Sep 19, 2022
Hear how to take control of your own career and thrive
Lisen Stromberg, author of Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. Why I enjoyed this conversation so much is because Lisen makes a solid, myth-smashing case for taking a pause from your career to raise your children and then returning to the workforce without skipping a beat or sliding backward. Impossible? No, very possible. She did it and so can you. How? Take a listen.
As Simone Biles says, "Pause is power"
During our interview, Lisen and I realized that our professional lives have a great deal in common. I managed my career, raised my family and even cared for parents, without a pause. And like Lisen, I managed to thrive.
Early on, she learned that it was really hard to pursue a career in advertising and marketing while raising her children. What did she do? Paused, pivoted and became an award-winning journalist.
Along the way, she realized that other working women were struggling with the same choices. Could they too pursue a career and have families or was it an either/or that would forever impact their career growth and personal lives, usually in a negative way?
Like a true entrepreneur, Lisen determined that it didn’t have to be this way
Listen to Lisen describe how she realized that maybe it was time, finally, to rethink how to balance home and work in a culture that devalues the caregiving roles we all must perform at some stage in our lives. With the growing dependence of parents on their children, typically their daughters, she recognized that the work/family tug of war was demanding a solution, and fast.
Key points from our conversation:
Want to learn how you can have a career on your own terms? Here's a start.
Additional resources for you
Read the transcript of our podcast here
Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I'm Andi Simon. I'm your host and your guide. Our podcast is designed around the questions that CEOs, business leaders, managers and staff are all asking: How can we do better? So we're going to share with you the stories of successful people who found their way to turn possibilities into opportunities and observations into innovations.
I have Lisen Stromberg with me today. Lisen was an interviewee of mine for Huffington Post, and you can read more about her there. Let me give you a little bit about her background and then we'll get right into our podcast. Lisen is an author, a cultural innovation consultant, which is why I find her work so really fascinating, and is a widely regarded speaker.
Her passion is how to empower people in companies to reimagine the future of work through a work-life balance—a real different model for how people should be working and how the companies that hire them should really take advantage of their talent. She's CEO and founder of PrismWork. She and her team partner with companies, leaders and advocates to really make sure women, particularly millennials, thrive in the new workplace. She is currently acting CEO of The 3% Movement, committed to changing the ratio of women leadership in the advertising industry. Welcome, Lisen.
Lisen Stromberg: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here, Andi, thanks for having me.
Andi Simon: You know, I was reading your book last night. And I'm saying this is going to be such fun to share today. So let's start. Could you please share with our listeners about your story?
Lisen Stromberg: So I wrote Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career really in response to so many questions I was hearing from millennial women about how they really wanted to have great careers and wanted to also be engaged parents, and be engaged mothers. They just didn't see that there was an option to do both. They couldn't imagine it and couldn't envision it, and I really believed you could. I believed you could actually have these things and do these things in a way that really felt true and authentic to them as individuals or to us as individuals, and to companies.
And so I went on a journey to find out, if in fact my hunch was correct. I had seen in my own personal life that the traditional career paradigm, marching up the ladder paradigm that I was trained and believed was the only way to have a great career, just didn't work. Once I became a mother, there was no way I could do the kinds of work and be the ideal worker that the current workplace expects, and be the engagement I want it to be. So I went on my own kind of nonlinear career journey, pivoting and iterating and getting it right, or trying to get it right, again and again. And I think that is sort of the new career paradigm. I jokingly say, nonlinear is the new normal, because what I saw in my interviews, and in my research, is that that's how many highly successful women navigated this whole journey.
Andi Simon: So you really wanted to learn more, not anecdotally. So you got into interviews, and you got into a survey. I mean, let's talk about the credentialing of this kind of approach. Because women, are we doing things differently? How do we capture that?
Lisen Stromberg: So it's really a great question. So I literally just reached out to my inner network and said, "Hey, I have this hunch. What do you guys think?" And 186 interviews later, I realized, "Okay, I'm onto something. There's absolutely patterns here. There's something going on." But then I wanted hard data. I didn't want to just have qualitative data. I wanted some kind of real research around this. And so I started looking to find out what kind of longitudinal research was being done around college educated women and how they were navigating work and family. And I was astonished to learn, there's very little research.
