Everyone has them – the golden tips they pass on to friends and colleagues – and I mean everyone for it’s not just parents. Everyone is juggling something and we can all learn from each other. I’m betting as you read you’re already thinking about yours.
I probably get asked to share mine more than most. Both by individuals and as a subject for speaking engagements. But as a working parent setting up their own business, it’s also very personal.
Half term has pushed it to the front of my mind again - as I’m sure you’ll relate to if you have (or have had) school age children. This got me thinking about triggers. Because it’s not just school holidays that create new challenges (as well as opportunities). If you have pre-schoolers, childcare breakdown is a biggie. I still remember vividly the week ours broke down the same week I was presenting to the Exec at Sky. PANIC. I handle these situations much better these days, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel the same emotion in the moment. The trick is recognising this and having a plan to deal with it so that the emotion is quickly replaced by action. Or better still stopping the situation arising in the first place.
So how do you do that? What are my best tips?
1. Know your triggers - for starters you need to recognise your own triggers. And they can come in all shapes and sizes from the everyday challenges of pick up and drop off to the bigger ones like a childcare breakdown. Think about when you’ve had those panic moments. What triggered them? For me this was about more than a childcare breakdown, it was about the thought of not being able to deliver on a specific commitment. What are the flash points for you? And what are the physical and emotional reactions you have in those moments? Learning to recognise them is half the battle.
2. Have a Plan B - once you know the triggers you need a plan for how to deal with them. For each trigger you’ve identified think about what you could do to relieve the pressure. There are some simple things you can do that can make a big difference (see below) but the main point here is you’ll feel prepared. In control. And that will make the biggest difference of all.
3. Plan for a childcare breakdown – there is a stat banded around that this happens on average 8/9 times a year for every family. But regardless of the number and how good your set up is, if you have childcare (or eldercare come to that) it WILL breakdown at some point. And I include your child being sick and unable to go to school in this definition. So better to be prepared for that. Are there any family or friends who you could ask to be on standby to step in and help? Can you agree a plan with your Line Manager in advance? Does your employer have a back-up childcare benefit you could register for? And failing all that, if it’s just down to you, could you work differently? In the example I gave above, a very good friend I consider a mentor helped me realise I didn’t HAVE to be in the office all week, only for the presentation. So, my husband and I switched everything around, took it in turns to work from home a few days (with the help of an emergency nanny until we felt comfortable leaving them together) and got my mum to help the day I needed to be in for the presentation and my husband also had to be in the office.
4. Be clear on your boundaries – and there’s no judgement either way here, you need to work out what’s best for you but DO ask yourself some questions and be honest about the answers. Are you comfortable being on call when you’re out of the office? And if so, how often do you want to check email? How can you best use your out of office? Is drop off or pick up a particular challenge and if so is there anything you can do to take the stress out of your diary? I used to block 30 mins in my diary at the beginning or end of some days and challenge myself – does it really need to be me at meeting? You get the idea…it’s hard but once you define your boundaries – and most importantly stick to them – it can be very liberating.
5. Don’t apologise - be proud and matter of fact. Seriously. It’s easy to feel guilty that you’re in late / leaving early or can’t make that meeting because you don’t work that day. The temptation is to skulk out the office or say, “I’m sorry I can’t make that meeting I don’t work on X”. There is no need. Your colleagues only need to know you’re going / can’t make that time. There are a million reasons you couldn’t make a meeting other than you’re working flexibly. Try it. It’s really empowering and you’ll get respect from your colleagues. And yes, even from some of those who think they’re picking up the slack and don’t see you logging in later.
6. Try not always saying yes – at least straight away. This one’s definitely not just for parents but it’s one I only discovered once I became a parent. This is different to saying no (although I also advocate that in the right circumstances). It’s a way of making sure you don’t automatically say yes and take on more, because you’re under pressure when you’re asked. Buy yourself a moment to reflect. Is it core to your role or would someone else be better placed to do it? And even if you feel on reflection you should say yes, challenge yourself on the timings – when does it really need to be done and what exactly is being asked of you.
7. Done is better than perfect – no-one has enough hours in the day anymore it seems. So all the more important once you have decided to take on a task, to be clear before you start exactly what’s being asked of you and therefore what your options are to deliver it. There’s a temptation (especially for the perfectionists amongst us like me) to go the extra mile – every time. But if you stop for a moment you realise whilst there are times when this absolutely does pay off, these are few and far between. And in fact, by getting the job done (well vs perfectly) you actually buy yourself time to deliver more – either at work or home. And that has to be a good outcome for everyone.
8. Ask yourself “what do you really care about?” – I wanted to finish on this one. I heard it from Sue Unerman, Chief Transformation Officer at MediaCom and a fellow speaker at the Digital Leadership Forum conference. It comes from MediaCom’s “Project Blend”. They ask employees the question, whether they are parents or not. I love it. To me it epitomises flexibility being for everyone. I think it’s also a great way to check yourself on your own priorities. Whether that’s making the school play, doing your share of drop offs or doing a great job on project X (and most likely all of the above and more), if you’re clear on what matters to you, you can build a plan around that – and you’ll be happier for it.
Catherine Oliver is the Founder of the Bluebell Partnership, Founder of Sky's parenting network, Parents@Sky, and Co-Founder of their Women in Leadership initiative. She works with businesses to help them support their working parents and increase the number of women in leadership roles. https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherineoliver/