The Road not Taken: Becoming a Full-time Mum Made Me a Better Leader

(Published on LinkedIn on Nov 21, 2014)

After 13 years of a glorious career in Mumbai, when I moved to Pune with our two daughters to join my husband, little did I know what life had in store for me. Back in Mumbai, like most Indian women, I used to live with my in-laws who took care of my children. When I arrived in Pune, I was very excited at the prospect of setting up a home of our own. I had it all neatly planned. Find a home on rent, set it up, enroll our older daughter in a school, find a daycare for the younger one, and find a job.

I was fortunate to be able to check off all of these items from my list, and within six months, I got hired by a growing company as a Vice President. I was over the moon to say the least! I hired a domestic assistant to help me with my household and kitchen chores, and I was all set. My new job was very exciting. The company was getting ready for an acquisition, and they had plenty of international projects and processes that needed streamlining, and new managers who needed mentoring and direction. It was a role right up my alley, and I had tons of ideas whirring inside my head. As the clients were scattered around the globe, managing my time schedules was challenging to say the least, but I was raring to go out there and make a mark.

Everything went smoothly for a while, and then things suddenly changed. My older daughter found her new school very intimidating. She was finding it very difficult adjusting to the new study pattern, her teachers, and her new friends. Moreover she missed coming home to her grandparents (which I didn’t realize). All this resulted in her dwindling test scores. One day as I was addressing a meeting with my team, I felt a weight pressing down on my shoulders. It was Guilt rearing its ugly head, but I ignored it.

After a few weeks, I found myself watching my domestic help cooking vegetables in more oil than that was necessary. Since she had to wrap up the kitchen work before I left for work, she used to work at top speed and in the process, ended up wasting resources. More flour, more detergent, more oil. I could see the wastage, and my shoulders sagged a little more.

Having two little children is not without its own challenges, is what I slowly realized. They fall sick (especially when you have an important meeting), they need help with their homework, they need help with their art projects, they need proper nutrition and care. Mostly, they need someone to just listen.

One evening after I completed three months, I lost my temper at my younger daughter. She was barely three, and wanted to play with me. Of late, I was finding it difficult dealing with her tantrums, without realizing that she needed me to spend time with her when I got home. But there I was on my laptop, drafting apology emails to clients and reviewing some reports, all so that I could be better prepared for my next day’s meeting. So while my daughter’s little hands tugged at me, I just absent-mindedly handed her a toy, asking her to play with it while “mamma completed her office work”. My shoulders were weighing a ton, and I also started suffering from stress headaches. The Guilt meter was way up there.

When I completed six months in the job, something happened that was the turning point in my life. My older daughter had got low scores yet again and I thought of staying up late helping her with her studies. I had to get into an “urgent client email” once again. My younger one called out to me asking if I could please give her a goodnight hug. I nodded at her promising I will soon enough. It took me a stressful two hours to finally shut down my laptop, and I saw both my girls fast asleep. As I saw their innocent peaceful faces, my Guilt meter tore into me. I was finally feeling guilty about ME. I was missing out not only on their childhood, but also on the gift of parenthood.

The very next day, I handed over my resignation.

For the next three years I was a full-time mother. These years have been the most precious and humbling years for me. I acquired a deep respect for my in-laws and women who chose their kids over their careers. I discovered a new passion – cooking. I put my corporate experience into practice at home by streamlining my kitchen operations! My headaches vanished, and I joined a gym where I was able to shed off those stress tires.

I have finally gotten back to a mainstream corporate career over the past eight years, and life couldn’t be better. Besides being a mentor to women, I am also a coach for women seeking to grow in leadership positions. Assertiveness, decision-making, delegation, empathy, being a role-model – all these are leadership skills that I learnt by staying at home.

Of course, there is always a pay-off. My career trajectory took a considerable dip. And of course, there IS a glass ceiling and there IS discrimination against women. More so against women who take a sabbatical for their families.

Do I regret that decision to choose my children over my career? The company from where I had resigned, eventually got acquired by a large multinational. Had I continued I would have probably been at an executive level by now. However would I have survived the enormous guilt of not following my heart? The first thing I did after quitting my job was to tutor my older daughter. That year, she stood in the toppers list of her class. I watched her with blurred eyes as she was being felicitated by her school. Yes, I am happy I chose to be a mother.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” – Robert Brault

#RoadNotTaken #ProfessionalWomen #Leadership #Women #Homemaker #Motherhood #WhatInspiresMe #Careers

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Employee Engagement – The ties that bind

A lot has been written about employee engagement. There are blogs galore and articles abounding the Internet about this topic. Over the recent years, employee engagement surveys have become critical tools for determining how happy and connected employees feel with the company. Some of these survey rankings are also mechanisms for companies to build their brand amongst their stakeholders.

