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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

What Work-Life Balance Means to Me: A Q&A with Cathie Black

There’s a lot of talk lately about “having it all.” Or, in other words, how women can and should navigate combine a successful career with a fulfilling personal life—particularly one that includes raising children.

So this week, we sat down with our virtual mentor, media executive Cathie Black, to get her perspective on the topic. Read on for her take on “having it all,” the challenges she’s faced, and the advice she has for every career-minded woman.

In our last conversation, you said that women can have it all, just not at the same time.” What did you mean by that?

I was being a little tongue in cheek, but having a busy, fulfilling job can be handled along with having an equally busy personal life—it's just that it won't be perfect at all times. Life is messy, as are kids, jobs, and schedules.

So, perfection is not the goal; being satisfied that you are achieving your goals is what is important. There will be times, days, periods when it feels like it is falling apart and then—poof!—there is light at the end of the tunnel. A missed meeting, unless it’s an incredibly important meeting, is not the end of the world. Being at a school play or soccer game is important, and setting schedules to accommodate those dates is just as important as a business meeting.

At what points in your career did you find having a balance between your career and your personal life most difficult? How did you navigate parenthood with working?

If you have a family or are planning to have a family, finding the balance between home demands and work demands is one of the great challenges. Particularly when your children are young—but teens actually need just as much attention as when they were little.

There is a phrase used by Hillary Clinton that stems from an African proverb: "It takes a village." And it does! Getting comfortable with others lending you a hand helps not only to give you comfort that your kids are in good hands, but it helps take the stress away. I chose to have live-in help because I had an unpredictable schedule, lots of travel, late hours, and evening entertaining, and I couldn't have someone who had to look at the clock or bus schedule. But no matter what type of babysitter, nanny, or day care choices you make, accepting that you just cannot do it all, single-handedly, is the key.

That helps you get over the hurdle that you are the only one who can provide love. The heart is huge and the amazing thing is that children have some kind of inner compass and they can totally distinguish between a caregiver and their parents.

Over the years, I have had a number of nannies who helped us with our two children, and believe it or not, most stayed for many years. We treated them with respect, as a member of the family, but also realized that for them, it was a job. They knew how valuable they were, and how much I depended on their reliability and skills. It is an always-changing dynamic—for example, the kind of person needed for an infant is quite different than what is needed for an eight-year-old—and that takes time, energy, and openness to get things right.

So, what I am trying to say is that you can have both an exciting career and a family, it is just a careful and changing balancing act. And hopefully, you have a partner that is an equal participant in being your biggest supporter and advocate for your career advancement and who pulls lots of weight at home, too.

What advice do you give to women who are thinking about their own plans when they have children?

Over the last number of years, nearly every woman I meet, with few exceptions, expects to take the full 12 weeks of maternity leave that is standard today. Sometimes they are available for certain business situations, but most are just taking what they deserve and leaving the office to the office. There is a naive sense that maternity leave gives the new mother lots of free time. That is a big “ha!” Frankly, there were days when I hadn't even showered by 5 PM! But I wanted that time to bond and I needed to learn what a baby needed and how to be a mother.

The subject of taking an extended time off is a completely different story. The corporate world is changing so dynamically that if you’re out of the mix for a year or two, you will need a clear plan for re-entry. Some companies or industries will be more accommodating; others will not. So careful thought and planning will be necessary, and you cannot be naive that openings will be easy to find if you’ve been out of the workforce for an extended period of time.

How have work/life balance issues changed over time?

The biggest work/life issues are probably no different than they were five, 10, or 15 years ago. It is a constant juggling act and yes, one that gets easier over time, but it is still hard. Worth it? Yes! But hard. However, I achieved wonderful career success along with having two great kids who have brought greats joy into our lives, as well as a long and happy marriage.