” O’Meara says.
Most high-ranking female executives have rules that guide their work/life balance. For O’Meara that means getting up early to exercise. She enjoys swimming and walking and maintains her mental health by compartmentalizing — keeping work and family separate.
“That’s a skill I’ve worked hard to perfect. I do not think about work when I’m at home.” O’Meara says she has a guiding philosophy that has helped her make career choices. “Ever since my first son was born, I had the rule that I will always follow my gut in terms of needing to be part of their lives. I made the decision that if it ever gets to the point where I feel I am not central to their development, I will change jobs and make a career adjustment. Being a mom is No. 1 for me, and I’ve been prepared to make that choice right along.”
Early in her career, O’Meara began making adjustments to balance work and family. She recalls working grueling hours as a lawyer when she gave birth to her first child. She tried to keep up the pace but found it impossible. So, she tapered back while staying productive. Her boss never noticed.
She went on to have a second child. She later divorced and spent seven years as a single mom, relying on an au pair and nannies for help with child care while she held a variety of federal government positions.
Today her sons are 11 and 14. Her current husband, a general contractor, also has a son from a previous marriage. That son is 17 and lives with them.
“My husband is very supportive,” O’Meara says. “He loves the boys and helps me a lot. I can take on more responsibilities at work because of his help.”
Despite responsibilities at Ryder and as a board member at Laidlaw, O’Meara says she works hard to stay involved in her sons’ lives, volunteering at their schools, attending their sporting events and even serving as team mom.
Last week staying involved meant zipping out of a key business meeting, zooming down the highway and arriving at the airport with a calm disposition to send her reluctant son on a visit family to members.
“I love what I do. Coming in on weekends when necessary or staying late doesn’t bother me,” O’Meara says. “I’m thrilled that I have it all. I couldn’t ask for anything more — except sleep.”
LAWYER RELISHES TIME SPENT AS CHAIRWOMAN: Christine Lagarde was relaxed and casual when she traveled through Miami in January 2001 less than eighteen months after becoming the first woman to serve as chairman of Baker & McKenzie, one of the world’s largest law firms.
Lagarde had enthusiasm, big plans and lots of respect from lawyers around the world when she took the helm at the predominantly male law firm. And she had plenty of challenges in her role overseeing 3,900 often-combative lawyers at a firm headquartered in Chicago, thousands of miles from her home and family in Paris.
Now, a month shy of ending her five-year term as chairman, Lagarde seems introspective, exhausted, yet proud of her accomplishments.
She has increased the firm’s global fee income by 50 percent and championed integration among its 68 worldwide offices. Recently, Lagarde was named the 76th most powerful person in the world by Forbes magazine.
But Lagarde has found there are limits to just how much a top executive can balance without a stay-at-home spouse. She is just beginning to assess the personal price she paid for her business success.
Lagarde is no longer married to her husband, a Paris businessman. She has spent the majority of her time over the last five years apart from her sons who are now 16 and 18 years old. The youngest has decided to attend boarding school. The oldest is repeating his last year of high school.
She spends 85 percent of her time traveling, mostly to the firm’s offices around the world. Her assistants in Chicago and Paris coordinate her schedule, which spans various time zones.
Lagarde said she underestimated how much time she would spend on the road when her partners elected her chairman in 1999.
“When you accept a new position or promotion or leadership status, be aware of what goes with it. Don’t assume you can change the rules of the game. The game is what it is. I thought I could organize conference calls, video conferences to limit travel. That didn’t happen. I spend 85 percent of my time away from any base. I don’t know many jobs where travel is as bad as that. If you’re in a chairman or managing partner position, you have to be in contact with people. They need to see you.”
Lagarde said she managed child-care needs with a combination of live-in nannies and more recently, baby sitters/chauffeurs. She bought her sons cellphones at a young age and trained herself to step out of business meetings to take their calls. Staying in communication with her sons while in differing time zones has, at times, meant setting an alarm to wake up at 3 a.m. to talk to them before their school day begins.
She is teaching her sons that it is important for mothers to feel fulfilled outside the home.
One of her best life management secrets is that she has reduced her need for sleep to about five and a half hours per night. Lagarde, who describes herself as determined rather than tough, said she learned you have to exercise and take care of yourself physically to keep the pace. She does this through yoga and swimming, mostly at hotels.
Born in Normandy, she speaks four languages and moves easily in various cultures. When she turns over the top job at the law firm this month, she won’t be going cold turkey. She will assume the role of chairman of the Policy Committee, a group of representatives from each Baker & McKenzie office that makes recommendations on policy and elects new partners.
Her work commitment is evident to her colleagues who urge her to remain involved.
“She evolved us into a better-organized, better-run, better-focused, more cohesive firm today than we were five years ago when she took the helm,” said Bob Hudson, a senior partner in the Miami office.
Lagarde will give up her office in Chicago and return to Paris, where she hopes to reclaim personal time.
“I will still be the face of the firm with key clients. I will still have to do some traveling. I think it will be a bit of the same which will be nice in terms of transition, not as much of an emotional shock,” Lagarde said. But she’s looking forward to more free time. “I’m going to catch up on books, films, concerts,” she said. “I think there’s more than enough to fill in the rest of my life.”
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