As I see it, employee engagement is a formal term for the connection or attachment that an employee has for his company that makes him want to not only continue working for the company, but also visualize himself in the company’s future. Note that the key word here is “want”. Employees do stick on for long periods but that does not mean that they are necessarily engaged or that they are willing to commit themselves to the job or the company. Having worked for 20 years spanning five companies, I can say this for sure: So long as I can see myself as part of the company’s near future up to 3 years, AND feel optimistic about it, I’m an engaged employee.

The hooks of engagement

So what makes one feel a sense of attachment towards the company’s present and future? There are actually five “hooks” that attach us to the company. Most of us need more than one hook to keep us attached! employee-engagement

Brand and Image

This hook is true for well-established large companies or companies that have recently created a buzz with their innovative ideas. Some employees feel a sense of pride when talking to the world outside about their company. It’s the pride of being associated to the brand and the image projected by the company.

Job and Role

Individuals who have mapped out a career development plan for themselves usually get hooked with the right kind of job description and role. They feel excited about the learning opportunities in store and look forward to gaining some skills.

Team and Synergy

People who love working with other people usually look for a work environment where they can make friends. This is also true about the kind of leadership they experience. A good boss and supportive colleagues are the top two items on their list. Give them both and they stay hooked.

Culture and Values

People-oriented employees who seek to grow into leadership positions highly favor companies with a positive employee-friendly culture. It is a well-known fact that companies with a great work culture have great leadership. These employees look for harmony and role models within the company, and like working for people they could look up to, or someone like who they could aspire to become. Companies with a strong work culture and values are also those that promote a culture of recognizing and appreciating committed employees over and above high performers.

Outlook and Growth

Growth could be in terms of compensation, vertical or lateral promotions, or diverse roles that help build the employee’s repertoire. Ambitious individuals usually scan the horizon for possibilities of growth. Even more important would be the forward-thinking practices that the company follows or new technologies that the company adopts that would provide the employee that continued growth.

Employee engagement cannot be faked

Perhaps the most underlying hook that truly builds trust and loyalty within their employees is the power of intent. Employees can see through quick-fix policies or stop-gap arrangements. Whether it is building the culture or defining the strategy or instilling values, a company would need to invest a good two to three years to really bring about a change that is deep-rooted and all-pervasive. A closer look at the five hooks reveals that it takes different kinds of leadership at different levels and of different competencies to create those hooks. It cannot be innovation alone or culture alone that can engage employees. Employee engagement is a commitment by the company that is sensed by their employees, who in turn demonstrate their commitment by not only continuing to perform, but also act as ambassadors for the organization.

Job satisfaction – is it possible?

bored

As I go through the host of articles available online on leadership, management, motivation, and happiness, I’m struck by the following facts about the corporate workplace today:

  • People are discontent
  • People are disinterested in their jobs
  • People feel “stuck” in the present
  • People want to feel motivated
  • People want something exciting to happen

The lure of the bubble

It happens to most of us. We graduate and want to be selected by prime organizations hoping that would be our big ticket to the great career. “And what is that great career?” No one has a clear answer. “Good pay”, “great work culture”, “growth opportunities”, “good position”, and so on goes the list. We are all those eager hopefuls that walk out of a college campus into another one that is centrally air-conditioned feeling all important and charged. The fact that we are similar to a hundred other people does not faze us. In fact we feel proud on being part of such a big company. On the surface we feel we are poised to do something exciting, whereas in reality, we know we are in that safe “job security” zone. This false sense of excitement is what lures us to the big companies.

When the bubble bursts

We are swept along with the flow in our secure life-jackets in the happy boat for the first three to five years where we learn new skills or accomplish our daily assignments without realizing that something has changed. All of a sudden, we see a few of our co-workers on a different, shinier and bigger boat, and reality strikes. These co-workers decide to do something daring like jumping into the sea and swimming to a different boat. We are left adrift in the sea of routine and think, “Oh no! I would like to be on THAT boat!”

Eventually, after the initial excitement of the new job or new role fades, routine sets in. The same safety blanket now becomes a stifling chain that has us trapped. Boredom sets in, followed by discontentment and finally, disengagement.

In our initial years, we are part of a larger group. As the organization expands, new opportunities arise and before we know it, some of our select co-workers get chosen for higher positions as team leads or managers. Some of them leave the company for better roles in other companies.

Is it possible to stay excited?

Job satisfaction is that profound yet clichéd phrase, similar to happiness. Like happiness, job satisfaction is not constant, but rather a state of mind. Is it possible to stay happy all the time? Can we ever get a role that gives us job satisfaction all throughout? Is it possible to sustain excitement? It isn’t easy and needs work, but it is possible. Here are some of the ways we could manage our expectations and understanding of what makes us happy in our jobs.

Ask yourself: What do I want?

