C-Suite Moms: “Ultimately, I can see the big picture a little better than when it was just about me. Motherhood has helped to round me out in this way.” with Leeann Leahy and Jessica Abo
In so many ways I am not even sure I can document them all. I am more patient, and I don’t sweat the small stuff as much as I used to. I am more efficient because I always have somewhere to be…there is no time to waste. I am very invested in the growth of my employees and I care deeply about helping them to realize their potential. I manage personnel issues differently — both more directly one-on-one and more creatively and when I must resolve conflict between associates…or help them to resolve it themselves. And ultimately, I can see the big picture a little better than when it was just about me. Motherhood has helped to round me out in this way.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Leeann Leahy, CEO, The VIA Agency. If you drink it, eat it, clean with it, fly on it, invest with it or watch it, it’s likely a brand Leeann has worked on. She grew up as a planner at big and small agencies in NYC working on clients like Putnam Investments and JPMorgan Chase, to name a few, before joining VIA. For the past six years here, she has helped raise the profile for a broad roster of clients including ARM & HAMMER, Perdue, L.L.Bean, Fidelity, Klondike, and Lowe’s. As creator and creative lead of VIA’s GoDo Series, she’s helped make VIA one of the best places to work in advertising. Just ask AdAge. These days she lives in an antique shipmaster’s house with her husband, their three lovely children and their pet schnerrier.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this point in your career?
I started out as a Strategic Planner in NYC and was lucky enough to touch a lot of different and amazing brands across a lot of categories at many great agencies over the years.
About eight years ago, I transitioned from planning to general management and joined an agency in NYC in its formative years as the President. In that position, I got a crash course in the “business of our business” which is, strangely enough, something that planners in advertising don’t really have to deal with. So, I learned quickly and turned a brand consultancy into a full-service advertising agency that worked with some of the most coveted brands in America.
In the middle of that growth period, I was introduced to the founder of my current company, The VIA Agency. In our first meeting, we laughed for about two hours. It hit me like a ton of bricks that in NYC, I was in a position where I was having a ton of success but not much fun. So, I moved to Maine to join VIA and rediscover the fun in my career and my life.
After two years at VIA, I was named CEO and it has been the best experience I could ever imagine. We are thriving as an agency, working with Fortune 100 companies, doing some great creative work and introducing some structural changes that challenge our industry. And yes…it is all incredibly fun!
Can you share with us how many children you have?
I have 3 kids:
Mac is 18 and a college Freshman; Winnie is 15 — a sophomore in high school; Duncan is 12 and in seventh grade.
Where were you in your career when your child was born/became part of your family?
Since there are three of them, it spans a bit of time.
For the first two, I was a partner at Margeotes Fertitta + Partners (which was independently owned) and the head of my department. There were a lot of female partners and I had a huge support network to balance motherhood and my career.
When the third was born, I had a global job at a large company that was part of a publicly traded holding company and the maternity leave policy was pathetic (just two weeks, given my tenure). I had to use all my vacation time and was expected to present to clients just two weeks after I gave birth even though I was technically on leave. I didn’t mind in the moment because it was the third kid, I was in a rhythm and was lucky to have great child care, but in retrospect, it was a terrible way to treat an employee.
Did you always want to be a mother? Can you explain?
I’m not sure I really decided about it too much in advance but yes, it was basically the natural progression of the life I envisioned. I always assumed I would get married and have a family and maintain and grow my career. Perhaps because I had a working mother, I never questioned my ability to do both.
Did motherhood happen when you thought it would or did it take longer? If it took longer, what advice would you have for another woman in your shoes?
I am a huge organizer and a bit OCD, so yes, when it came time, I had a plan. I was lucky enough to be able to have children rather easily (which I now realize is such a huge and rare gift). My first was born when I was 30 years old…in June (so not too hot and spring birthday parties — yay!) and the next two are each 2 years and 11 months apart.
Can you tell us a bit about what your day-to-day schedule looks like?
I wish! Every day is a bit different from the day before because a) I am in advertising and there is no formula to that and b) I travel quite a bit and my clients are all over the country.
But a basic day is a partnership with my husband and my amazing Executive Assistant. My husband gets the kids out the door in the morning, so I can get ready for work. When I get to the office, it’s a plethora of meetings (individual and group) and rehearsals and presentations…pretty much back to back all day and closely managed by my EA so that we can make the most of every hour.
During the day, the one thing that I will try to schedule into my day is kids’ athletics. If my daughter has a field hockey game, I might pop out of the office for a couple of hours to cheer her on. I’m very open and vocal about this with my co-workers because I want them to feel that they can do the same.
At the end of the day, if I am not traveling, I try to get home for dinner (which I prepare because when I am traveling that responsibility falls to my husband and kids) and then it’s time to catch up with the kids, get some of MY homework done (emails and reviewing presentations and creative work), catch something on Netflix, read a bit and head to sleep (far too late).
Has being a parent changed your career path? Can you explain?
I’m not sure if it has. I have been lucky to have a husband who is home with the kids so that enables me to work long hours or travel at the last minute or take on a new opportunity in a new state…all things that have propelled my career. Being a parent has changed my style and my priorities, but I am not sure that it has changed my career path in the long run.
Has being a mother made you better at your job? How so?
And in so many ways I am not even sure I can document them all. I am more patient, and I don’t sweat the small stuff as much as I used to. I am more efficient because I always have somewhere to be…there is no time to waste. I am very invested in the growth of my employees and I care deeply about helping them to realize their potential. I manage personnel issues differently — both more directly one-on-one and more creatively and when I must resolve conflict between associates…or help them to resolve it themselves. And ultimately, I can see the big picture a little better than when it was just about me. Motherhood has helped to round me out in this way.
