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The elusive work-life balance

Faye Johnson graduated with an HBSc in Forestry from Lakehead University. Her 35 year career has been divided between public and private practice, mostly in forestry related fields. Starting as a tree planter she worked her way up to the Director level. Most of her experience is in the area of business and economics including: timber pricing, international trade, fibre procurement and operations planning. Earlier this year Faye stepped back from her role with the Ontario government to focus on her grandchildren and her bucket list. She has been active with the Ontario Professional Foresters Association for over two decades and is currently their representative on the Canadian Forest Accreditation Board. She also currently sits on the Owen Sound Transportation Company Board. This Crown agency is responsible for ferry services in Ontario. Faye is married and has raised 4 children.


The elusive work-life balance challenge

I have been asked to blog about my career in forestry and how I balanced rising to an

executive level and raising four children. Yes, the elusive work-life balance women have struggled with for generations. It has been a difficult blog to write because I cannot think of any one thing that made for success. At the same time, it did not come without sacrifice, commitment and a lot of energy. The reality is that there is no such thing as work-life balance. Success will be dependent on your ability to integrate these two aspects of your life. Below are the five strategies I employed and provide them for other women who want to “have it all”.

Nurture a strong support system

Advancing in your career will be much easier if you have a support system, especially at home. You (and your family’s) expectations will have to adjust to the increasingly demanding work pace as you are promoted. For me having the support of my husband, Greg Johnson, was instrumental in balancing these two aspects. He owned and operated a business and had flexibility in his schedule. It was still a challenge. When the kids were little I was accepted into the Ontario Advanced Forestry Program. This included 6 two-week modules without an opportunity to get home on the weekend. Without exception after the first week, on my phone calls home, Greg would express his frustrations. Next the kids got on the phone and begged me to come home. I didn’t go home and somehow they survived! Looking back, the active role their Dad played early on helped nurture positive relationships amongst them. Living in small communities also provided support networks as we had friends who would deal with emergencies when we were both out of town.

My sister, Riet Verheggen, was also a forester and that was very beneficial. Our careers started when natural resource managers were either biologists or foresters. Every sector was male dominated and gender biases were the norm. Public opinion was that mothers belonged at home raising children and not in the workplace. Some people went so far as to ask us how we felt about taking a job away from a man. At times it was a tough environment to work in and we helped each other navigate through many sensitive issues. We were each other’s sounding board and confidante.

Riet also rose to an executive level. Our families vacationed together a lot and we both have examples where one of us had to interrupt our vacation to take a quick business trip to deal with unforeseen issues. We would spell each other off and I don’t think the kids even remember these absences.

Advocate for yourself and adopt a “Go for it” attitude

An observation I would make after mentoring many young employees is that early in their career men seem much more confident and surer of what they want. Young women (and I am generalizing) seem to hold back and some are almost apologetic. Although most women have superior communications skills, many don’t have a “go for it” attitude. If you want to advance in your career, you need to be noticed. If you feel you are not being listened to or taken serious find the tools to deal with it. Without grit, perseverance and tenacity it will be challenging to compete in a sector that is still male dominated. These characteristics will also help you deal with the very challenging (but rewarding) and life-changing event called motherhood.

It is never too early to grow your leadership skills

Both parenting and navigating a career is demanding. From the start it is as important to grow your leadership skills as well as technical skills. Leadership skills such as communication, negotiations, facilitation and management become more important as you advance in your career. At the manager/director level interviews are all about problem solving, HR management and dealing with difficult situations. The benefit of leadership courses is that they teach valuable lessons that apply both at work and home. Even if you are not interested in upward movement these skills are critical when dealing with the public, interest groups and stakeholders. When my kids were young, I did not pursue promotions because I could not invest the time needed to learn a new role. However, I continued to develop these soft skills by engaging in less demanding leadership roles (e.g. chairing volunteer committees).

The higher you climb the more you will have to integrate work and home life

When I started my career, it was easier to contain my work life between 8 and 5 and to limit overnight travel. However, as I moved through the ranks I learned to integrate the two. I kept in touch with the workplace and usually worked through my maternity leaves. All my kids saw the inside of my workplace before they were 6 weeks old. When they were older they loved coming to work in the evenings and drawing on the whiteboard while I dealt with a few pressing issues. At one time both Riet and I were on the executive of the Ontario Professional Foresters Association. We were the only two women and were facing the challenge of what to do with our daughters while we were in a day-long meeting at the OPFA office. We decided to bring them along and let them do some arts and crafts in the supply room. At lunch they were invited to join us and they came armed with their creations: newspaper party hats for each member of the executive. I wasn’t sure how that would go over and was pleased that everyone played along. Each gentleman around the table ate their lunch with a party hat on. It still makes me laugh to think of it.

As technology advanced and laptops became available it became easier to do work from home. Getting up early on Saturday to get a few hours of work in before the kids got up became common. On the downside it became more difficult not to become a slave to my mobile device and I found that when I needed some down time the best approach was to delegate responsibility and assign an actor. If you ask my kids I think they would say I spent too much of my personal time distracted by my blackberry.

Your career, your family

Let’s face it; many of the household and child rearing chores still rest with the mom. Yes, Dads have become a lot more participatory and even if your better half is very helpful, you will have to adapt as your family grows. Getting the kids to help with chores, watching each other, taking simple family vacations (e.g. camping), tying minivacations to business trips, and having extracurricular-free summers all worked for our family. Lastly as a practical tip, hiring a housekeeper takes a tremendous amount of stress off your precious weekends. I highly recommend it!

Did I feel guilty about being absent as much as I was? Absolutely! I did learn that kids are resilient and the accountabilities they had at a young age made them better adults. From a young age they were making small decisions that ultimately taught them to be independent. They are adults now and interestingly all pursued science-based careers although not forestry. My oldest daughter is an engineer working in pharmaceutical, my second daughter is a kinesiologist working in Health and Safety, while the third, a son, is a fireman and the fourth, a son, has just graduated with a Degree in Fire Science.

I embrace the changes that have taken place since my parent’s generation, changes which will help women reach their full potential while balancing professional careers and raising kids. Society’s view of women and their value is also evolving positively. We have made great strides in two generations and have gained a lot of momentum. Raising a family and rising in an organization does mean you and your family will have to alter expectations and be ready to deal with the unexpected. For me, without doubt, it was as rewarding as it was demanding.

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