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Startup Parenthood: Exercising Flexibility Requires Modeling


(image courtesy

Over the past 3 months, I’ve attempted to impress upon you that the key to #StartupParenthood is workplace flexibility.  We talked about what flexibility at work looks like, how hard it is to measure, and even shared a few of my own foibles.  So if we take it as a given that the key to any productive mix of the intensity of startups and parenthood is having flexibility, then it’s incumbent upon us to dig into what that really means about company culture.  What principles drive the culture that offers flexibility?  How do founders and execs make that part of the fabric of the every day?  We’ll be tackling those questions this quarter.

Remember back in February when we did a survey at RJMetrics on flexibility and we asked the team about where we had a lack of flexibility?  The responses to this particular question were telling.  There was a non-trivial number of respondents who responded with the following:  while RJ has an unlimited time off policy, it can be hard to take time off without either feeling like you need to stay plugged in (because we’re a growing, busy startup) or feeling guilty that your teammates, who are already working hard, need to take up your work.  Some even suggested making the time off policy more concrete and defined in order to deal with this scenario.  This was concerning enough to the management team that we put in some subtle measures to help facilitate the taking of appropriate vacations.

(Side note here:  my own Customer Success team, or rather the two Directors on the team, decided that we were so in need of some more concrete definition, that they came up with some rather gnarly looking flowcharts to engender consistency while maintaining flexibility.  So far, no one has balked at this increased definition of the policy – that I know of.)

But these responses got me thinking…I have to admit, my initial reaction was “Really?”  I do hear about how in this connected world, people are generally having trouble disengaging from connectivity, whether for work or for personal purposes.  And, in start-ups specifically, there is often a feeling that something might happen any minute that could make or break the hockey stick growth of the business (yawn), so you have to be “available” all the time.  I have heard all of that.  What I found surprising is that RJ’s unlimited time off policy in and of itself might be causing lack of flexibility. What?!

As I thought about it some more, and tried to understand what this is about, it hit me:  there is real power in being able to exercise flexibility.  This shouldn’t have been news to me; I’m an avid student of constitutional law, especially as it relates to civil liberties, and I know that there is power in being to exercise rights.  What’s on paper is one thing; being able to actually leverage those rights is an entirely different thing.

Around the same time, I heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the Danger of a Single Story (while I was living the #StartupParenthood life of integrating exercise into my day at 4:30 am on the elliptical machine).  She talks about how much power there was being exercised upon her mind when the only children’s books she read as a young girl in Nigeria were stories written by white Western authors, and how much that influenced her perception of the world and its possibilities.   The danger of a single story, or a single view of the world, is that it can make it seem like that is the only world that exists.

I wrapped all of this up into a single line of thinking:  there are a handful among us that can dream the imaginable.  There is a single Barack Obama who can imagine being a black American President when there has never been one.  There is a single Ben Franklin that can imagine everything he created, despite never having seen those things before.  For the vast majority of the rest of us, we need to see things in order to know they are possible.  We need to see them modeled.  Now that Obama has been President, there are thousands of black boys who can imagine being President someday.  If Hillary Clinton wins, the same will go for lots of young girls.  And so on.  These few trailblazers create a world of possibilities for the rest of us by showing us a variety of stories, not just the single story we’ve heard before.  But we need to see those stories manifested in our every day in order to truly cement the possibility for ourselves.  Otherwise, it’s too easy to distance ourselves from the possibilities and opportunities;  it becomes too easy to think that whatever change is desired is only possible for some “others”.

I count myself not amongst the trailblazers – I pretty much only do things that I have seen inklings of in the past.  I need things to be made relatively tangible to believe they can happen.  But I do recognize my responsibility to carry forward the trail blazed by others.  To manifest the possibilities.  People look at me and think I have achieved something, and they want to know how I have done that.  Whether I like it or not, I am a role model.

So what does that mean for the company culture I influence?  I view it as my #1 cultural priority to be a useful role model.  What’s useful?  It’s many things – but two things are relevant for this series:  1)  How to exercise their flexibility (especially when it comes to parenthood) and 2) How I live my #StartupParenthood life.  The first is obviously connected to the responses we got on the survey, but the second is a bit different.  At this company, there are just a small number of parents.  In fact, I’m certainly in the top 5 oldest people that work here.  What I recognize is what we DO have:  we have parents-to-be, and we have managers-to-be of parents-to-be – whether it be here at RJ, or at some point in their lives, many if not all of these team members will either be parents or manage/report to people who are parents.  If they haven’t seen what that world looks like, if it hasn’t been made tangible to them, they will be lost, close-minded, and thwarted.

Here are some ways I do that:

  • When my child was 1, I would walk her the 10 blocks from home to day care, often singing at the top of my lungs to keep her calm and to teach her a variety of things.  I am a terrible singer and here I was singing at the top of my lungs through the busy rush hour Center City Philadelphia blocks.  That EXHAUSTED me by the time I rolled into the office sometimes – and I often felt like I had nothing else to give.  Yet I made damn sure to share my morning routine and resultant exhaustion with team members.  Why?  Not because I think I’m great, my kid’s great, or whatever – but because I wanted them to know that someday, when they (or someone they manage or report to) come in exhausted from pulling every resource in their body together to get their kid relatively happily to daycare and come into the office, they are not alone.  This happens, and this passes.
  • During the holidays, I felt like I had just come off a period of not wanting to spend a lot of time with my child, and I wanted her to have some good memories of the holidays, and its specialness.  So, I worked from home for about a week or 10 days, working at off times (her naps, before/after she went to sleep), so that I could spend her waking hours doing holiday-y, mom-y stuff (lord knows I hate crafts but I LOVE baking).
  • When I was going through the ridiculous high-class problem of preschool applications and admissions, I shared all of it with my diagonally seated co-worker, who also happened to be the youngest person at the company at the time.  Why?  Not because I thought he gave two sh*ts about it – but I saw him as someone who is going somewhere in life, and I knew that he would be working with others who would be dealing with the same city school challenges as I am – at some point in his life.  And I wanted him to know the preschool craziness is real.  (And the funny part – weeks later, when it was time to get the phone calls about admissions decisions, this same person asked me out of the blue whether the kid got in.  I was surprised he remembered…and heartened…that was actually my point…to have him remember.)
  • I don’t apologize (explicitly or implicitly) when my kid is sick or real stuff comes up in life.  There is absolutely nothing I can do about recurring ear infections, stomach infections, school half-days, and the like.  I manage the best I can through it and trust it will all work out.
  • Almost every day, I have some tidbit about raising a city kid, being a professional working wife and mother in high tech, and so on, that I share with someone at the office.  It may even be explicitly responding with support when a team member says they have a family or personal thing they have to take care of.  I hope they aren’t sick of me, but I do believe these daily bits of making flexibility real, of making #StartupParenthood real, add up to a culture of empowerment and opportunity.

I am not blind to the idea that exercising flexibility can be a real struggle to feel allowed to do.  And sometimes power comes not just through it being granted in an employee handbook, but also by earning it through a track record of hard work and success.  I think what I want my teammates to know is that when they are working hard and delivering on measurable results, they DO have the power to exercise flexibility.  I hope that is what they see through my modeling.

I am hopeful I am being a useful role model.  One of my fondest and proudest moments was when a male co-worker said to me “you seem like you manage well many different things – work, family, professional engagements, etc. – and I’d like to understand more about how you balance all of that, because me and my wife will plan to have kids in the not too distant future as well and I’d like to manage it well too”.

I’m heartened.


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