The reality is that if I am going to spend so much time away from my kids, I want to be able to look them in the eye and tell them I am doing something important…that I am helping people to be better…that I am growing something, and I am doing it with integrity and all my effort. In the end, I need to be able show them that it is making me happy and that I’m contributing to society in a meaningful way. I’ve set that as my goal for myself, so it impacts my work and how I run the company.
What are the biggest challenges you face being a working mom?
Sometimes I do miss some small but important things… a parent teacher conference, a performance, a heartbreak or tears over a bad test score. It’s just not the same to participate in these things over the phone. But the reality is that sometimes I must. If I don’t miss the big things, we’ll all be ok, but it’s not always easy to be away or to have a meeting I must be in.
When my kids were small, one of my challenges was the other mothers, particularly those who stayed at home. They seemed to think that I should feel guilty for leaving my kids for work each day. I never did feel guilty. Not for one single day. I knew I was doing the right thing for me and for my family. And the challenge was explaining this to my friends who could barely believe it or truly understand it.
Are there any stories you remember from the early days of parenthood that you want to share?
I was on my Blackberry in the delivery room and everyone thought I was crazy, but before the kid was born that’s how it worked! Now my phone gets put down when something important is happening with my family.
I used to take time off every Friday morning when the kids were small to attend Mommy & Me classes. The truth is that I sort of hated it, but I knew it was something I would regret not doing. I am glad that I made it a priority and spent that time with each kid on his/her own. That’s time we will never get back and now that they are growing up I cherish the memory of it all. I’d recommend that to every new mom.
Are there any meaningful activities or traditions you’ve made up or implemented that have enhanced your time with your family? Can you share a story or example?
I can say that we have a LOT of dance parties…so many that I installed a wired disco ball into one of the rooms in our house. These days it is harder to get the kids to dance with me, but they will come back to it once we are through the teen years, I am sure.
One of the things I did implement was “Make Mistakes Day”, June 11th of each year. It was intended as an antidote to the world of perfection that we seem to live in and that I, with my high standards, am often guilty of perpetuating. So, on that day everyone in the family is encouraged to try new things and make mistakes without consequence (within reason!). Be a little silly. Take a risk. Be imperfect because failure is part of learning. Of course, sometimes our biggest mistake is that we forget to celebrate it! But it’s always there in case we need it as a family.
We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 3–5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives to give our children more quality attention?
Whenever possible, I make time to attend sports games and school performances even if they happen during the workday. It is rare that you can’t find a couple of hours a week without disrupting the flow of work.
Increasingly, I try to turn off my phone or leave it in another room for a few hours each night so that my kids can talk through their days and their issues and they have my full attention while they do. I can always go through any missed messages an hour later and deal with whatever is there.
When they were little, I always made sure to read to the kids before bed. Now that they are older that is less practical but reading their papers and checking their homework gives us time together and allows for discussions that show how they think, how they digest their lessons, and what they are imagining.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
I have high standards for my kids. But they are underscored by a belief that my kids are capable and supported in realizing their dreams.
When my 12-year-old was 8, he started designing cars and planning his future corporation (he even drew up plans for the HQ), so I had 150 business cards made for him as a gift for his 9th birthday. They read “Duncan P. Leahy, Marchetti Automotive Founder and CEO/Schoolboy” (he outlined the title). Three years later, he has just launched a blog about supercars in a top “Gear Head” online community. His second article currently has 40k views after just three days. He told me that he is building a following so that he can launch his podcast on the same subject and find a way to monetize it. His passion and his dreams are becoming more real every single day.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
I don’t really read parenting books or listen to other people’s perspectives on how to be a great parent. I did when I was pregnant, and it was super useful, but I guess once the kids were here I just sort of felt that was missing the point. I would much rather spend that time with the kids and follow my intuition. Of course, I discuss issues and listen to family and friends who have similar experiences, but I really try to approach my parenting style more with love and creativity and less hard and fast direction
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you share or plan to share with your kids?
More than a quote, I am always quoting LeeAnn Womack’s song “I Hope You Dance” …and I cry like a baby when it comes on the radio. As sappy as it is, I love the message it has — don’t miss out on life, live fully and with everything you have. Dancing is such an awesome metaphor for that because it can be scary and embarrassing to express yourself so outwardly, but when you do you can reap huge rewards. So, yeah… “I hope you never lose your sense of wonder.”, “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.” “I hope you give love a fighting chance.” “And, when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”
If you could sit down with every new parent and offer life hacks, must-have products or simple advice, what would be on your list?
Organization is KEY! I have a monthly color-coded master calendar in our mudroom with everything going on in the family and all my business travel. Juggling work schedules, travel and family schedules with sports, school, doctor and dentist appointments. It is mission control and the fact that it is analog makes it somehow more real to everyone.
The other thing I did was, and this is controversial, I got my kids cell phones at a pretty young age. To be fair, it was a time before smart phones and there were a few models that would only program a couple of important numbers, but they got phones nonetheless. It gave us a sense of connection no matter where in the world I was. My kids know that they can get ahold of me to discuss anything. Unless I am in a presentation, I answer, if only to check that everything is ok and to say I can’t talk. Now that they are older, much of this is handled over text, but the principle is the same. My kids always have direct access to me.
But the ultimate must-have is a job you love. This makes the parenting/work thing work better than any product, service, hack, or app e I have found. If you have that, you can draw on work to be a better parent and on parenting to be better at work.
Thank you so much for these great insights!