HC talks to Michelle Cooper, national manager – people and performance at Peoplebank Australia about the challenges of balancing a family and a career.
The concept of leaning in was made popular by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
It originated in a talk Sandberg gave about women unintentionally holding themselves back in their careers and she encouraged them to “lean in” rather than leaning back.
It involved taking opportunities, even if it meant having a tougher time juggling work and family.
When Michelle Cooper had her son four years ago, her priorities underwent a major shift.
“Prior to becoming a mum, I worked day and night and I just loved to do so,” said the national manager – people and performance at Peoplebank Australia.
“I became a mum and thought, ‘I love my son more than my job, so my job actually comes second’. I still love my job and my career, but my son took first position there.”
Like many working parents, Cooper wanted to continue with her career while raising a family. But as many of us know, the balancing act isn’t always easy.
What career sacrifices have you made in order to have a family?
“I came back from maternity leave and I didn’t want to focus on my career development for the first six to 12 months,” said Cooper.
“I just wanted to focus on, ‘How do I juggle family and work?’ and then I was prepared to add in career development and increasing my toolkit.
“I was still in the same role when I came back, still full time, but I shifted it to do two days at home and the days that I’m in the office, I leave at 4pm which is all very different to pre-child.”
How do you balance your drive for career progress and additional projects against the drive to simplify your workload, in order to free up more time for your family?
Time is a scarce resource for most people and prioritising is key, said Cooper.
“I’m absolutely besotted with my son, but I also really love what I do for work and it was more that I needed to balance both. I didn’t want to put my career on the backburner while my son went through high school and then left school and I got back to my career. I wanted to do both really well.
“For me to be able to do that, it was important that I spent quality time with my son and from a work perspective, I was determined to improve how I managed my time. I work on that every day, I haven’t stopped. I find myself prioritising and re-prioritising every day and I make the hard decisions about what has to be let go – whether that’s at home or at work.”
Cooper is also a fan of using technology to save time.
“I’ve only just in the last couple of years learned how much you can really do with Microsoft Outlook 2010 – all the shortcuts and all the tasks. And everything is sent to your phone now so you’re not doubling up. Pre-child, I thought I had that down pat. I was wrong there.”
If re-prioritising doesn’t work, the other option is delegation.
“If all else completely fails, if I’m interested in doing something and if it’s going to help develop my capabilities or develop my career, I’ll put in the extra hours in the evening. Pre-child, I just did that. I worked day and night and didn’t think about it. Now, I’ll do everything possible for it to not chew into my home time but if everything else fails, I’ll do it during home time if it helps my development.”
What do you think of the concept of women having to be “agreeable” or amenable during negotiations for fear of being criticised?
Cooper is passionate about stamping out unconscious bias.
“For me, unconscious bias is about accepting behaviours from some individuals but not others – what one person can get away with, another person may not. They might say it exactly the same way but because of unconscious bias, whether it’s gender or any other diverse group, it will not be received the same way. I think that’s fundamentally wrong.
“It’s hard, we’re still learning about unconscious bias in the corporate world of Australia and we’ve got a long way to go yet.
“I still try my hardest to be pleasant, but not because it’s the female way of doing things. For me, it’s part of my value set not to be rude or abrupt. It really goes against my values to be rude and get your way because you’re rude or loud or aggressive.”
What do you think about women who “leave work” before they actually leave? What would you say to a woman in that position?
“Lean In does talk about leaving work before they leave. They focus on having a family and don’t necessarily think they can do both. They take their foot off the pedal of their career progression if they’re thinking of having a child soon or are pregnant.
“When I first heard about leaving work before leaving work, I thought, it’s a women’s prerogative to think and do what they think is right at the time in their lives. But it also reminded me that when I was looking to start a family, planning for a family is an exciting time and sometimes it is difficult to think of your career at the same time.”
Cooper said that there were not many companies that had the necessary framework to properly support women who wanted to have a family and keep working on their career aspirations and progression.
“Everything about helping women, Lean In, not leaving work before you leave work, comes back to the leader. I don’t think our leaders fully understand the power that they have with employees who are leaving before they leave work, or who are not confident in their capability – male or female – but if you’ve got a leader who has a trusted relationship with an employee, who has open conversations with them, then the employee is going to be more open with them. They’ll tell them what they’re thinking about family or career or both. They’ll be able to seek out opportunities for that employee because they know what that employee is looking for in the future.”