Some thoughts on balancing leadership and care work

Here’s a thing I’m trying to navigate for myself: I’m working a demanding full time job and I have a young kid. I very much like my work, and am ambitious, and have invested a great deal of effort into my career. I’m great at time management; I was good at it before I had children and have become ruthless about time management in the same way many parents are. 

Also, I love my kid more than my work, and want and need to be there for him, and if it ever is really a choice between him and a work appointment it’s an easy decision. (His mom and I share custody, he switches back and forth between us, so every other week, this is the kind of decision that might realistically arise as we can’t quite as fluidly cover for one another. But mostly, it’s a false choice.)

Now that’s not a particularly unique situation, but it is mine, so I think about it a lot. Especially more recently, because…

a) …it’s the fall, and hence it’s cold and flu season and there have been more sick days than usual where I have to balance my kid’s needs with those of my clients, and ideally my own. Luckily, he’s old enough now to spend some time keeping himself busy with the help of some audio book or toys, and my clients have been amazing about the occasional interruption when he couldn’t be in day care, or even me bringing him along to the occasional meeting. It’s not optimal, but it works, more or less. It’s just occasionally a little extra stress because it requires a lot of additional coordination and mental load.

b)…someone pointed me to a job listing for a temporary leadership role that sounded like a potentially great fit. I decided to express my interest; it’s not yet clear to what result. But I’ve been wondering how to explain this situation in those upcoming conversations, if this is something that the board would understand: That I’d like to take over that leadership role for some time despite balancing work with caring for a kid. It’s an age old question that I know especially many women I know have been struggling with as well; as a guy I usually look into surprised faces, unless the folks hiring have first hand experience with that kind of situation. I can imagine a way to make this work, and that it would be a great experience.

But in the end, I don’t know if it works in every case – I just know that it’s the type of thing you need to bring up early on in a conversation because of course it’s legit for an organization not to take this risk – this road that isn’t the default, that might require more work, invest a little more mental bandwidth upfront to set things up in a way that works well. To not just brute force it through long days and lots of travel in the grand ol’ tradition of leaders anywhere.

Growing up, my dad was pretty much a workaholic. He was successful in his career and worked long hours and would often interrupt family vacations for work. My mom took care of us kids even after she started working again. It was very traditional in that sense, even though to this day I don’t think it was particularly intentional: Not an expression of values, rather a manifestation of career opportunities that fell into very traditional tracks. But I digress — for purposes of this post let’s just say that my mental model of leadership was pretty much the old school model of white-knuckling it through demanding phases by adding more hours at the end of the day. It’s not how I think today.

I believe there’s a better way, that it’s possible to create structures that work well, that allow leadership to not run themselves and their teams ragged; that between good time management and strong defaults towards remote meetings and cutting down international travel it’s entirely possible to build a whole team around 4 day work weeks or other flexible models. In fact I believe this is more sustainable, and there’s more and more data coming in that productivity can be the same or higher, while sick days and frustration go way down. 

Just recently I talked to the head of a fantastic non-profit where they live a 4 day work week with good results and I found it truly inspiring to see how they are making it work.

That old school style of leadership by throwing more hours at it? That isn’t the path I’m willing to go any longer. I’ve done the too many flights, the long hours, the multiple evenings a week after-work events, the burnout. Been there, done that, what’s next? I imagine building a team with long-term sustainability in mind. With the necessary care culture built in. Shorter days, more flexibility, less travel: I imagine this will lead to higher retention rates and better productivity, and to better team cohesion. I know it’ll mean a marked quality of life improvement, and reduce the carbon footprint of the organization as a nice side effect. I truly believe it leads to better results, too.

So no matter what might happen with example of that particular role I mentioned, that’s the direction I’m leaning in.

Anyway, I have no wisdom to dispense on this. Just a direction of travel and lots of curiosity. If you have any thoughts or experience with any of this, I’d love to hear about it! What worked, what didn’t, how did you navigate it?

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