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Kyra Cavanaugh's picture

Excerpted from full piece at The Huffington Post

Anne-Marie Slaughter's article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" published in The Atlantic has struck a collective nerve, breaking readership records on the magazine's website and generating all manner of buzz.

I admire her courage to speak out on the subject, given that she was once director of policy planning at the State Department. And I appreciate her acknowledgement that high-achieving women in places of power in our country have been complicit in contributing to the prevailing sentiment that women who don't have it all must not want it all.

But, the reason she's hit a collective nerve is because she's tapped into the employee side of the inequitable work-life balance. Readers everywhere identify with her struggle to have it all and are happy that a high-powered woman has admitted it's hard to manage career and family.

What's missing is the collective gasp from employers. Because I suspect CEOs, CHROs and others in a position to enable work-life effectiveness for their employees will be quick to brush her off as one more woman who couldn't (or chose not to) make it work.

How To Make It Work

For nearly 20 years the work-life field made a mistake in thinking about how to solve this problem. They believed, as I once did, that if they could make the business case for flex, they would convince companies to do what was in their own best interest--implement flexible work programs to improve their bottom-line results while improving the lives of their employees.

And while some organizations did exactly that (check out the Fortune 100 Best and Working Mother for starters), most of corporate America did nothing. Why? Not because they're mean or nasty or don't care about their employees, but because they didn't see how they could make it work for them.

How could flex possibly work in a company, government institution, or non-profit like theirs where face time was critical, where your only path up was achieved through sweat equity and being the company man? How would flex work for employees and companies that required onsite work like manufacturing, hospitality, or health care?

The old guard wasn't convinced, and if it wasn't broke they weren't fixing it.

The numbers weren't enough. And for those organizations who did try, they put a policy in place that most managers didn't know how to apply to their teams, and that most employees were too scared to ask about. Instead of investing in changing the culture of their organizations to reap the benefits of flexible work, they implemented turnkey work-life programs that would convey their commitment to mothers and dads in a different way. Who could turn down in-house massage therapists and yoga classes? Back-up daycare, onsite dry cleaning, free lunches and pool tables? These were all easy to install and market.

But checking the box and winning awards isn't enough. And that's where we are today.

Innovating Culture

Just as this new economy is calling on innovation in education, energy, manufacturing and other areas, organizations must innovate their culture.

Yeah, right. That's easy. Ask any CEO today if they're ready to change their culture and you're not going to get many takers. CEOs have said to me, "We know we need to do something, but we don't know what it is."

What it is -- the secret sauce to innovating company culture -- is actually easy. It's a step-by-step process that takes time. It's not another program or million dollar investment in the latest fill-in-the-blank.

It's about honest conversation. That's the key. It requires people in leadership to model the conversation, to ask questions, to declare that they don't have all the answers, and to open themselves up to listening.

To ensure that women (and men) CAN have it all, organizations have to:

  1. Innovate your work culture, the way you do your products, processes and technology. You'll reap big gains in employee engagement, productivity and profitability. You'll be able to hire the best talent and outperform your competitors. For many, it's easy to see how to get these returns from investing in product innovation, but innovations in workforce strategies have been proven to drive bottom-line results.
  2. Challenge the rules about how, where and when work can get done. Redesign your work processes, collaboration tools, and systems to enable anytime, anywhere work. Engage employees to rethink these processes, even in jobs that require onsite presence.
  3. Manage by performance not face time. Measure contributions by results achieved, not time spent. Invest in productivity, not through overworking employees but by unleashing their creativity and drive by enabling them to work when, where and how they are most productive.
  4. Take a team-based approach to goal setting. Too many organizations cascade company goals to individual goals which encourages an "every man for himself" mentality. When you make the team accountable to each other, every member of the team can work together to determine what is in the best interest of the team.
  5. Build trust and transparency into every system in your organization. Share financial results, engage cross-functional teams in anticipating threats and opportunities. Require authentic conversation and build it into your workplace strategies, from goal setting to team building, employee relations to management and communication strategies.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but when we can be real people in real organizations where transparency and individual truths are encouraged, that's when we'll all succeed.

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