Empowered to be a Leader- and a Mom.

By Shannon Pruitt, President of The Story Lab, US

I remember it vividly, as a young girl, watching as my mom’s face visually transformed. Her typical harried morning smile replaced by tense lips and squinted eyes, giving away worry, concern, and a dash of fear as she scrambled to figure out how to make sure my sisters and I were taken care of on days when any one of the 3 of us would be lying on the couch sick, desperate for a mother’s TLC. And the stress of getting my sisters to school and making it to her hourly paying job resounding through her like a sonic boom. I remember her voice, anxious and nervous, as she placed a call to the bank manager where she worked as a teller to balance the messaging that one of her children was sick, with the subtext she was terribly sorry, could still do her job and please don’t fire her. My heart breaks to remember that face and those calls.

Now, as the mother of three and someone who’s always dreamed of professional success and accomplishment, I’ve come to know that same well of guilt, fear and pleasing rising from deep inside the minute my children were born.

When I took over The Story Lab 3.5 years ago, from a woman who also felt this same pull, there was no question of choosing how I would lead. I knew I would be on the receiving end of those nervous phone calls, and I would follow the oldest rule in the book, “treat others as you want to be treated.” As a leader, this is not a choice between men and women, title, or experience; this is a human decision. But for women at all stages of life and career, the journey and judgment can be more difficult. To protect fiercely the opportunity to tell your boss you are having a baby and not worry about your job, to tell your boss you need to stay home because your child is sick, or that you want to go to a dance recital or play was a huge priority for me, and as such it would be the opportunity for all employees at The Story Lab; and for the past 3.5 years, that trust and opportunity has translated into growth and success for the business. And not totally by design, but rather by bringing in the right people for the right roles, The Story Lab executive leadership team is 90% women; over half of these women have children, and the retention rate for our female leadership is 100%.

This, of course, is rare. From an industry perspective, as a female CEO, the statistics are all too real. They are evident in many of my own meetings, and are confirmed by the majority of my communications with other women at all levels of career and life. According to the Center of American Progress, although women hold almost 52% of all professional-level jobs, American women lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions: They are only 14.6% of executive officers, 8.1% of top earners, and 4.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs.

This makes me proud as a leader, but saddens me for the women and men that have to make these choices everyday to prioritize both work and family. It’s important for me as a leader to reflect not only what we have done right but what we can do better. So ian honor of International Women’s Day, we took a closer look to see what in our culture had helped foster this environment. After speaking with our teams, a theme of Empowerment emerged. Below are the three operating principles that seemed to have the most affect on building this culture of empowerment:

- Flexible Schedules: Working in an agency is anything but 9am-5pm. It requires late nights, weekends and travel. Because we’re a service-oriented business, schedules are unpredictable; when a request comes in, duty calls (and it doesn’t care whether you had plans or a babysitter lined up). So, yes, there’s a lot we can’t control. But what we can control, we make sure we do. And part of that control actually means giving some of it up. At The Story Lab we allow people flexibility with their schedules and work location. As long as the work is getting done and everyone’s available when needed, we are open to our team members working from home- whether you have a sick child, the cable company is coming or you have a big presentation and just need to concentrate. The same goes for scheduling. We understand that, as parents, some of our employees need to leave early to pick up their kids, relieve Nanny’s etc. And we’ve worked hard to create an environment where employees don’t need to apologize for it. Those same team members jump back in later that night to finish their work. It all gets done, but in a way that works for everyone in the context of their lives.

- We offer extended maternity leave, and our employees are not afraid to use it. We’re not alone in offering extended leave; research from McKinsey Consulting indicates 65% of companies in a 2015 survey offered extended maternity leave. The difference is that just 4% of female employees in the survey used it. The reason, according to both women and men, is they worried taking long family leaves would hurt their careers. Our counsel to expecting mothers at The Story Lab is this: if you want to and can afford to, take the leave… you will never look back and wish you didn’t.

- We embrace diversity. With a leadership team that’s 90% female, each of us has been on the receiving end of institutional and implicit basis. And it has no place at The Story Lab. Societal norms tend to fail women in the workplace, and women often find themselves in a double bind. From the HBR “behaviors that suggest self-confidence or assertiveness in men often appear arrogant or abrasive in women. Meanwhile, women in positions of authority who enact a conventionally feminine style may be liked but are not respected. They are deemed too emotional to make tough decisions and too soft to be strong leaders.” On our leadership team and throughout the company, all styles are represented and embraced so long as everyone is respectful.

Being flexible, giving our team members permission to prioritize family, and embracing diversity has been good for The Story Lab teams, our morale and our bottom line. And it’s this human approach that makes us different. Better. And Empowered.