For decades, ambitious women have eyed the corner office as the ultimate symbol of their success. They’ve worked long hours, sacrificed their self-care along with quality time with family and friends, in pursuit of this goal. In a workplace that is not always female friendly, especially to assertive women, this path has been wrought with challenging obstacles. Climbing the corporate ladder has traditionally been the male definition of ambition that women have adopted as their own. Yet many women persist and stay in the game hoping for a leadership position. But is that changing?
In her new book, Ambition Redefined, author Kathryn Sollmann calls on all ambitious women to consider a new definition of success; one that is more focused on flexibility and financial security. With this new perspective, your title is not nearly as important as creating a fulfilling life and career; one that includes interesting work along with the time and space to raise a family if you choose and while bolstering your savings for unforeseen events, retirement and beyond. Sollmann insists it’s possible once we can accept the notion that the C-suite doesn’t have to be the end goal.
I recently spoke with Sollmann about redefining ambition and creating the flexible work that works.
Bonnie Marcus: Have you found any resistance from women about redefining ambition?
Kathryn Sollmann: I really think it depends on when you’re talking to them, at what age and stage. Because if you’re talking to younger women especially if they’ve just graduated from college or business school, they tend to be pretty gung-ho about their career and their ambitions. Then it starts to change. As soon as they get married they have child number one, they can still kind of make it work and then child number two comes along and they start to feel like they’re losing control. Then they aren’t as gung-ho about getting to the top of the pyramid. Now they would not necessarily tell their colleagues that or tell their boss but they definitely are feeling that.
Marcus: Is there some shame?
Sollmann: Yes. There’s a feeling that you’re letting down the sisterhood or that if you went to a big prestigious university and got these great degrees that you really need to capitalize on that and achieve at a certain level.
In a lot of cases the women will say, ‘I’m going to go home for a couple of years and kind of get things in order and kind of reassess what I’m going to do.’ Then that two years turns into an average of twelve. That’s even among the women who had big jobs on Wall Street and in corporations and have all these fancy degrees. So I think that what is changing this dilemma is that for a very long time women thought that they had a very black-and-white decision. It was either work in a kind of 24/7, life-consuming way or go home. But now the workforce has changed. The workplace has changed so much and there are so many more opportunities for flexible work, that there are other ways to direct your ambition.
Marcus: If companies offered more of a flexible career path, in your opinion, would women continue to work?
Sollmann: They definitely would. Because in all the time that I’ve been working with women, not one who have left the workforce, not one ever said to me, ‘I left the workforce because I hated working’ or ‘I hated my job.’ They say, ‘I left because I couldn’t make work work when I have a family.’ And almost to a fault, there are so many women who want to get back in, but they’re afraid of getting back into the corporate grind that they left behind. And so everybody needs more information about all the flexible opportunities. You need to be aware of what the options are and how to ask for it.
Women should always be working. That’s my stake in the ground. We take big risks if we have very costly time out of the workforce. Women forfeit up to four times their salary every year that they’re out of the workforce. And that’s very hard to recoup if you’re out for the average twelve years. This is a great time to be a woman who has caregiving responsibilities who wants to work. There’s so many different ways that you can do so in a flexible way. And it doesn’t take a mega-job, a mega-career, a mega-salary to achieve financial security.
Marcus: What’s your best advice for how to create a flexible plan?
Sollmann: You have to create a proposal that shows that nothing’s going to fall through the cracks especially if you’re saying that you want to telecommute or work from home part of the time. The proposal should cover things like the very specific flexible structure that you want. And in order to know that you need to know what are all the different kinds of flexible work. And you need to know which kind of flexible work is going to be right for you. If you have a full-time job, if you say, ‘I’d really like to scale back to part-time hours.’ Well, you’ve got to think about how that’s going to affect your benefits. Will it slow you down in terms of career advancement? And can you afford to make less than a full-time income? You want to be very specific about your ask. It’s not just, ‘I want to work in a more flexible way,’ which is often what women will say –
Marcus: So you start with what the optimal situation is for you?
Sollmann: Start there and see if you can make that work. Think about it from all the angles. Where’s the work going to get done? Is it going to get done in a home office 100% of the time? Is that what you really want? Do you want it to be a combination of the home office and the employer’s office, which is what I would recommend. How are you going to make the flexibility work more broadly for your team? Is it possible that you could suggest a flexible work structure for a small team so it’s fair for everybody? Think about things like core hours, when everybody needs to be in the office, or certain days that everybody needs to be in the office. Think about why the flexible arrangement would actually benefit your employer. What could you do better, faster without office distractions? How could you sort of reinvest long commuting time into projects that you haven’t been able to get to? Or how could changing your hours help the company service clients in other time zones? You need to talk about your support system, not in great detail. But just make it clear that when you go home, you’re not going to be caring for your children or your sick mother while you’re working. That you still will have caretakers in place. And then very big one is communication tools. How are you going to manage and collaborate with colleagues? How are you going to attend meetings? And another big one is the checks and balances. Is this going to be a new way of working? There are going to be kinks. You want everybody to be happy. Have 30-, 60-, 90-day check-ins or whatever you and the boss just deem is appropriate to make sure that it’s always working for everybody. And so when you hit it from all these angles, you’re giving your boss a sense of confidence that the work is still going to be done on time, high quality, you’re not going to skip a beat.
Marcus: What are some of the potential push backs and what’s your advice on how to overcome them?
Sollmann: The company may say, ‘We have problems with part-time people.’ The implication is that part-time people are less committed or only part-time committed. And the reality is that, they have problems with full-time people, too.
A trial run is a great idea. Stress your work ethic and the volume of work that you’re able to get done and the leadership that you’ve taken in various areas. And then they’ll say things like, ‘Well what are we going to do in an emergency situation when, if you’re supposed to be working at home on Thursdays and there’s a crisis and we need all hands on deck?’ So it’s important to show that you’re going to be flexible about flexibility and that your caregivers will also be able to be flexible and that you understand that work is unpredictable and it’s a give-and-take. The employer’s going to respect the arrangement that you’ve created but that you’re also going to respect the fact that you’re going to have to dive in on your off day from time to time.
Marcus: How successful are these pitches for flexible work?
Sollmann: If women or men or anyone pitches flexibility in this professional way they’re going to get it 80% of the time.
Marcus: That’s great to know! The lesson here is to know the options, define what you want, and create a well thought out proposal to give your employer the confidence that this arrangement is good for you as well as the company.
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