MF 130 : Suzanne Brown on Moving Forward with Greater Work-Life Balance
Suzanne Brown is a former ad executive, TEDx speaker, and creator of the Mompowerment blog. Today, Suzanne will share some great tips on achieving greater work-life balance.
Read Suzanne’s article in Harvard Business Review:
Successes at a glance:
Former ad and marketing executive.
TEDx speaker on the subject of empowering moms with more part-time opportunities, check it out below:
Founder and creator, Mompowerment.
Setback failure or time when things fell apart:
Suzanne was on the fast track with her career. She was putting 60+ hours a week working in advertising and expanding out to other areas to become an integrated communications specialist. However, Suzanne always had a bigger goal in mind. To her, moving up as quickly as possible wasn’t simply an end in itself. Rather, it was the means to a bigger goal: to achieve greater work-life balance. The problem? The greater work-life balance wasn’t waiting for her. As Suzanne recalls, there was a time when she was at the height of her advertising career. She had just been recruited by a large prominent agency in New York and on the surface, everything looked great. But as Suzanne reveals, it was “pure misery.” Suzanne was put on several big projects with international clients, including a particularly difficult one from Brussels. Due to the time difference, Suzanne’s inbox would start her day at 8 am with as she puts it, “scathing emails,” and without any reprieve, Monday thru Friday. Things got so bad that at one point, Suzanne looked in the mirror and said to herself “this isn’t working for me.”
The “aha” moment that sparked a pivot:
In speaking with Suzanne, you get a great sense of who she is right from the start. She begins her story with a lifelong mission statement: to make her journey, her own. And that journey, Moving Forward listeners, has been a long and windy one; full of interesting detours and turns along the way. Going back to her college years, Suzanne studied finance and Spanish. Interestingly, she ended up in advertising since as she puts it, “why not?” Suzanne was in the ad biz in the heart of New York City, working for large agencies on big projects. While Suzanne’s career was on the fast track to success, the demands were the first indicator that this industry was not a haven for work-life balance. While working in that environment, she met some fellow ad execs who were moms but didn’t go home any earlier than anybody else. As Suzanne shares, this field easily demanded 60+ hours a week. At this stage in her life, Suzanne was not yet a mom so she was willing to put in the long hours and make the climb. What’s interesting about this industry is that the career tracks are designed for niching. Suzanne describes that the easiest way to move up in advertising is to stick with it. However, Suzanne didn’t want to follow that route. To her, it didn’t make sense to pick one area when she didn’t know how the others worked. So Suzanne bucked the system by rotating; learning as much as she could about all of the different areas of marketing. Being an integrated communications professional was practically unheard of and many would question why Suzanne would do this instead of just digging deep into advertising. But Suzanne had a long term plan in mind and sticking with advertising wasn’t going to facilitate that. Suzanne also had an innate curiosity to learn as much as she could. It required a lot of hours but she was willing to put in that investment. And what was Suzanne’s plan? To move up quickly and achieve greater work-life balance.
Did the plan pay off? Yes and no. While Suzanne moved rapidly in her career trajectory, the goal of greater work-life balance didn’t pan out. As detailed above, Suzanne was in “pure misery.” She had just transitioned into a huge agency, working with their international clientele and she was bearing the brunt from a very unhappy client in Brussels, even though what the client was unhappy about was completely out of Suzanne’s control. So that brings us back to that moment when Suzanne looked in the mirror and decided it was time for a change. Suzanne spent 6 months at the agency, just enough time to finish the project and left. Notably, by the time she left, she had been the third person to quit. That’s saying something!
Around this time, Suzanne had been encouraged to get an MBA by a former SVP she had worked with on a prior project. Suzanne moved to another agency, doing something completely different: recruiting. How did Suzanne make the transition? She attributes it to networking, having “raised her hand” a few months back to help work on a presentation. The role ended up opening Suzanne to another world; going to college campuses to recruit for MBA programs. Keep in mind, this was before Suzanne had even started her own MBA program! The point was that Suzanne had networked and made the pivots necessary after leaving a situation she was unhappy in. The only problem was that it wasn’t enough work. So Suzanne went to her manager to ask for greater responsibility.
This is where Suzanne’s vision actually paid off. Although working in different sectors didn’t pan out in her vision of greater work-life balance in advertising, it did help open the doors in her new role. Because Suzanne had accumulated so much varied experience as an integrated communications specialist, she was able to roll right into a supervisory position; working on strategy, business management, raising capital, as well as recruiting. Suzanne eventually went back into account management and moved to Chicago.
