Can Women Leaders in Shared Services really have it all?
Elsevier's Global Financial Services Director (and Mum of two) on balancing her executive career with raising a family
Michelle Luck: Global Financial Services Director, Elsevier and Mother of Two
On balancing Executive Shared Services Leadership with Raising a Family
PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra Noori, once famously told working women that we couldn’t have it all. Like many full time working mothers, I remember reading that and sighing out loud as it reluctantly resonated. For any working parent (woman or man) it can often feel as though there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do full justice to both our domestic and workplace roles. But this article doesn’t focus on working parenting – no. It quite deliberately tackles working mothers in leadership roles and (like it or not) all of the unconscious extras that go with the territory of balancing both.
Granted, in today’s diversity-conscious business world, any gender-related workplace conversation remains a sensitive subject. Despite the boundaries #metoo helped break down, for many people it’s still not ok to acknowledge the distinct challenges of balancing motherhood with work-life responsibilities. Here at SSON we don’t like to shy away from important topics. And the bottom line is that Women, or rather mothers, do face their own set of special challenges in the workplace, especially when they hold a senior position. Maybe that shouldn’t be the case, but it is what it is.
Now super-impose this backdrop into the demanding, CX led-world of Business Services, where leaders are often juggling a multi-regional workforce/client-base across multiple time-zones, with 365, 24/7 service lines. Add in the likelihood of frequent travel and antisocial working hours for good measure, and the picture of working motherhood becomes all the more complex.
Indra told us, being a business leader and a mother IS manageable, you just need “coping mechanisms”. But women are often all too hard on ourselves, in my view. And let’s be honest, it’s not as easy as Sheryl makes it look (regardless of how much “Leaning in” we all try to do)
The practical challenges of raising a family while leading a Shared Services organisation (or any business) are very real and frankly, there’s no reason the topic should be taboo. Unsurprisingly, though, there aren’t many women leaders who feel comfortable enough to publicly share their views on this one. Luckily for me, I had the pleasure to sit down with one Woman Leader who didn’t share that perspective. On the contrary, Michelle Luck, Leader of Elsevier’s Global Finance Organisation, was happy to go on record about her approach.
Emma Beaumont: Can working Women in Senior Leadership roles have it all?
Michelle Luck: Yes they absolutely can. But first you have to define what “all” means to you personally, and then you won’t be disappointed. My definition of all is, “if my children are happy, and my husband is happy then I’m happy”. There are so many external stresses and strains that test that, but you have to default back to that, to keep yourself sane. For me, it’s about getting the balance right between being a mother, a wife and an executive. And for me, being a mother has always been the most important of the three and I am lucky that my husband agrees!
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Putting motherhood first, I believe, also makes you better equipped in the workplace because you don’t put everything into one box, and therefore you can have a more balanced view. That view has enabled me to recruit and retain good people, because I understand what drives them outside of work. Because, let’s face it, most people aren’t just driven by work anyway.
E: Do you believe the idea of not being primarily focused on work is an important quality for all Business Leaders?
M: Yes I do. And in fact before I had children, I would work immensely long hours, but when I became a mother it forced me to work out what was urgent and important, and, instead, focus on what was necessary.
E: So how do you get the balance right when trying to be all things to all people? When someone is literally banging on the home office door and screaming for your attention and the business needs are urgent too?
M: The first thing you have to do is be very honest with colleagues about the situation that you’re in. I’m quite an open person and everyone I’ve ever worked with has always known I’ve had children as I talk about them openly. That’s much better, because then people know and the expectation has been set. If I had a meeting and I needed to leave at 5.45 pm, I would always tell people at the start of the meeting that I had to leave at 5.45 pm. Inevitably people say “that’s great because then we’ll finish on time”. What I would never do is get to 5.45 pm and then announce unexpectedly that I had to leave, because that’s when (regardless of whether it’s a woman or man announcing it) it almost becomes an inconvenience. You have to be upfront about what you can and can’t do.
The second thing you have to do is create an environment where you CAN work. So when the children were younger, I had to ensure I had help at home, to minimise the knocking on the door. You can’t expect to be able to manage it all. And I believe working from home effectively with small children, is not truly possible without some degree of help.
The third, and most important thing for me, is having true presence wherever you are, whether you are at home or at work. When my children were much younger I would always come home at the end of the day and spend solid time with them, and then go back to work later and finish what I had to do then. I would block certain parts of the day and tell people I wasn’t available for meetings or calls in that window. And tell people honestly why. If you’re not going to be at a work meeting because of Sports Day, tell people that. It really is ok.
The problem is that people often assume (wrongly) that the business won’t function well without them. People often believe they are indispensable, and that’s just not true, unfortunately. And some people feel if they’re not indispensable then somehow they’ve become dispensable, and then they become frightened. You have to believe in yourself, and that what you have to offer to the business is greater than simply being available when someone wants you to be.
E: So let’s talk about working mother guilt. How do you rationalise what is the right thing to do for your child? Be there … or be the working mother role model?
M: I think you can be both. Like I say, as long as being present, means being truly present you really can do both. It was always a complete joy for me to spend time with my children because I couldn’t be there all the time, and therefore time spent with them became very precious. I remember sometimes I would see other mums out pushing their children in the buggy and the buggy would be facing forward… My buggy always faced me. Time was too precious. And when I chopped vegetables in the kitchen, they would always be sat on the unit helping, doing things with me while I was talking to them. It’s all about being truly present. Being available just isn’t the same thing.
You also have to give yourself a break. You have to believe that you’re doing the right thing. And if you asked my children today, they would absolutely tell you that they believe I did the right thing because it allowed them to grow and helped them become more independent.
E: Can you share one best practical tip for getting the balance right?
Making the time you do have with them really special. Friday night for us was always family night. We always ate together, and the children would always choose which games we played. Whether it was Monopoly, Cluedo etc. Saturday mornings I would get up early and work and then on Sunday we would always get up early and do things together.
Remember that you don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be good enough at enough things.
E: What mechanisms have you used to cope with the extensive travel and being far from your children?
M: I’ve been lucky enough to have solid support network around me, including an extremely supportive Husband – we’ve always been a team. As far as work travel commitments are concerned, we were almost always able to arrange that we were never both working away at the same time (and on the rare occasions that was unavoidable my mother was able to step in). I never prepared food or anything for whilst I was away. My Husband managed very well in my absence! If I was travelling long haul, I’d make a real effort to manage the jet lag to ensure I was alert when I got home, and I would write a list of days I’d be away that the children could use to tick off and count down to my return. With today’s technology though the whole process is made so much easier for everyone, like most people I would call home every day and make sure we spoke regularly.
E: Do you think it’s different for men in the workplace?
M: I think it’s becoming increasingly difficult because there are a lot of men who would like to be more involved in their children’s lives, but the fact that they might, for example, want to share paternity leave is often judged. So it’s harder for them. In some ways, it’s easier for women now as people accept that we can and do make choices that are prioritising/balancing our jobs around our children.
E: And lastly, What steps/tactics have you employed in your own workforce to promote working parents and enable them to manage domestic responsibilities better?
M: I promote any parent to be able to spend time with their children. Clearly when you work you have to make choices, but with modern technology people can work from home much more easily today, and that way if they need to go out to the Christmas Carol Service for a couple of hours and make the time up later I’m totally fine with that.
SSON is actively looking for women in leadership positions to share their strategy for balancing Shared Services careers with raising a family. If you’d like to share your experience please email the editor, Barbara Hodge.