The last piece of research that was out there, which was quite good, was done in 2008, of course, pre-economic meltdown. So much has changed since then. So I ended up hiring a market research firm, partnering with a professor at Hunter College, Dr. Pamela Stone, who's an expert on this issue of women who pause their careers, women navigating the career paradigm, and ended up doing what we call The Woman on the Rise Survey. We had nearly 1500 women responding to it. It was astonishing. We only thought we'd get to 50 and felt that that was really enough. Women wanted to share their stories.
Andi Simon: And rich stories exactly for the reason you said, because nobody seems to be watching, right?
Lisen Stromberg: No, that's the thing. We have a lot of constructs and a lot of belief systems, but, in fact, what we learned is that there's a lot of really amazing messaging around and opportunities to discuss how women are navigating this. And oftentimes we're finding that women themselves are keeping their stories quiet because we know, of course, all the research shows that when women are more authentic with their journeys, they're challenged at being ambitious. They're challenged that maybe they are committed if they're actually saying yes, I also want to put my family first.
Andi Simon: So let me just throw out to the listeners some data to think about here. The desire to tell the stories reflects a couple of things, one of which is that 60% of the folks in college today are women. The second thing is, 50% of the doctors are women, over 50% of the dentists are women. There are 34% of American women who are the breadwinners in their homes making more money than their spouses. And there's something here when we are 46% of the labor force that somehow we're going to have to pay attention to the way in which these women, I'll come back to your survey, in a moment, are beginning to make it all work. They want to have families but they're doing it in a very innovative fashion. And you began to see some patterns here. Tell us about them.
Lisen Stromberg: Yes. So the research that I had conducted, both quantitative and qualitative, really revealed what I call SRE for patterns. So let me start with, when we did this survey, and when I did this research, I assumed that most highly successful women had never stepped down, paused, or reduced their hours, etc, in their careers. So you had some real assumptions. I went in with some real assumptions, which were that the women who had navigated this unique path, non-linear, that we were the exception, not the norm.
In fact, it was just the opposite. What I found was that nearly 3/4 of the women who I interviewed and surveyed actually did have nonlinear career paths. They did downshift or reduce their hours or completely leave the paid workforce for a period of time. And they also pivoted quite a few times, all in an effort to find the best work-life integration solution they could find for themselves and their families. So they were incredibly innovative.
It's something we don't think about—they were trailblazing this whole path. And we think of these women who did this, maybe they weren't as committed. In fact, what I found is they were so committed, they kept iterating and iterating to find success. So three quarters had paused. That to me was astonishing, a mind blower.
Andi Simon: Now tell me how they paused.
Lisen Stromberg: It was really interesting. So what I saw was, those who paused had sort of three patterns. One was the women I call Cruisers and they're the women who actually stayed in the paid workforce but reduced their hours. Either they reduced them to work three day workweeks, or ended up becoming freelancers who work part time or maybe even full time, but on their schedules. So they really figured out how to navigate their own path and gave them time mastery. So that was one group, the Cruisers.
The other group were the Boomerangs. These are women who completely left the paid workforce, and were home with their children, people that we would have called opt-out moms. But ironically, 89% of those women rebounded and went back into the workforce to great success in many cases. 89% of them went back into the workforce. That was really amazing to me. Now, the research did show that the shorter time that you pause, so two years pause, meant that getting back in was absolutely a no-brainer. I mean, for the vast majority, it wasn't even a question. But interestingly, no matter how long you pause, the 89%, the majority who went back in, were able to literally get a job within six months. So the whole idea that you can't get back in after pausing, a number of women I interviewed paused for like 10, 11, 12, or 13 years. I thought, there's no way, and yet the vast majority were able to get back in. So this whole notion that you can't navigate this thing, in a way, is just flawed. So those were the Boomerangs.
The last group were the Pivoters. They're the women who actually left the paid workforce, and took that time to really figure out professionally what they wanted. They pivoted to new careers. And that to me, was very inspiring. These are women who really said, "Wait a minute, I was doing something and it may or may not work for me but I want to pursue a new dream." A number of women like Marianne Perrin, who's in North Carolina, ended up pausing for five or six years, and then pivoting to become a professor of nutritional science. Now she's a PhD, she's got a professorship. She's doing amazing research on infant nutritional science, that kind of thing. Those are stories that we don't often hear about. But I think that was, just to me, really inspiring to see these women just follow their dreams.
