Channeling Work-Life Challenges to Become an Effective Woman in Leadership

 Author Michelle Walsh, Ed.D., is the Director of English Language Arts and Intervention Services (Literacy and Math) K-5 and MTSS K-12 at West Islip School District.Michelle, who has shoulder-length blonde hair and is wearing a maroon blouse, looks at and smiles for the camera.

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Let’s think about the number of things that many women do before they even walk into work. Morning activities might include feeding the dog, making breakfast, starting the washing machine, folding clothes, making lunches, checking the kid’s calendar, making carpool plans, and so forth. If you’re like me, it can often feel like a full day has occurred even before I sit down at my desk. Sometimes, I get to work feeling confident and ready to take on the world. On other days, I feel like I am tumbling in. 

As a woman in leadership, the work/life balance is a challenge. As someone who is committed to both my family and my career, I strive to do my very best at home and in the office. However, things don’t always come together in the way that I desire.  Sometimes it can be messy and complicated. Our kids might get sick, conflicts may arise, and work doesn’t always get done. 

Although each woman’s circumstances are different, a common thread among us is that the demands of doing it all can take their toll. Women often place others’ needs before their own and the strain of doing so can impact one’s physical or emotional health. For many years, I thought all I needed to do was work harder. However, what I found was that working harder just led me to feel depleted. Lacking confidence, I would strain to do more during hours of the day which ultimately led me to be less present at home for my family or available at work. I think most women can relate to keeping it together at work but then coming home and finding themselves being short with their children. Or how many of us have shed a tear in the ladies’ room or snapped a response at a colleague when the pressure became too much?

Men have traditionally held the reins in the highest leadership positions and women have often looked to men as the models for what a leader should be. I have struggled with this idea. I have worked with and admired many men as leaders and people; however, I have come to realize that my leadership style must embrace who I am as a woman and a person. I have also experienced many who have been very successful by orienting themselves to a strict business-only attitude. However, I believe that as leaders we can excel when we embrace all aspects of our lives. Our strengths come from our experiences. Who we are as parents, mothers, sisters, and friends is essential to who we are as a leader. 

As a leader, we must decide how to lead. Over the years, I have thought about what makes me the leader I am and who I want to be.  Developing guiding principles is a task that I have used to navigate the course of life and work. For me, my core is deeply tied to who I am.

Embrace your core values 

Begin by knowing what is important to you. As a leader, it is important to know what you value professionally and personally. Drawing it out on a map or writing it down can help you visualize who you are as a person and a professional. It can also help you determine areas of strength and weakness and then set goals.  A leader with a sense of identity and purpose can be reassuring to stakeholders who are looking for guidance.

Be present

If you are finding yourself being torn between life and work, decide where to be present. If you need to step away to handle something, do it but when you are back be fully present. When you are distracted, it sends the message to others that you don’t care. I find that it is better to be upfront and excuse yourself if needed. 

Set boundaries to prioritize your time

I keep one calendar for work and home. This allows me to prioritize what is important. I schedule events and try to keep to the schedule. There are days when I schedule a time to work late and then there are days when a baseball game takes priority. I don’t feel guilty about it when it is on the schedule.

Share your experiences with colleagues and peers

I openly talk to others about my family and life. By doing so, I am sharing that family is an essential part of who I am. I don’t share every little detail, but I do reveal the casual ups and downs of my life. As a leader, this sends the message that I am human.  My coffee spills on me in the car. I forgot the lunch bag. I celebrate the triumphs of the soccer game win.

Value the lives and experiences of others

When I am working, I try to always start with a hello and a check-in question. Somehow beginning this way just feels more human. It also allows others to share experiences that may be impacting.  It shows that you care as a leader.

Be kind to yourself and others 

There will be days that will be messy. There will be days when you will not be at your best. There will be lots of mistakes. It isn’t about doing it all, it is about learning and growing. We try our best and then learn from our mistakes. 

As women, we shouldn’t shy away from leadership because we have multiple commitments. Instead, we need to see our experiences as valuable. Together, they develop our knowledge and wisdom, our compassion and empathy, and our organizational skill set. When I look at my daughters, I want them to embrace who they are and to find the leader they can be. I’m still a work in progress but the journey can be as much fun as the destination. You just have to appreciate all the ups and downs along the way!

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