This past week, Unilever announced it reached 50:50 gender parity in managerial roles across its global business, while US primaries determining the Democratic candidate for president shut out the last remaining viable female in contention. Today, on International Women’s Day, I think we can celebrate that we are making strides and acknowledge that we still have miles to go to reach thorough balance.
Balance is a word routinely raised in business. Gender balance, pay-balance and work-life balance. It’s not surprising, then, that I posed that oft-asked question about attaining work-life balance to my interview subject this week, the head of planned partnerships in Australia and New Zealand for Workplace from Facebook, Vicky Skipp. But what was surprising, to me at least, was that she moved away from the word “balance” to embrace a different word: “harmony.”
- Aim for harmony, not balance
“I love this question and I think it’s also applicable to men,” Vicky replied after I asked. “When I look at my husband and our daughter, I think there isn’t balance. We’re going to make mistakes and there is no such thing as work-life balance. But if we align as a couple, we can still work together as a team and aim for harmony.”
Harmony. That mysterious blend of sometimes pleasing and sometimes startlingly unlikely simultaneous sounds.
When I was eight years old, my mom made me start taking piano lessons. “You have to keep at it for one year,” she said as she outlined my future for me. “At the end of the year, if you want to quit, you have to directly tell the teacher yourself that you want to stop.”
Knowing my personality at that point in my life, my mom wisely played me on my piano playing. After my first year was complete, there was no way my nine-year-old self had the courage to look into the face of my rather stern teacher, Mrs Sheets (that really was her name), and tell her, “I’m outta here.”
Instead, I kept coming back. Every week. For ten years. I only finally quit when I moved town to start college.
I tell you all this, because as a kid who had no natural gift for music, I ultimately emerged with the ability to play – moderately well. I can read notation and am grateful I was exposed to a range of classical selections during my childhood. I appreciate harmony.
I also appreciate the discipline I developed during my decade of piano lessons. Discipline is another trait that Vicky emphasises.
- Maintain maniacal discipline
“In building out my career, I had to maintain absolute maniacal discipline,” Vicky colourfully explained. “Distraction is the biggest disruption in people’s career growth today. You can’t let your eye wander onto other people or compare yourself to others, you need to focus on your own course and that requires unwavering discipline.”
For me as a child, I remember I was supposed to practice an hour a day. My mom would set the timer on the kitchen stove. When she wasn’t looking, I would jump up and move it ahead several minutes. Magically, the laws of the universe would collapse, with the hour-set buzzer going off after 45 minutes. Of course, my mother never fell for it and I was marched back to the piano. I learned the benefit of discipline. The hard way.
- Declare your non-negotiables
Like my unwavering mother, who was determined to give her daughter the gift of music, if you don’t safeguard what is precious to you in life, who else will?
For instance, Vicky’s daughter, Summer, has just turned six. “On Fridays, I work from home so I can pick up Summer from school and have quality time with her as a family. I travel at the first part of the week not the end.” Vicky also stockpiles her meetings on days other than Thursdays. “I use that day to think and strategise. I have to have rules within my calendar.”
“Every career has a lifespan and you have to think about what your non-negotiables are and then you must be very clear about them and the principles behind them,” declared Vicky.
- Face your fears
For Summer’s recent birthday, she wanted her ears pierced. Vicky and her husband took her to fulfil the wish but after the first lobe was pierced, Summer decided it was too painful to continue. So, they didn’t. At first, Vicky described Summer as feeling worried about going to school the next day. “She wondered what to tell her friends and how she should wear her hair to cover the other ear. I looked at her and said, ‘Summer, you’re enough. Be bold. Just tell them what happened. Don’t worry.’ The next morning, she asked for pigtails. She was ready. When she got home, she told us it went fine. I learned a lot from my daughter that day. She faced her fear head on.” She found her harmony.
While we continue to strive for that largely elusive balance, we can work to find our harmony. We can still all make beautiful music. Together.
Write to Gina in care of SundayBusiness@independent.ie. With corporate clients in five continents, Gina London is a premier communications strategy, structure and delivery expert. She is also a media analyst, author, speaker and former CNN anchor. @TheGinaLondon