Growing and changing is an inevitable part of our lives. The things that made us happy even a couple of years ago, may not cut it today. As circumstances change, our requirements change, and so do our wants and needs. However we need to be careful about not wanting something because someone else has it. Remember that adage about the grass being greener on the other side? You need to put yourself, your uniqueness, and your strengths into the equation.

It helps asking yourself the following questions every year:

  • What is great about my current situation?
  • What isn’t great about my current situation?
  • How do I want to see myself this year?
  • What could I do to get there?
  • What are my fears? What happens if I fail? What happens if I succeed?

These questions have helped me gain perspective on my current position and where I wanted to go at crucial junctures of my career.

Take charge

It doesn’t help getting on a career boat just to enjoy the ride. You need to keep looking at the horizon to check whether the boat is taking you to your destination. Rather than wait passively for things to happen, you need to proactively steer your career the way you want it to go. Talk to people who have done it, read articles, participate in discussions, take a few courses if required, whatever, but do something. If that doesn’t help, you may want to throw the life-jacket and jump into the sea. There is no point complaining about the boat and the life-jacket! Your needs have changed, and you need to take action and take charge of your life.

I reached my first growth plateau after I completed five years in my job. I felt unhappy and stuck in my current role. At that time I felt that I stood a better chance of reaching my sweet spot if I opted for lateral growth opportunities. I took on a role that no one had taken before. It was considered a risk at that time, but I never regretted it. While I may not have reached an executive level in these twenty years of my career, I was fortunate I got opportunities to take on new roles, new responsibilities, and getting to learn something new.

It’s your choice

Here’s a popular quote that is one of my favourites. “The 3 C’s of Life: Choices, Chances, Changes. You must make a choice to take a chance or your life will never change.” Here’s a fourth C – Courage. It takes courage to make a choice. Throwing off a life-jacket and diving into unknown waters is not going to be easy. If you find that intimidating, here’s another quote by Karen Salmansohn – “What if I told you that ten years from now, your life would be exactly the same? I doubt you would be happy. So, why are you so afraid of change?”

It is possible you might find that the risks of change outweigh the excitement, and decide to stay back in your safe boat. Don’t be too judgemental about yourself. Remember, staying back is also a choice. Once you decide to stay back, accept your choice and look at things you could do to sustain your enthusiasm.

I had to quit from a prime and prolific position in a growing start-up as I faced a dilemma in my personal life. I had to look after my children who I felt, needed me. Being a full-time home-maker was a new experience, but I’m glad I took those three years off to do the usual mom things like baking, playing with my children, and helping them with their homework. Today I have a great equation with my daughters. I believe they consider me their friend and confidante and a great sounding board. While I may have lost some ground in my career, I got a chance to invest precious time with my children during their growing years.

Create magic in the mundane

At times circumstances are such that you may not want to take risks. A baby, elderly parents, tight finances, or unplanned expenses could hold you back in your current job. Is it possible to work some magic in your mundane life? There are ways in which you could make your job more meaningful. Here are some ideas that always work for me.

Innovate

Look at your job and your responsibilities with a critical eye and ask yourself, how could I make this work more creative? Can I write a mobile app? Can I deliver the project with extra features? How can I reduce the time to deliver without impacting quality? Why don’t I initiate a series of training workshops? Once you get started, you will be surprised at the ideas that flow.

Give

The law of Karma states that you get what you give. What goes around comes around. Start contributing to your circle. You could volunteer to train new employees, conduct knowledge sharing sessions, or coordinate events. You could also pitch in for community service or volunteering activities conducted by your organization. Try doing something for someone without expecting anything in return. Well, you get more than just something in return – a sense of purpose and inner joy.

Lift

Lift your spirits and others’ around you. Energy, whether positive or negative, is contagious. It is easier sliding back to negativity about your boss or your job, but takes effort to lift yourself above the negative pattern you’re languishing in. If you have decided you are going to have to continue in your current job, then look at your situation positively. Ask yourself – what am I benefitting by continuing here? If you can’t see any benefits, don’t kid yourself. Get off the boat, but don’t weigh others down with your negativity. Lifting your spirits isn’t difficult just a physical effort. The effort is psychological, spiritual, and mental as well. Indulge in humour, or some recreational activity like games or exercise. Spiritual activities like meditation, yoga, prayer, or soul music can work wonders on your sense of balance.

Rediscover yourself

When was the last time you used your talent? It could be cooking, photography, dancing, music, drama, or painting. If it has been ages since you last picked up the brush, try. The first stroke is possibly the toughest, but once you get past it, the sense of liberation is pretty exhilarating to say the least. I was a singer during my college days, and somehow over the years, I lost the habit. I have attempted to practice singing again; although I may not sound very great, I feel wonderful. It’s all about fulfilling the gaps in other aspects of your life. We dedicate a huge chunk of our lives to our careers and families forgetting that we need to nurture other aspects of our selves too.