Advancing women: how business skills can help us manage the tension between work & home. By Christie Hunter Arscott (Bermuda & Keble/Lincoln 2007)

The Juxtaposition of Work & Home – Is it Hurting us or Helping us?

The recent release of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business has filled headlines with topics related to work, family, women and men. Bloomberg speculates that Slaughter’s book may “upend Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In as the reigning work-life balance manual”. Already an Amazon number one best seller, the book and its popularity highlight our ongoing public fascination with the discussion of work and home. Neither the topics nor the attention they receive are new. Debates and advice columns on work-life challenges have remained in the forefront of research and media headlines since the 1960s. A recent Forbes article highlighted that the phrase ‘work-life balance’ is Googled an average of 50,000 times per month.  

When it comes to advice on how to effectively seek out this illusive concept of balance, many articles focus on how we can better separate the two spheres of our lives. Another recent article, in the Globe & Mail, focused on “thirteen tips for separating your personal and professional life”. Similarly, New York Times best selling author, Dr. Martha Beck, advised women to “build a barrier between the way you make your living and the way you live”.

In contrast to the focus on separating ‘work’ and ‘life’, I believe that the division between our professional and personal realms may be hurting us more than it is helping us. What if a critical component to advancing women is contrary to popular advice? What if we need to break down the barriers between the ways in which we ‘make a living’ and the ways in which we ‘live’?

The Story of Two Worlds

Throughout my academic and professional career, I have had the privilege of working with and researching hundreds of women. I have gained this exposure as a Rhodes Scholar at The University of Oxford, in my Diversity & Inclusion role with Deloitte Consulting, and more recently in my independent practice as a strategic advisor focusing on advancing the next generation of women leaders. As I aggregate years of research and first-hand experience, I have uncovered a concerning trend: there are glaring differences in the skill sets that women use to manage their professional arenas and their personal lives.

One frequently reoccurring example is ‘dating’. I have seen many driven women proactively pursue the research topics, business ideas, publications, awards and careers of their dreams. In contrast, I have observed these same women passively wait for a man to approach them at a bar or call them first rather than pursuing what they desire with the same energy and confidence that colours the professional area of their lives. Even with the emergence of online dating, the same fervour that was the foundation of their academic and career success was noticeably absent in their personal lives. Why were we proactively pursuing the career of our dreams yet acting as passive objects in our personal pursuit of companionship?

At the time I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. The issues at hand were far deeper and more widespread than dating alone. I have observed many high-flying women acquire capabilities, tools and frameworks to excel in their careers yet not apply these to the effective management of many different aspects of their personal lives.

Why don’t we readily apply skill sets acquired in one realm to others?

The Solution: Using Professional Skills to Enhance the Personal Realm

Our lives do not need to exist in divided silos of professional and personal. Women who effectively apply skills across realms realize the synergies across two areas of life that are often put in juxtaposition. Career and personal lives suddenly feel less in conflict and more complimentary. More importantly, these women express being less overwhelmed and more fulfilled. Gains in one realm do not necessarily equate to losses in the other. Instead, the skill sets and capabilities acquired in one can be advantageous to the other.

The good news: If the skills needed for career advancement are also the skills required for a fulfilling personal life, we can all achieve two-way wins by using our capabilities across realms.

Time to Talk About Transferable Skills

Transferable skill sets are often spoken of in today’s marketplace in relation to job mobility. We now have the opportunity to identify transferable skills in relation to our professional and personal realms.

How can we apply our professional skill sets in the management of our personal lives?

Here are a few examples of how to put this into practice:

1. Define Objectives & Create a Plan to Achieve Them

At one time or another, most of us have fallen into the trap between aspiration and execution. We want to prioritize an area of our life but fail to execute on it. One professionally strong, driven and action-orientated woman told me she was ready to settle down and find a partner but had not gone on a date in 6 months. I would not have seen that same woman articulate a desire to get fit but then not workout for 6 months. I would not have seen that same woman want a career promotion but then not show up for work. While she managed her career in a goal-orientated way, her personal life was falling behind.

By contrast, while working with Deloitte, I was deeply inspired by a self-proclaimed introverted bookworm with a desire to find a companion. As any Consultant would do on a client project, she defined an objective and made a plan to execute. She shared her detailed PowerPoint plan with our extended team – it included a roadmap with key milestones and objectives for each week. From going on two dates per week, to hiring a photographer for professional photos for dating websites, to buying an outfit for her shoot, to improving her online profile, to joining new interest-based groups – each activity was clearly mapped out and timed. By sharing her implementation plan with the group, she built accountability for her actions. She executed on her personal priorities using the skill sets she used to manage her work and client engagements.

