When is it Time to Lean Out?

The New York Times recently published a story about how Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Chairman Mark Zuckerberg are currently under fire for putting subscribers at risk during the height of the 2016 election. Sandberg, who is best known for Lean In, a “This is How You Should Do It” advice book for career women, has managed to juggle her career at Facebook and her own personal brand for more than a decade. After the tragic passing of her husband, she continues to be a highly successful career woman, author, speaker and mother. But could now be the right time to finally take her eyes off the prize and Lean Out for a change?

When my children were little and I was climbing the corporate ladder, I was all about Leaning In. I advocated for myself and was one of the first working mothers in our office to telecommute. I still managed to secure promotions but also changed certain aspects of my job to accommodate the needs of my family. While I was fortunate enough to afford childcare, I still chose family over work – especially when it came to emergency situations involving my husband or my children. During that time, I worked on some of the biggest shows in Network television and never missed a beat – except when I went into early labor right before May sweeps.

That’s the tough part about making it to the top of a major company if you are a working mom. Now picture the scenario if you’re a single working mom with two New York Times best selling books, traveling all the time, speaking all over the world and trying to save your company’s reputation after the 2016 election. That’s a tough job for a man but as a woman and a mother, it’s exponentially harder.

Recently, I was slated to speak at a conference and thought I’d be home in time to pick up my son from high school and walk the dog. Unfortunately, my time slot for my presentation moved from the morning to late afternoon and before I knew it, my carefully crafted house of cards came tumbling down. Sure, Uber can come through in a pinch if the app is working properly (it wasn’t that day) and to complicate matters, our dog walker was unavailable. Oh, and did I mention that right before I was supposed to start speaking, I got an urgent phone call from my daughter that she was headed to health services on campus because she was having excruciating stomach pains? Sometimes, even when you’re trying to focus on your career, life has a funny way of stopping you dead in your tracks.

One would suspect it would be easier to Lean In harder as your kids get older but the opposite is true. That’s the exact time they need you as they prepare to leave the nest. When they are in their adolescent years, teens may experiment with drugs and alcohol or combat mental health issues that could lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide. When your kids are on the verge of becoming adults, that’s when they need their parents to pay attention to what’s going on in their lives.

Back in the early 1990’s, young college grads like me were told we could have it all. A career where you can make it to the top of that corporate ladder and be a great mom too. But the reality is, it’s hard to juggle both at the same time. You can be great at your job but there are going to be times when you have to walk away so you can focus on your family. You’re still amazing at what you do, but one day, when your kids are older, they will appreciate the fact that you Leaned Out at work so you could Lean In more with them.

I have many friends who came of age during the “Working Girl” era and we all agree that no matter where our careers have led, we are happier knowing we have always managed to find a way to pursue our passions without shortchanging our kids in the process. One friend Leaned Out during her daughter’s grueling college application process. Another confided that she doesn’t want to be a department head in her company because she’d rather make it home in time each night to be with her family. A third recently walked away from her job completely because she hated what she was doing and didn’t want life to pass her by just because she was busy climbing to the top. Then there are people like my mom who had to give up a job that she loved when my grandmother’s bout with Alzheimer’s disease worsened and she could no longer be left alone for extended periods of time.

We all make our decisions to Lean Out when it makes sense for us. That doesn’t mean we’re not good enough and it doesn’t mean we are quitters. Many of the women I admire and respect are realists who have figured out that the meaning of life does not center around your career.

Recently, a dear friend lost one of his best friends to cancer. His name was Tom. Tom was a throwback to another era. He barely used technology and yet had a way of engaging with people that made the experience completely unforgettable. After his passing, Tom’s friends continue to share stories of how he has forever touched their lives – through his humor, his music, his giving heart, his voice and his wisdom. Tom connected with children, teens and adults and while he never made it to the boardroom, he has left his mark on countless lives and will never be forgotten.

As I contemplate what’s next in my own career, my thoughts keep going back to Tom. At the end of the day, success is not about Leaning In so you can have a seat in the boardroom. It’s about Leaning Out so you don’t miss out on the best things in life.