How Professor Alison Fragale of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School Tackles The Extreme Work Life Balance Of Being A Woman Business Leader During COVID-19
You get to rewrite the script for the next act of your life. I took a picture of my March family calendar — jammed morning to night with activities and commitments — next to my April family calendar — totally blank. The blank calendar wasn’t great, but neither was the overstuffed one. For me, happiness exists somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Now that many commitments and obligations have been stripped away, it gives each of us an opportunity to ask ourselves, “What do I allow back in to my life when the time comes? What do I not?” My hope is that the act of consciously choosing how we spend our time going forward, rather than simply agreeing to commitments out of habit, will allow each of us to live with more purpose and joy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Alison Fragale.
Alison Fragale is an organizational psychologist, international keynote speaker, and award-winning tenured professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, where she specializes in the areas of negotiation, power, and influence. Poets and Quants named Alison one of the “World’s Best 40 under 40” business professors, back when she was young enough to qualify, and she now brings her expertise in human behavior to high-performing private sector organizations, senior military officials, and women leaders as a speaker and trusted advisor. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three children, and loves, in no particular order: cheap coffee, not-so-cheap wine, fabulous shoes, home organizing, sushi, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Orange Theory workouts, Hallmark movies, and The Golden Girls.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I graduated from Dartmouth College and moved to Chicago to work as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company. I had planned to eventually earn my MBA and return to a career in industry. However, my time as a consultant made me realize that most of the workday stresses that keep us up at night are people problems — people we can’t influence, people who aren’t behaving the way we want them to behave. I experienced this myself as I struggled to get my clients — most of whom weren’t very happy that the “consultants were coming” — to do what I needed them to do. This led to what I term my “quarter-life crisis” at age 25 — the realization that what I really wanted to do was bring psychology into organizations to help leaders overcome these “people problems.” I left McKinsey to attend Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, but to earn a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior, instead of my MBA. Now, as a professor and speaker, I bring the science of human behavior to my audiences and teach them how to use this science to be better influencers, advocates, and negotiators. If we use the right strategies we get more of the results we want, and we can make the things that feel hard about work start to feel easier.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
I think the most interesting stories about my work come from the people I meet through my teaching and travel. When the Chicago Cubs played Cleveland for the World Series in 2016, I turned on the television to see that the Cleveland pitcher was one of my former undergraduate students, Andrew Miller, from the mid-2000s. I am now in a mastermind speaker group started by a fabulous woman, Rachel Sheerin, whom I met at an airport bar when I overheard her tell the bartender she was a keynote speaker. I’ve been fortunate to speak to every general officer in the Army and Air Force for the past decade and gain a true appreciation for our exceptional military leadership. Except for the time my husband flew seated next to the Target dog (the pitbull with the red bullseye), who had his own first class seat, I don’t know anyone who gets to be in the presence of more talented people than I do. I love that about my job.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
So many! Three come to mind here. I am creating new virtual training options for organizations around the topics of negotiation and women’s leadership — two of my areas of expertise and passion. Leadership development doesn’t stop just because leaders are working remotely, and I am helping organizations find new ways to build their talent.
I’m also writing a paper about incivility in the workplace, and why individuals who possess high power but lower status (such as senior women in male-dominated industries) are often the targets of mistreatment. This project is a continuation of my ongoing research around the causes and effects of hierarchy in the workplace and is an important contribution to our understanding of why women face unique challenges at work.
Finally, I’ve had some time to concentrate on a book proposal about impression management strategies for women professionals. I’ve done a lot of research in this area and I routinely speak about these strategies to women leaders, but I’ve been so busy speaking that I haven’t made time to put the advice in written form. There is a lot of science that can help women and we haven’t done a good enough job bringing that science into the workplace. I want to change that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I could fill an encyclopedia (remember those?) with all of the people who have helped me in my life. Here, I’ll mention two.
First, my husband. He is so incredibly supportive of my work. He has a big career, yet he routinely sacrifices his own work for my benefit. If I have work to do and need him to be PIC (Parent-In-Charge) for any period of time, he will immediately drop what he is doing and help. He’ll do this without hesitation or complaint, even if he has to reschedule his own work to make it happen. He’s also the president, and perhaps only member, of my fan club. When I express my mom guilt, he jumps in with twenty stories about how I am the best mom ever — so emphatically that he almost convinces me! When I was younger, I took his support for granted. After all, isn’t unending support what all good spouses should provide for each other? The answer may be yes, but I’ve now seen enough relationships to know that this level of support from a partner is somewhat rare. I’m grateful for it.