Andi Simon: Now a lot of them became entrepreneurs. Since we work with women entrepreneurs, we're doing research on women entrepreneurs. Now 30% of the businesses in the US are women entrepreneurs. So tell us about those, because I thought when they call them mom-entrepreneurs, mom-partner entrepreneurs, I don't know how you say the name, but man, there's something there of great energy.
Lisen Stromberg: What was really interesting was, so many of the women ended up becoming entrepreneurs and I divided them into sort of two subgroups: those women who were sort of single-shingle entrepreneurs who just put out, I shouldn't say that because they were often very successful. They put out a shingle, became consultants, or you know, very small business owners and maybe had a few other employees working part time kind of thing. That was about half of the entrepreneurs, and myself as an example of that, when I left my job as a vice president, I ended up becoming a shingle entrepreneur, had a consulting practice working fewer hours and making significantly more money. It was a great solution. And that was many of the women I interviewed. But you know, I live in Silicon Valley. What I also found was, a portion of women who actually were the traditional Silicon Valley entrepreneur. They got external funding and built their own businesses and had hugely successful businesses that were funding their families. A number of them, their husbands ended up leaving their own jobs to support the wives' businesses. So we're seeing some real interesting dynamics there. I thought those were very inspiring stories. Again, stories, we often don't hear.
Andi Simon: The name of our podcast today is On The Brink because you are on the brink of not just individuals trying to find ways to raise their families, but also have a purpose and meaning and livelihood and all kinds of other things, but you're also looking at a change in American culture. That's a part that I found so interesting because we're not hearing much about it in the news, and media aren't picking up on it. Often there's a sea change going on and the number of stay-at-home guys who are taking care of the family is growing slowly, but more rapidly than you might expect. As you were seeing this, and in your book, you talk about American culture going through a major innovation as the women are quietly changing this stuff. You know, what do you see going on?
Lisen Stromberg: You know, I think you're absolutely right. We are on the brink of some serious change in the workplace. And let's start with the fact that 80 million millennials are now the major employees. And we know a whole bunch of things about millennials, not the least of which is, they absolutely put work-life integration at the top of their list, both women and men.
So a fascinating study of Ernst and Young in 2015 revealed 30,000 white collar professionals revealed that 72% of millennial fathers had changed jobs, taking a pay cut or passing up a promotion so they could get better work-life integration with their young families. It's so exciting, or the workplace has to change. They don't have to do that.
Let's actually shift the paradigm and think about why these men, not just women, but why these men are actually having to do what we women have been doing for years, which is, you know, how to change our narrative in order to meet a rigid workplace structure. What I think is exciting on the brink of today, is it changing the paradigm about how we work and what work looks like and where we work and all those things. Technology has completely changed what's available to us. Millennials are saying, "This is unacceptable. You can't have a model where it presumes a stay at home spouse, the ideal worker model." I mean, we're seeing some real shifts. And I think as the millennial generation continues to entrench itself into our workplaces, we're gonna see huge changes.
So 64 million millennials are expected to become parents in the next decade. 22 million already are. And I speak to chief talent officers and CEOs every day and they're telling me they are terrified because they're going to lose all the women. But they also know they're going to lose the men. And so they're just trying to figure out what the hell to do. And there are smart things that can be done, and some rethinking about how we structure work that needs to happen. We are on the brink to having those changes happen.
Andi Simon: You know, I was up in Michigan, I do work with the Michigan College Alliance. In one of our sessions, the head talent officer for General Motors said, "I have to hire 10,000 folks and they all stay two and a half years. They're gonna have 16 jobs before they retire." And at the time, this was a problem. And we started talking about, well, maybe it's an opportunity because it allows them to have a flexible life in a different scenario. "But it takes five years for me to get a product out on the market."
There's a norm as changes in the automobile industry come that's going to really wipe out this whole conversation because when autonomous vehicles come along, who knows what's going to go on. Then you have robots coming that are going to transform this again. Then we also have the elder crisis coming where somebody better take care of the old folks. So there are so many major transformations happening that the innovation that these women are doing is not to be underestimated as a powerful way to rethink our society. Is that what you're seeing too?
