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How to Get Ahead While Balancing Work and Family

How to Get Ahead While Balancing Work and Family

For many professionals, it’s doable, though certainly not easy, to coast through their careers for some years while devoting most of their energy to raising small children. These sensible souls take care not to drop the ball at work, but they do forgo immediate opportunities to push that ball up the slope and land that next substantial promotion.        

But the most ambitious of us may not be satisfied with the status quo, either because we need the money and personal satisfaction that come with advancement, or because we work at a company or in an industry in which our careers can wither and die if we don’t continuously advance.

If you do commit to continuing your upward trajectory while caring for your young kids or ailing parents at the same time, how do you carry out both commitments, each of which can seem all-consuming?

It begins with establishing expectations.

Set Ground Rules

“My employer knows that I’ll put in the hours at home in the evenings and on weekends when I need to,” says Jennifer Sheran, who became full-time general manager at Schroder PR in Atlanta in December 2006 while bringing up a 5-year-old.

Sheran’s professional portfolio is impressive: She oversees the firm’s business development, client relations and campaign project management, as well as implementation, staff training and human resources.

In exchange for some family-friendly arrangements -- she leaves the office at 5 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. most weekdays to arrive home in time for dinner and works from home on Fridays -- Sheran’s employer expects she’ll put in all the additional hours the job requires, wherever she can fit them in.

“You have to sit down with your family and explain why you have to take up your work for an hour or two after the kids go to bed,” Sheran says. “It takes that to be able to get ahead.”

Investigate Different Ways to Grow

For some ambitious professionals with big demands at home, professional growth may be measured along a dimension other than the corporate ladder.

For those willing to consider a nontraditional passage in their career trajectories, opportunities abound, says Susie Hall, Los Angeles-area manager for staffing firm Aquent. Rather than chasing the next promotion, Hall says, you can stay in the same position but take on projects with “higher-profile brands.”

To do that, you’ll need to delegate aggressively and creatively, so that you can focus your work time on the projects that will afford you the most visibility. “Think about your unique skills and spend more time on high-value activities,” says Ellen Kossek, a professor at Michigan State University’s Graduate School of Labor and Industrial Relations in East Lansing.

Find the Right Support

But how do you keep your family onboard as you continue to advance your career? Two key tactics are to surround yourself with helpful people and to find an employer that values you enough to let you manage your own workday.

For Sheran, family commitments are a two-way street. When she has to travel on business, “my husband makes adjustments to his schedule, and I live not far from my parents,” she says. “Without them, it wouldn’t be so easy.”

For audit manager Liz Harper, the key was taking a job with a Big Four firm willing to grant flexibility by the hour, day and season.

“When the kids are in school, I work five days a week for six to seven hours,” says Harper, a senior manager working 60 percent time at accounting and consulting firm KPMG in Short Hills, New Jersey.

“In summer, I work full days but take one or two days off each week,” says the mother of four children, ages 6 to 14. “On the off days, I’m still pretty much online,” taking some phone calls and checking email occasionally.

And There’s No Stopping

Can executives already in key positions advance even further while their kids are still in elementary school? They certainly aspire to.

“I would like to become partner at some point,” says Sheran.

The next step for Harper would also be a move up to partner. Although that may not happen while Harper is working less than full-time hours, her employer doesn’t rule out the possibility.

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