The second person that stands out is my graduate school advisor from Stanford, Maggie Neale. Maggie taught me how to be an academic — not just how to be a researcher, but how to manage my career and my relationships. She showed me how to be both assertive and well-liked as a female professor, and how to think strategically about how I spend my time and who I spend it with. I graduated almost 20 years ago and I still find myself repeating her advice to those that I mentor, and she’s usually the first call I make when I need advice of my own!
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
Pre-Covid19, I routinely commuted between our home in Chicago, IL, my university position in NC, and my corporate clients, based worldwide. My husband and I each flew over 100k miles a year, and often had “airport dates” in the Admirals’ Club, as we crossed paths coming and going at O’Hare Airport. With one of us always on the road, I had a lot of time to myself — either in my hotel room out of town, or in my house while my husband was on a trip. I was a proud master of “remote parenting,” managing the schedule of our three kids, ages 5, 8, and 11, from 30k feet in the air. My routine was exhausting at times, but it was a well-oiled machine and we made it work as a family.
Covid19 upended all of this. Instead of “remote parenting,” I was thrust into managing my kids’ “remote learning” from my home office, while I transitioned to “remote teaching” of my own students. I always knew that each of my three kids was very different, but remote learning exposed those differences very clearly — and also exposed the limits of my ability to manage those differences. There is nothing more humbling than being a professional educator and realizing that you have no ability whatsoever to educate your own children.
In addition, every trip on my calendar was cancelled. I had never been home so many consecutive nights in my entire adult life — and I realized that my bed, which I always loved, isn’t really all that comfortable. Now, with a house full of kids, even when I have time to work it is hard to find enough energy and silence to actually think. I miss the solitude of work travel. Twice I even slept in my guest room, just to experience that “waking up in a random hotel room” feeling.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I did the only thing my type-A self knew how to do: I created a schedule to manage the new routine! I now print weekly schedules for each kid which list their planned activities (remote school, virtual music and sport lessons, park play dates), as well as all of the other things they need to accomplish each day on their own time (read, play together, practice their instruments). We hang the schedules in the kitchen so that each kid knows what to expect that day and can manage their own time. This has given my kids a sense of control over their lives and enabled me to plan my work more efficiently around their schedule. For example, I now schedule calls during times when the house will be noisy — I walk outside and take the call. Then, I reserve times when the house will be quieter for my independent work.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
I love nothing more than bringing psychology into people’s lives to help them work, lead, and live better. I was doing that all day, every day…and then…not. My favorite part about my job — speaking face-to-face with large audiences, whether in the MBA classroom or the convention hall — disappeared overnight. This was a major hit to both my identity and my income.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The pandemic created a lot of open space on my calendar — space that I always complained I never had. The first week I was at home, I made a list of all of the professional activities I wanted to accomplish that I never had time to do: finish some old writing projects and start new ones, share insights on social media, update my website and branding, read more, deepen my relationships with some important people in my network, etc. I have found joy in having time to do all of these things.
I am also fortunate that I had a lot of experience in virtual education and facilitation, so I was able to pivot to remote speaking and training quite easily. And, the adaptations I’ve had to make to teach remotely have pushed me to be a better educator. It’s easy to get complacent once you’ve been doing anything for long enough. It is the challenges we wish we never had to face that force us to learn new skills and strategies.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
Decide on the top 1–2 things you need to accomplish that day and do them first. Recognize that items 3–999 on your list will likely not get done. That’s what tomorrow is for.
Find out when you work best and adjust your schedule to find quiet time. I’m a morning person, so if I need absolute quiet I would rather go to bed at 8pm and then get up at 3am to work. My husband is the opposite. He’ll put the kids to bed, stay up until 2am working, and then try to sleep in.
This is not new advice, I just find that it’s more important to actually follow it now.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
My sanity strategy is to try to live by a great piece of advice I heard from leadership expert, Drew Dudley: Prioritize your “to-be” list over your “to-do” list. Full disclosure, at the moment Drew said this, I was multitasking in a frantic attempt to cross things off my to-do list!