Lisen Stromberg: I think we need to be clear, though, the women I surveyed in the interviews I had were all college educated women. So the workers that you're discussing who will be impacted at least in the near term, and then within the next decade, arguably are those who are not college educated. What crystal ball do I have, but I think the price of entry for having the freedom to navigate your own nonlinear career really is a college degree. And the college degrees are going to be the security blanket that are going to give workers what they need to really craft their own prison.
Now, if a gentleman is saying that he's got people turning over every two and a half years, that tells me there's no problem with the people, there's a problem with the way his work is structured and that needs to be rethought. Instead of looking at this as, "Oh my God, there's something wrong with the employees," we need to reframe that as saying, "Maybe we're constructing work wrong. Maybe we're constructing how we think we get work done. Maybe we're constructing how we develop people wrong."
There's a really wonderful book written by a colleague of mine called The Boomerang Principle. Her name is Lee Caraher, talking about how smart savvy companies are realizing that their alumni network as employees are the best employees to boomerang back to them. If you create an environment where you have people turning over every two and a half years, they may come back a year later because for whatever reason, the need that they left for is gone. They want to get back in. So looking at your employee base, your left employee base, your gone employees, past employees, as an opportunity, to me is a huge new way of thinking about that, and not many companies do.
Andi Simon: Well, to your point, though, I was working with a logistics company in Texas and a boomer CMO said to me, "What do I do? I had to buy ping pong tables for my new employees." And I said, "Tell me the problem is that you had to buy ping pong tables, and that's a problem." He said, "Don't they know we work nine to five, and then we go home and play ping pong?" And I didn't know quite what to say because encapsulated in a single sentence was a value system and a culture of a whole different generation. And they said to him, "Well, we don't stand by the watercooler and we don't smoke, we play ping pong." And it was a really interesting culture.
Half the workforce are going to be those millennials who play ping pong during the day. Some companies have ping pong tournaments, and they go to national company ping pong tournaments. I mean, there's something growing. To your point, though, I don't think we're making much noise out of it. It's going to happen in ways that are going to happen because they are going to change the workplace. I think that's the most interesting.
Lisen Stromberg: Well, it's so funny, because of course, here in Silicon Valley, we hear the ping pong story all the time. And what we're hearing now is, "Forget the damn ping pong table, give me a nursing room. I care about childcare." So we're seeing a real shift happening right now. It's not just the women who are asking for this, the guys are like, "I don't give a hoot about ping pong anymore. I really need childcare solutions. So give me that." So we're seeing some demand.
But to your point, we have generational divides. It's not just by age. I think I've met a number of millennials who are pretty boring. And they're thinking, and I've met a lot of boomers who are absolutely perennials, they're thinking very forward thinking like yourself. And so I think that we need to get out of it looking as a generational thing and really be thinking about how we can create an environment where people in the workplace can thrive. And one way of looking at that is to know that people don't leave at five o'clock anymore. Now with technology, they're checking emails all the time. They're setting up meetings, and going to meetings. This is a technology that didn't exist 10 years ago. So we're seeing huge changes in a way that we always need to be ahead of and understand that's an opportunity, not a constraint for us.
Andi Simon: Now, let's go back to women per se, because the women who are listening today, regardless of what generation or whether they're working right now, or going to come back, are leading something. In your book, Work PAUSE Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career, you talked about how to do it. I wanted to sort of give them some tips, as we were thinking about it. If you're listening in and haven't read the book yet, there's some how-to in there that I thought was very valuable.
Lisen Stromberg: So let's start with one of the things that was so inspiring to me is that every woman who was successful in my survey, and in my interviews, were women who had never taken their eyes off the ball of their careers. They may or may not have been in the paid workforce, but they were always nurturing their careers. They were maintaining their networks. They were volunteering strategically, whether they were in the paid workforce or not. Their volunteer opportunities were very strategic. They were making sure they were dealing with leaders and decision makers who could be their network in job opportunities moving forward. It's a way that very successful men have been volunteering for years.
