Leading at work … and at home: Female execs explain how they (try to) manage both

Monica Smith said one thing happens — like clockwork — at her company every day.

“At 3 o’clock at Marketsmith, the phone starts ringing,” she said.

“(Everyone’s kids) are home and they’re starting to ask: ‘Can they do this,’ ‘Can they go there,’ there’s a car pool that’s gotten missed.

“Would I love to be able not to pick up that phone and just focus on what I’m doing? Yes. But, guess what? If I don’t pick up the phone, I’m wondering what just happened to it. That’s just the reality of it.”

Smith, the founder and CEO of one of the fastest-growing women-owned digital marketing companies in the country, was speaking on a panel, “Lessons in Leadership,” at the annual Metro Women’s Leadership Summit on Friday at the Newark Airport Marriott.

She was joined by Courtney McCormick, vice president – renewables and energy solutions at Public Service Enterprise Group, and Patricia Campos-Medina, the co-director of The Worker Institute @ Cornell University.

The topic quickly turned to leading in times when the workforce — especially women — is trying to balance and manage the demands of professional and personal lives.

Smith said she has learned to adapt her leadership style to the times.

“What I find in leading women today is that I not only have to be highly focused on my business and my clients’ business, but I also have to recognize that we have a workforce that is 50 percent women, and they are caretakers,” she said. “What I see over and over again is the difficulty women have in balancing their caretaking for their aging parent, their children, their teenagers.

“From a business perspective, women are feeling the brunt of what’s happening with their children being more connected, them having to work more, their parents aging — and it’s tough. As a leader now, I’m finding I have to be much more agile than I’ve ever had to be before, and empathetic, and, also, pull that empathy back and say that’s not really my lane right now because I, myself, find myself in that same position.”

All three agreed balancing the needs of their home life is key to succeeding in their work life. And that, often, the most difficult thing to do is finding the right balance with their spouse.

“The best choice you can ever make is who is your partner,” Campos-Medina said. “The expectations have to be set out at the beginning and then they have to be managed.”

McCormick said she doesn’t have all the answers, but feels she has a strong relationship with her husband.

If you’re going to succeed or go to those highest levels, you do want somebody to be a real partner, she said.

“I’m fortunate, because my husband is there along side of me,” she said. “But it’s not perfect. I always say, ‘We don’t fight over money, we fight over time.’”

She told a story of how she had an impromptu night of tennis.

It was something she needed to do as a stress relief to clear her head. And while she knew it made it tougher on her husband for a night, she said it was an example of how women sometimes need to put themselves — and their health — first.

“Sometimes, you just have to do it,” she said.

Having concern about your physical health needs to be paramount for women, the panelists said.

And they said it’s something women leaders often neglect.

“One of the keys to effective leadership is how you manage your relationships in your personal and professional life,” Campos-Medina said. “If you let them come out of balance, you’re not the best person you can be, and it will reflect on your health.”

Smith presented an even direr warning.

“What I don’t see people talking about is this: I see a little of women in power and own(ing) businesses over 50 really struggling, because they have burned out and they are not physically in great shape and they’re tired — and they still have a whole bunch on their plate,” she said.

It’s the reason she is trying to be more flexible at Marketsmith Inc.

“Sometimes, at Marketsmith, you will see kids skateboarding in the hallways, and they may not be my kids all the time, because women don’t have all the solutions and they need to get to work,” she said.

“We say, if you want to bring your dog, bring your kids, if you have to leave to take care of your parents, do that. Because, when I need you at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, I’m going to need you. You can’t have it one way.”

It’s a philosophy, Smith said, that she brings to her own marriage.

“People say ‘How do you do it all?’ and I always say, ‘It’s best to have a wife,’” she said. “I have a partner; we’ve been together for 23 years. We’ve started or launched six companies and we have six children and we have two nonprofits and we have nannies and all those other things, but we did from the very beginning say, ‘This is what we’ve chosen,’ and we’re partners on every level.”

Smith said leaders need to recognize things have changed.

“Don’t have set rules,” she said. “What was good 10 years ago is not good now.

“Everybody is different. Every business is different. And business just continues to change. Marriages change, businesses change, individuals change.

“The idea is about having enough agility to say, ‘This role that we’re in has to change,’” she said. “Or, ‘I think I see a change coming’ — and be in front of it a little bit, so it’s a natural progression. Rather than just saying, ‘You’re the guy and I’m the gal, and this is the way it’s supposed to go.’”

The payoff, Smith said, is huge.

“I have to spend time with the children — and it’s not have to, it’s want to,” she said. “And she has to spend more time in the business world in the management of the nonprofits and she has to find that time. It’s never easy. It’s usually very fun, but it’s very exhausting.

“What I tell people is, ‘Our life is now.’ I don’t want to bucket list anything. When I go to bed tonight, I want to lay my head on the pillow and say, ‘I have lived my life completely and fully.’

“That’s not to say that I’m not looking forward to tomorrow. I’m not waiting. I wanted to do it all and we do it.”