There are a lot of things I can’t do during this time, but I can still be who I want to be: a wife and mom who has time to cook dinner for her family every night and tuck her kids into bed; a healthy woman who prioritizes sleep and exercise; a friend who has time for phone calls and virtual cocktails.
When I am losing my mind, I try to ask myself, “who do you want to be today?” and let the answer guide my behavior.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- If you are reading this, you are still here.
One of my favorite Peleton instructors always says, “It’s a privilege to run.” Her runs don’t really feel like privileges at the moment, but I know she’s right. Every day is a privilege, especially during a pandemic.
2. The things you have gained are different, but perhaps equally good, as the things you lost.
As I try to eat clean in my middle age, I remember the advice I read in a nutrition book — focus on what you can eat, not what you can’t. Similarly, it makes sense to focus on what you do have right now, rather than what you don’t. There are lot of things I am grieving now — time by myself, date nights with my husband, family trips. But, there are an equal number of things that I am fortunate to have more of than before — mornings where I don’t need to set my alarm, mid-day runs, family dinners, and games. As crazy as it sounds, I know there will come a time when I miss these days — a slower pace, working in my athleisure, the sound of “Mom, mom, mom” played on a continuous loop throughout the house. Being grateful for all that this experience has given me keeps me hopeful.
3. We are putting humanity first.
Every professional email, call, or meeting now starts with a sincere concern for how everyone else is doing. Health, well-being, and family have taken priority over all other business. This is how it should be, and if this shared humanity continues longer than the pandemic we will all have been given a great gift.
4. You get to rewrite the script for the next act of your life.
I took a picture of my March family calendar — jammed morning to night with activities and commitments — next to my April family calendar — totally blank. The blank calendar wasn’t great, but neither was the overstuffed one. For me, happiness exists somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Now that many commitments and obligations have been stripped away, it gives each of us an opportunity to ask ourselves, “What do I allow back in to my life when the time comes? What do I not?” My hope is that the act of consciously choosing how we spend our time going forward, rather than simply agreeing to commitments out of habit, will allow each of us to live with more purpose and joy.
5. Your grand kids will find you fascinating.
My grandparents lived through World Wars and the Great Depression. As a kid, I listened to the stories of these times with rapt attention and marveled at how different their life was than mine. I begged them to tell me more. I fast forward to my own grand kids asking me, “Grandma, why do you hoard so much toilet paper and flour? Why won’t you shake anyone’s hand? Why do you drink so much wine?” I’ll pull them on to my lap and say, “Kids, let me tell you about the year 2020 and a thing called Covid.”
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Managing your own anxiety is key. Emotions are contagious, so people around you can’t be calm if you are anxious. Also, with my immediate family I like to use the strategy of “trading worries.” If one of my kids is anxious I ask them to describe the situation for me, then I share something about which I am anxious. I then propose a trade — for the rest of the day, or overnight, we ask the other person to worry about our problem while we worry about theirs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“One innovation at a time.”
This advice was given to me by my dear friend and mentor, USC Professor Peter Kim, as I was just starting out as a professor. I wanted to completely overhaul a new course I was teaching, but Peter counseled me against it, suggesting that I should make only one change for the next semester. Easier to measure the effect of this one innovation, he said, and much less daunting for me. Not only was he right about my course, but over the past 16 years I have found that this advice is the best answer to most of my questions (right after “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”).
There’s a lot of new in this new normal, and I think this advice is as applicable now as ever. Don’t try to change, tackle, or conquer everything at once. It probably won’t be very effective, and you’ll make yourself crazy trying. Just take it one innovation at a time.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
About The Interviewer: Karina Michel Feld is the Owner and Executive Producer of Tallulah Films. Karina has 20+ years of experience in TV, film, and print and is a respected member of The Producers Guild of America. The mission of Tallulah Films is to bring together directors, entrepreneurs, film investors, and screenwriters to produce award-winning TV and film projects. Tallulah Films continues to be drawn towards films that are meaningful, influential, and uplifting. Karina is also Co-Owner and CFO of Fresh Patch LLC (as seen on ABC’s “Shark Tank”).