So we're seeing a whole new way of thinking about that. They always put their human capital at the forefront of their decision making. So what was the best use of their human capital was the best use of their human capital right now to be working 24/7 at a job and not seeing their two young children. Maybe as the primary provider to their family, that was the best use of their human capital. If that wasn't the case, they would say, "Okay, this isn't working for me. I'm going to innovate a new solution that might be negotiating a reduced schedule. It might be leaving and finding another job with a better company with better work life integration solutions." They never took their eye off the ball of their value. And that, to me, was incredibly inspiring.
Some other very tactical things they did: they didn't go to a company if it actually didn't align with their values. They made sure they were working in places that really were aligned with them. That 28% of women who never pause their careers, one of the major reasons they never paused was, they were in workplaces that allowed them to truly thrive. They had control of their time. There were time masters, which meant that their bosses didn't criticize them if they left at two in the afternoon to take their child to a dentist appointment, and then came back and did work, or worked from home the rest of the day. There wasn't this presumption that they weren't productive just because there wasn't face time. So they were able to truly thrive in the workplace.
Andi Simon: Your stories were like your own personal story where you shifted left and you boomeranged right. And you began to build your own career into a very successful one. I was thinking of my own family. I grew up in a family firm, and my grandmother was the matriarch. And while my mother and father both worked in that family, my mother was a very strong personality. And to some degree, they both mentored me. And while I was supposed to take over the firm and still raise a family, I had no interest in going into it. But they were very supportive of my having a career, not just a job, identifying myself in some fashion, raising two children, and moving back and forth in a variety of ways to complete my degree and to do my research. I actually took my daughters when they were four and five to spend several months in Greece to do anthropological research. I was crazy, but we did it.
Lisen Stromberg: Right. But you are so innovative. You were totally trailblazing the solution. You're a classic model of what I'm talking about, nonlinear the new normal, but not so new for you, Andi.
Andi Simon: Not so new. But the other part is, I had a husband who was right there with me. And his mother was a career woman, and had a wonderful business in New York. So part of this is expanding the mentors and building. You write about your own daughter, and you want to share some of the observations in that, because I remember well the encouragement I got, but not from guys, but from my female mentors.
Lisen Stromberg: You know, let's start with mentorship in general. What I find so incredible is that many of the women I spoke to said it wasn't necessarily female mentors because there were so few women, if there were so few women at the top. It was the male mentors who were complete advocates for them. And I certainly have experienced that in my life, both. I'm so blessed to have so many female, but also so many male, mentors. But I think what's really wonderful is that millennial men are now marrying their equals. And saying professionally, academically, you know, with all the requisite whatever credentials, if you will, qualifications, and they're not expecting their partners to stay home.
But the couples themselves are talking about, "How do we strategically create an environment in which our children can thrive?" So we're seeing couples spiral. We're seeing them say, "Okay, I'll be in for this period of time, and you pull back, and then you'll be in for this period of time, and I'll pull back." We're seeing that happen, which I think is incredible and inspiring and an absolute reflection of the future of how couples are going to do this until we find workplaces that are more flexible.
Andi Simon: I was going to follow your thought because the other side of it is that as they push, those workplaces are going to be a reflection of this flexibility, and getting the job done without the rigidity and not having to be in cubicles anymore. But actually just being aware, and this is a whole generation that's grown up completely digital, interacts differently. I think that what's most exciting about it, and I love what you're doing to try and advocate for it, is to help the whole industry side of this begin to see its value and the power of it. All the smarts that are coming and take advantage of it. And I think it is an extraordinarily exciting time. It sounds like you do too.
Lisen Stromberg: Yeah. What's really interesting when I started writing the book and doing research for the book in 2015, it was very unusual to hear about a company that had a return-to-work internship, specifically targeted to professionals to pause their careers, typically women but not not only women, men too, and what now is becoming very common. I hear more and more companies are now launching these return-to-work internships, either formally or informally. They're intentionally hiring mid-career professionals who pause their careers for families and are ready to relaunch.
We're seeing huge success as a result of it. I spoke to many CEOs and CTOs who'd hired women mid-career who would pause their careers for a family and who are now running the companies. We're about to launch a book tour, underwritten by Momentum Worldwide. Momentum is an advertising agency that's incredibly well regarded. Their president, Donnalyn Smith, she's like, oh, my God, a workplace thrive role model. She had paused it with Momentum. She actually became a Cruiser so she worked part time with them. She's now president of their company. And she's like, "I never put a name to it but you're talking exactly about what I've done and what my agency has allowed me to do."
