“Marius Kloppers takes top BHP Billiton role while his wife is six months’ pregnant.”
It’s not a real headline, and it would be strange if it was, wouldn’t it? The world accepts that male leaders will be unaffected by fatherhood, that they will cope with sleepless nights, remain competitive, ambitious and focused.
But the pregnancy of newly-appointed Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, is creating world headlines. Rightly so. She is the first woman to break through this barrier and be appointed the CEO of a Fortune 500 company while pregnant.
Australia’s Carolyn Creswell knows something of how Mayer feels.
Creswell, owner and CEO of Carman’s Fine Foods, a highly-successful muesli and snack company, is one of the nation’s richest women under 40.
She has four children, and worked through her pregnancy and her “maternity leave” with each.
Creswell told LeadingCompany today: “Anyone who owns their company has to work through their maternity leave. You might not be in the office, but you are taking calls and dealing with decisions. It’s totally normal; nothing much.”
Creswell had her first child 10 years after she bought her business. “When I was 29, about 10 years into the business and planning to have a baby, I still didn’t have any employees. I would happily work long hours and weekends. So I got my first office employee.”
Having kids taught Creswell a leadership lesson. “Since I’ve had kids, the business has boomed. Before, I was a bit of a control freak. No one could do it as well as I could.
“Nothing in the world prepares you for that first child. It sort of shook my confidence. I thought ‘Oh my God. I am out of control.’ It took a while to get adjusted. Then I could say, ‘I need to delegate more’.”
Janine Allis, co-founder of the juice bar chain, Boost Juice, already had three children when she started her highly successful company. “I’ve always worked with children,” she says. “Oliver, my number two, was six weeks old when I started as a publicist for Triple M [radio]. When we started Boost Juice, child number three was seven months old.”
Creswell admits that her working life changed after having children. “Having kids doesn’t work on a schedule. At work you can say, “Look, we’re going to do that at this time”. At home you can’t.
These days, we’ve got a calm, peaceful family environment, considering how young they all are. We learned. You need to be quite firm on the boundaries and pick the important fights. The colour of the shoes probably isn’t the fight to have, but getting them into bed at a reasonable time is the right fight.”
The most pertinent question regarding Mayer’s appointment is probably whether her husband, Zach Bogue, will quit work, or at least scale down. Bogue is the managing partner of Founders Den, and a serial entrepreneur.
Allis says: “In the early years of Boost, my husband was working seven days a week, I was working seven days a week. It was out of control. I was the parent people hung out with to make them feel good about their parenting: ‘At least I’m not as bad as Janine …’ I’ve found my life falls out of control if both my husband and I are full-on.”
In the early years, she turned to her mother for help. “I’m in a special situation because I have – people call her St Joan – my mother. She is amazing. She’s always helped me look after the children while I’ve worked. In the first two years of Boost, I was working from home, with my mum there to give me back up, still able to breastfeed and do the things they need when they’re little.”
Allis’ husband, Jeff, took a year off five years into the growth of Boost Juice.
Similarly, Creswell’s husband, Pete, stopped working altogether. “There was a point where we said, ‘We both can’t do this’,” she says. “There’s a bit of angst around that … people have an issue about husbands who don’t work. My mother says, ‘But what about his self-worth?’ I say: ‘Have you ever seen a happier person?’”
The couple also employ a nanny. “We have a full-time person at home. People say, ‘So the nanny has raised your kids.’ No, it’s not that. We have raised them.”
Creswell says the expectations about what constitutes the “perfect family” have to change. “I think we need to loosen that. It’s okay to have different people coming into your family unit. It’s okay that the wife is earning the money and the husband’s a stay-at-home dad,” she says.
Allis is pleased her children are close to their father: “Going back to the ’50s upbringing … I had no relationship with my father. Zip. My father is a lovely man, but I have no relationship with him at all. How great that my kids and your kids have an amazing relationship with their fathers …”
Society exerts constant pressure on men and women to stay within the traditional roles. Creswell says: “I was at a lunch next to a lawyer whose daughter is in the same class as mine at kinder. She said, ‘I get so annoyed because the Father’s Day’s kinder concert is at 6pm and Mother’s Day one is at 2pm.’ She couldn’t get to it. She was trying desperately, missed it, and cried the whole way to pick up her daughter. She was devastated.
Creswell pointed the inconsistency of educating women, encouraging them to go to university and then having Mother’s Day functions at 2pm. “At what point can a mother who works come to a 2pm thing?”
Both women acknowledge the role of money in managing leadership and parenthood. There was a stage in each woman’s life where there wasn’t enough money to bring in a nanny or for their husbands to stop working.
Says Allis: “Right now in my life, I’m in a lovely little sweet spot. But wind back the clock five or six years when the cash flow wasn’t coming in, my husband had to work, and we didn’t have the luxury of money.
“Samuel was in before care and after care. He’d get home and I was a bit stressed. I didn’t have the tolerance I probably should have had. Jeff came home. He felt the same thing. You’re doing your best at the time, but you don’t have the cash flow to say: ‘Let’s have a nanny’.
“Certainly the early times were very stressful. I worked every single working hour I could. I remember reading books to the kids, but still thinking … ‘Now that negotiation tomorrow …’ you know. Even with the support of my mum, it was tough.”
“When people ask, ‘Can I have a life balance?’,” says Allis, “I think, ‘Well, you can, but it’s in chunks.’”
She compares the achievements of leadership with those of athletes. “That first five years were insane. But if you were a rower or a runner and wanted to go to the Olympics, you would have to sacrifice. You can’t go out with your mates. You have to spend every waking hour to achieve your goal. It’s the same with us. For us to be successful, we have to give our souls. Particularly for the first five years, but still beyond that. And I think when you give your souls, something has to give.”
Creswell wonders if the question is really about balancing leadership and children. “I think sometimes people are not asking, “Can I have it all?” they are asking “Can I still go out and party until 4am? Before you have kids, you think, ‘I want to have my old life and have kids too.’ Once you have kids, for me, I have no desire for that life. I am happy to just hang out on the weekend with my kids.
“Can you be a working mum? Yep. Be a career person and a good parent? Absolutely.
“Still, I felt at times like I was about 80% in each role. Maybe other times, I was 40%. You’re just not quite living up to the mark on both sides of the fence. Both family life and work life.”
Allis suffers the same sense of falling short. “That was definitely the case for me. In fact, probably Boost got more. You sort of feel like you’re not good at anything. You had to get through so much stuff, you ended up doing 70% of everything.
“But 70% ended up being enough.”
What to jettison
- Ditch guilt about getting in help.
- Outsource housework tasks and keep parenting tasks, like the bedtime book.
- Don’t be embarrassed to say, ‘I need to be there for sports day.’ It legitimises the importance of parenting for those around you.
- Cut down or cut out meetings; they waste too much time and energy.
- Surround yourself with quality people.
- Leave when you need to pick up the kids by powering through the work.
- Don’t expect to “have it all”, all the time.
- Drop your standards about how clean the house is.
What to add
- Ask your husband or partner about becoming a full-time parent.
- Change your expectations of “the perfect family”
- Learn to say no.
- Have some tricks: Creswell’s is a special day each year that her kids take off from school and join her in a special activity.
- Go away for true downtime.