By this time, Suzanne had prepped for the GMAT and was getting ready to matriculate. The problem was she was back in the same position she was before: working too many hours at the risk of burning out. So while Suzanne was able to make some great transitions, she had not yet achieved the work-life balance that her big why encompasses. Suzanne was working from 9 am – 10 pm, every day, including the weekends. The only “break” she got was leaving the office on Friday at 8 pm to have dinner with a friend. Things got so bad, that it affected her health.
Before she was even accepted to grad school, Suzanne gave notice. For her, this was the point when she knew “enough was enough.” But the sign also came as she was walking out the door as she got accepted to the grad school of choice, The University of Austin at Texas. A new path had opened up for her just as she was literally leaving the old one behind.
As Suzanne finished her MBA, she started a side gig, consulting business. This came about when a friend, a money manager, came to her and asked if she could help out with marketing on some of his projects. Other opportunities also started opening up, including one for a new agency in Austin that had a much better work-life balance via a former manager she had worked with in New York. The best part? Suzanne was doing completely different things than she had done prior and on a bad week, worked at most 45 hours. This is the point where Suzanne describes as making “my path.” During this period, Suzanne had also become a mom and had made arrangements to work part-time. A few years later, Suzanne was having coffee with a fellow mom who was also working part-time and the two were discussing the fact that so many women would ask both of them how to pull off working part-time and manage that work-life balance.
This is where Suzanne’s big why comes full circle. Having become a mom and experiencing the flexibility of a part-time schedule, Suzanne decided it was time to do her own thing. In trying to answer the many questions that she and her friend had received on this topic, Suzanne did some research to find a resource she could share. Lo and behold, there was none! That’s when she decided to create the resource which led to the birth of Mompowerment. Since then, Suzanne has given a TEDx talk on the subject of work-life balance and next month, she will be releasing her first book.
For this book, Suzanne interviewed over 100 moms; detailing the struggle that many of these women face on a daily basis.
Suzanne also discovered her inner “story collector:” through the writing and interview process, many women opened up the intimate and personal details of their lives. In speaking with Suzanne, she comes across as very genuine and personable so it’s no surprise that so many have been willing to be open and candid with her.
Resource or cultural experience that inspired Suzanne to seek greater work-life balance:
Suzanne struggled to find that resource which is why she was inspired to create Mompowerment and write the definitive book on the subject.
What helped Suzanne with finding greater work-life balance in her own life was to change how she looked at productivity.
Favorite app/website/resource or productivity hack:
Batching: combine like activities. For example: when it comes to updating her blog, she will batch all of the blogs she has for the month in one long writing session. Suzanne recommends focusing on one task at a time rather than switching back and forth between writing, answering emails, getting on social media, etc. This will keep you focused and prevent mental fatigue.
Pomodoro method: since batching can be an intense workflow, Suzanne adds this productivity practice of working for 25 minutes, then stopping for 5, work for another 25, stop for another 5 and so forth. The 25 minutes is spent on the batched task at hand whereas the 5 minutes is a break to spent social media or a task that is home related. This maximizes your productivity for the main task while building in breaks that allow you to get to the other priorities on your to do list.
Suzanne’s one tip for achieving better work-life balance:
Identify when you’re most productive, that is your “groove.” For some people it may be early morning, for others, it’s the afternoon. Identify your peak period and use it wisely. You can also use Suzanne’s power productivity practice of batching plus the Pomodoro method to maximize your window.
How Suzanne recharges when facing a roadblock or challenge:
Suzanne tries to incorporate a little self-care and maintenance every day so she doesn’t get to that point. She does a little mental check-in to see where she is every morning. However, when she does “hit her max,” changing scenery is how she reboots and recharges. Suzanne is an avid traveler and makes it a point to go with her family somewhere overseas every year.
Even if you can’t go overseas, there are ways you can incorporate Suzanne’s scenery remedy by visiting museums or other landmarks in your neighborhood.
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Advice to past self while going thru a difficult time:
Traveling back to when she was putting in 60+ hours a week and headed for burnout, Suzanne would tell her past self these simple words: “it’s going to be ok.” Suzanne says this with a confidence and a security that comes from living a life and making pivots, sometimes sharp ones, that have borne out that advice. Moving forward listeners, are you stuck in that 60+ hour a week job and finding yourself burning out? Take Suzanne’s advice, both from her story and her words of wisdom. Make some changes, try new things, pivot if you have to and know that in the end “it’s going to be ok.”
Parting wisdom (in a few words):
“Make it happen.”
Connect with Suzanne:
Purchase Suzanne’s books