So we're seeing many, many, many companies sort of step up and say, "I want that talent. I understand that talent has great value. I want to fill the pipeline to leadership. We've got a mid-career break down, let's get them back in and help them be as productive as possible." It's solving that pipeline to leadership problem very quickly. Everyone says, "Well, I don't have enough women to hire." Well, yeah, you do. Get them in the door. And you'll be amazed by how they work for you.
Andi Simon: You know, at one point, people were getting certifications for being lead companies or lean companies. I keep wondering, as I'm sitting here, how are you going to create an award system for people to be the most innovative, flexible companies for men and women to work in so that collaboratively they can figure out how to get stuff done and still have a life. It's going to accelerate as the elder care crisis begins to accelerate. We need to worry about not only the kids at home and the work during the day, but also the families that we have to take care of, the elders.
Lisen Stromberg: Let me respond to that really quickly. So you read my mind as the CEO of The 3% Movement focused on the advertising industry. We've literally just launched a certification program for just that question. So many brands are demanding that their agencies have gender equal leadership. Well, you know, a lot of agencies don't have that, but they're on their way to trying to get there. And many agencies do have that but they have no way to prove it. So our certification program does just that. And so ironically, you nailed exactly what we're doing. We've had people outside the advertising industry ask us, "Can we become 3% certified because we want to show that we are that agency." So yes, that is happening. So that's exciting and incredible. We've got agencies just lining up to be part of that. So that's one thing that's happening.
But let me also say, back to your eldercare issue: A number of the women I interviewed did not pause their career when their children were young, but were forced to pause when their parents aged. I hate the term working mother or working daughter because it presumes that there's an option to not work. So let's sort of step that aside when you hear the word working dad or working son paradigm and the politics around that. A number of the women who self-identified as working daughters said that's the biggest crisis they faced in their careers in terms of work life integration. It wasn't the young kids, they could solve that, it was the parents who were ill and facing real need. And I think to your point, you're absolutely right. Unless we look at deconstructing caregiving in general, and look at this not as a mother issue or a father issue, but rather as a caregiver issue, then we're going to start seeing some real change.
Andi Simon: I'm going to wrap us up because we've taken so much of your time. It's been absolutely wonderful. I want to know when your first event of awards is to The 3% leaders because I'd like to come and see all of these three percenters begin to celebrate the great transformation in American society. I think it's not an accompaniment, it's a whole culture going through changes. I love it.
Lisen Stromberg: It's true. So actually, we'll be announcing our first winners at The 3% conference in November on November 2, in New York City, and tickets are available at threepercentconference.com for that big event, and it is already selling out.
Andi Simon: I'll go take a look at these and then people who want to reach you, learn more about what you're doing, perhaps engage you for a keynote or something, could you tell them the best way to get ahold of you?
Lisen Stromberg: Sure. The best way is to really go to my website, it's lisenstromberg.com. You can also find me on Twitter @lisenStromberg on Instagram @lisenStromberg and on Facebook, of course, and LinkedIn. But yeah, please reach out. Look at my website. I do a lot of keynote talks around this conversation because workplaces are finally saying, "My gosh, we need solutions." That to me is incredibly exciting to hear the businesses realize this is not a woman's problem, this is a business problem. We've got to solve it!
Andi Simon: With 5 million empty jobs and they're not quite sure how to do it. And Janet Yellen said, "Well, why don't we look to women?" Exactly. There's enough a-ha going around to say, "Oh, really, they're well educated. And they're really smart and very flexible, innovative about life. Let's see what we can do, opening up our minds to the next generation and how we're going to change the nature of work." I think you're right, it's across the generations.
Thanks for joining us today. I'm Andi Simon and this is On The Brink. Our podcasts are designed to help you see, feel and think in new ways so you can soar. If you think you're on the brink, it's time to stop and take a good look. You can read more in my book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights. We want to hear your stories so feel free to send your questions along and you too could be one of our interviews. Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org Have a great day. I'm having such fun.