Empowered to be a Leader — and a Mom.

I remember vividly as a young girl watching as my mom’s face would visually transform before my eyes. A typical morning hurried smile replaced by tense lips and squinted eyes indicating both worry and concern, overlaid with a hint of fear as she would have to do a last minute scramble to figure out how she be able to make sure we were taken care of, as any one of us 3 young girls would be lying on the couch sick, desperate for the TLC only a mother can provide. The raging current of stress of getting the others to school and making it to her hourly paying job resounding through her like a sonic boom. I could hear her voice, anxious and nervous on the phone as she would call the manager at the bank where she worked as a teller to balance the messaging of information that one of her children was sick, with the subtext she was terribly sorry, she could still do her job and please don’t fire me. My heart breaks to remember those calls and that face.

Now, as the mother of three of my own children, 2 of whom are girls, one with special needs and a boy, I recognized that same well of guilt, fear and pleasing rising from deep inside from the minute my children were born, to me, someone who had always dreamed of professional success and accomplishment.

When I took over The Story Lab 3.5 years ago, from a woman, and a friend, who also felt this same pull, it was a never a question of making a choice, for the only choice was to 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 was, and still 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 that you need to stay home because your child is sick, or that you want to go to a dance recital or play was a priority for me, and so it would be the opportunity for all employees at The Story Lab. For the next 3.5 years, with that trust and opportunity so came growth and success for the business. Not totally by design, but rather by the right people for the right roles, The Story Lab executive leadership team is 90% women and over half of these women have children and the retention rate for our female leadership is 100%.

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 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 percent 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 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.

This both makes me proud as a leader of a company, but saddens me for all the women and men that have had to make, and make these choices everyday in an attempt to prioritize both work and family. It’s important for me as a leader to reflect on not only what we have done right but what we can do better and in honor of International Women’s Day, we took a closer look at the company 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 a culture of empowerment:

- Flexible Schedules: Working in an agency is anything but 9am-5pm. It requires late nights, weekends and travel. And 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 which ultimately makes them happier, less stressed and more loyal.

- 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 percent 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. It is most likely that you won’t remember the meeting you missed, but I can assure you will remember the moments you took to make the time to be with your baby.

-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 willing to listen, respectful and empathetic to their colleagues.

But, ultimately, I am still a simple girl from Southern Oregon, and so when I strip away all the fancy words and data, it is my heart that tells me kindness wins. Empathy wins. To be able to follow the golden rule and put yourself in someone else’s shoes has the power to make us brave, gives us the guiding perspective to stand for change, and the fortitude to create the environment that allows others and ourselves to thrive and feel empowered, and in my case to be both a leader and a mom so that my own children, and those of the wonderful people who work for me, will never know that face and that voice that so vividly haunts my soul.