We can learn from her action steps: Define a personal objective. Make an action plan. Build accountability for executing on the plan.

2. Understand Expectations

The success of organizations hinges largely upon their understanding of the needs of their primary stakeholders both internally and externally. Leaders seek to understand these expectations in a structured way, such as stakeholder assessments, customer needs assessments and talent surveys. Despite the fact that understanding expectations is core to success in the professional sphere, many of us don’t apply these skill sets to our personal lives.

In her book ‘Take the Lead’, Betsy Myers speaks about clearly communicating expectations as a core component of leadership in all realms: “Clarity is just as important in personal relationships as it is in business. It is easy to make assumptions about other people’s expectations, about what matters to them or what makes them feel appreciated – but again, assumptions can often be wrong. The only reliable way to gain that clarity is to ask.”

So how do we go about doing this? Stew Friedman, author of ‘Total Leadership’, suggests that we engage in stakeholder dialogues to verify existing expectations, to change existing expectations (where appropriate) and to explore how expectations might be met in new ways. Create a list of your primary stakeholders, your inner circle of relationships, including friends and family. Set up time for a structured dialogue with each of them, focusing on what you believe they desire from you, what they actually desire from you, and what you desire from them. According to Friedman the goal is to verify and, if necessary, correct your perceptions of expectations. If you are generating stress and conflict in your life by trying to have dinner with your partner or children every evening, when really what is important to them is quality time on the weekend (when you are less likely to be multi-tasking and exhausted), then you can tweak your approach. A stakeholder assessment both at work and at home allows us to understand expectations and effectively manage to those expectations by investing in the activities that mean the most and generate the most value for our stakeholders. We invest our time for maximum impact and maximum return, rather than investing in things that do not matter to the people we care about.

3. Negotiate

The vast majority of women that I have seen struggling with work and life conflicts want to think through how they can negotiate for a better arrangement at work – reduced workload or hours, more flexibility, virtual work …etc However, one part of the equation that is often missing is how they can better negotiate their role outside of work. With women still shouldering the majority of caregiving and housework, the probability that we will feel conflict between our professional and personal lives is high. Why only address one side of the equation? Why not put our negotiation techniques to work in our homes - to have in-depth discussions around roles, division of responsibilities, and time allocation?

In our recent ICEDR research on millennial women, Lauren Noel and I highlighted a program at BlackRock titled ‘Art of the Ask’. Many of their action steps are applicable to the asks that an individual wants to make, whether it be within the work environment or outside of it: Focus on developing your ask plan; Discuss your ask with a trusted advisor or friend to get feedback; Hone in on how to craft a persuasive message, as how you communicate your ask is equally important as the ask itself. Having a deep understanding of the expectations and desires of the stakeholder you are negotiating with – parent, child, partner or other – will lay the foundation for effective communication and exploration of areas of shared interest and how you can better manage your time and energy within the personal realm.  Women who have gone through the ‘Art of the Ask’ program have reported increased effectiveness of their asks at BlackRock and according to BlackRock leadership, “they are also advocating for themselves at home”.

The Way Forward

There is no shortage of research showing that personally fulfilled individuals are more likely to create meaningful impact within their organizations and communities.

As we seek to further advance women in the professional realm, let us encourage one another to explore how the skill sets we are acquiring in our careers can be applied in our personal lives. Time to stop separating how we ‘make a living’ and how we ‘live’. Time to break down the silos, realize the synergies across areas of our lives and reap the benefits of two-way wins. It is time to consider what professional skill sets we can apply to our personal lives.

Christie Hunter Arscott is an internationally recognized gender and generations strategist, specializing in advancement strategies for women leaders. Her clients include Fortune 100 companies, Big 4 professional services firms, national government entities, leading talent research bodies and Ivy League institutions across North America, South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Christie’s research and writing have been featured by the World Economic Forum, London Business School Review, Huffington Post, Forbes, Diversity Executive, Director Magazine, Thinkers50, Bersin by Deloitte, and the International Consortium for Executive Development Research (ICEDR). Christie is a Rhodes Scholar and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. Join the conversation at @CHunterArscott and