“Be your true, authentic self!” It’s a mantra heard across organizations in the spirit of encouraging inclusion and fostering an open culture. Throughout my 20+ year career in the human capital consulting space, it’s something I often reference when advising my clients. But this mantra took on significantly more meaning for me when I became a working mom. As an executive in an industry known for constant travel, long hours and a need to be ‘always on,’ being a working mom was daunting. For two decades, I carefully crafted my persona as someone able to ‘have it all.’ I thought I needed to present myself that way to be seen as a strong role model, garner confidence from my team and clients, and prove that even in a demanding profession, balance was possible.
When I became a mom two years ago, I had to open up the door to my personal life more than ever before and shed some of my more introverted tendencies. I started to share family pictures on Instagram (something I never thought I would do), opened up about the tribulations of years of navigating infertility and became transparent about my schedule in an effort to preserve things that were now paramount to me, including the all-important weekly music and swim classes with my son. But through it all, my ‘always on’ persona remained intact. And then, the pandemic happened…
It’s amazing how quickly things can change just by turning on a camera. Suddenly, what had been behind the scenes became more visible. It was quite clear that my office was no more than a dining room table adjacent to our kitchen and son’s playroom; the sound of ‘Mommy, Mommy!’ came through during meetings (often at very inopportune times); and there was the occasional guest appearance by a family member on camera. Since I’m on the West Coast, my days often start early, almost directly after my son wakes up. This usually leaves me only a few minutes to get him settled before saying hello to my team and starting my day. I had to quickly acknowledge that grooming before a call was an optional (and at best expedient) activity.
This all led me to a fundamental question: Can you actually ‘have it all’ when you need to ‘show it all?’ I’m happy to report that the answer is an emphatic yes! Showing it all—the good, the bad and the ugly— didn’t just help me sustain the persona I had created but made it even better. It allowed me to build stronger personal connections and act as an accessible role model, one who can connect with other working parents as we realize we are all in this together and there’s no simple equation to getting it right. And it took undue pressure off of myself—pressure that was impacting my well-being in ways I didn’t even realize. At the end of the day, it helped me feel a greater sense of belonging at work. Something I previously would have thought this was improbable, if not impossible.
Throughout this time, I have learned several important lessons that I will now embed into my approach to leadership, pandemic or not:
Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I can’t, I don’t know or I need help.’ These are not phrases of failure, but rather an acknowledgement that you are human. Being transparent can open up doors to assistance that would not have come otherwise.
Being a leader doesn’t make you any more qualified when it comes to figuring this out. I’ve received some of the best guidance from my team members. I became a mom at 41 years old—so even though I’m senior in the world of work, I’m quite junior in the world of motherhood. Embracing that reality has allowed my team members to interact with me in a way that transcends our roles—for which I am extremely grateful.
Sometimes all you need to do is share your story. Like many others, I find that it’s sometimes hard to ask for help. By opening up and connecting personally, even if it’s just by giving a glimpse of your life at home, help can come your way without even needing to ask. This makes the process of creating balance a whole lot easier.
Today, I have many roles—executive, partner, mother and now, thanks to the pandemic, student. I’m a student in how to make this post-pandemic life work, just like the rest of us, and now I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m proud of sometimes having more questions than answers and discovering the key to ‘having it all’ is to not be afraid to ‘show it all,’ even when the picture isn’t all that pretty.
Erica is the Global Human Capital Leader for Deloitte Consulting. As a graduate of Cornell’s Industrial & Labor Relations program, she had an early interest in understanding how organizational dynamics drive productivity and value, which ultimately led to her career in Human Capital, where she has spent the last 22+ years. She has worked with executives at some of the world’s most respected organizations, helping them define their Human Capital strategy and develop the plan to execute against it. But her most important role has been becoming a mom, which has given her an even greater appreciation for what work will become in the future. You can follow Erica on LinkedIn, Twitter @erica_volini or on Instagram @ericavolini.