Seeing Possibilities: My interview with Cali Yost

 

My podcast is about sharing stories from parents who are redefining success for themselves, so they can better integrate their work and lives.

I decided this was something we were missing in the whole working moms/working parents conversation.  We hear a lot about our anxieties and not enough about our successes. As coach and consultant I talk to so many parents, men and women, who are feel stuck, burnt out and betrayed by careers that they have taken years to build. I guide them through thought and actions that give them options for finding satisfaction at work and as parent and person they want to be. I help people see what can be possible and get unstuck.

I bring my organizational development consulting, leadership coaching experience and training to my work with clients. I supplement that knowledge with  everything i learned from experts in the work-life field. Cali Yost is my go-to-expert.

Tell me about your experience as a working parent. 

When I had my daughter, I worked for Bright Horizon Family Solutions as a work life flexibility consultant. I worked on a small team. I traveled. I had corporate clients. I loved that job but my husband worked in NYC and didn't have a lot of flexibility. At that moment, based on the reality with my partner, I knew I was essentially going to have to be the” go to “person in terms of being available during the day to handle anything that would come up with our daughter.

At the same time and also equally as important, I was becoming very aware that the work we were doing inside of organizations to make them more flexible was going to go nowhere until individuals understood how to capture that flexibility and use it to manage their work/life fit. This was a skill set they needed and did not have. So I was beginning to do research into what that skill looked like. I knew that I needed to add that into the consulting practice in order to make any intervention or change work. That was not something at the time that my field or my employer recognized or understood.

When I decided to go off on my own that transition was partially driven by the need to care for my daughter but also equally determined by professional objectives that I wanted to achieve.

How old was your daughter when you decided to go out on your own?

Well, I had been noodling on this while I was pregnant actually. So basically, over my maternity leave, after I had her, I essentially put all the pieces together to make the changes happen and then my maternity leave was over. When my leave was over, I did go back briefly because I just wanted to double check. I realized when I was back in my job that all things that were driving me to make this change were real and I needed to make it. It was really hard. It was not a bad situation. Sometimes we have to discern between two really good options.  I decided to take the path I took.

How well did your expectations match up with the postpartum reality?

So here's the really important part of my story that informs much of what I personally do with my work-life fit.

My parents got a divorce when I was 12. My mother had stayed home. She had to, basically overnight, recreate her life and find a way to make money. It was a very traumatic period of time for me because, as you can imagine, full of a lot of uncertainty. At that time, I committed to myself that I would never ever be in that position. Even though my husband isn’t going anywhere.

I always had to move ahead so I didn’t really take much of a pause in terms of my momentum, I do not have the capacity within myself to comfortably take a break. I have to understand for myself that I am continuing to move forward. There is a period when you are starting your own business when you’re not making a lot of money. I didn’t take much of a pause in terms of cash flow beginnings, and in terms of the book being supported that took sometime. I was always consistently moving forward with the professional part of that work life fit vision.

Once you became a mom and went out on your own, how did your new role shape your understanding of the challenges that individuals faced in creating a work-life skill set?  Did it impact your perception of challenges that individuals were facing in the workplace?

Yeah actually, it did.  I think that you can study something forever and then when you go through it yourself, you gain a different perspective. I was eternally grateful that I had already figured out the road map that became my first book. It was all based on research I had been doing with companies. It almost made me more confident. I was able to say, this is what works, and it’s working.

The same thing happened a few years later when my mom got cancer. My sister and I became her primary care takers, and I then faced the elder care issue first hand. Until you're in it, you have no idea how difficult it is. In fact, I would say to all moms out there, when you think that the motherhood challenges that you manage are difficult, elder care blew that out of the water in ways I couldn't have imagined.  Going through these things yourself really does inform how you then present the information to people.

Let’s talk about roadblocks to work-life fit. A lot of parents I talk to really struggle with some of blocks around success and achievement. How do you counsel people, in light of the conversation we are having about leaning in, to thinking about achievement and success differently?

First of all, you and I have talked about this.  I think our language has to change first. It’s about your work-life fit. It’s about how work fits into your life day-to-day and through major life transitions. It’s completely unique to you. You have to see it as a continuum. On one side of the continuum are all the small little things you have to do to manage your work- life fit when you are working full time: getting to the dry cleaner and seeing your partner, things you have to be doing regardless of what your bigger work-life fit is. Then on the other side of the continuum, is perhaps if you work for yourself or only work a little bit. You are going to move up and down that continuum throughout your career. You have to give yourself the flexibility to do that. What that also means is you have to be just as flexible as how to define success related to money, prestige, advancement and care giving. And this is really hard especially for high achievers.

I have a story that illustrates this perfectly. I presented at Harvard Business School a few years ago. I was talking all about work-life fit and all different ways you can make your schedule work for you.

A young woman in the front row raised her hand and said: “Well, isn’t that going to hurt my career?”

I asked her what would be her option if she didn’t do that. And she said: “I’d quit.”

I said how is that “helping your career?”

This is a brilliant woman. She’s at Harvard Business School. For her it was easier to imagine leaving completely, than changing any component of that success equation to make flexibility work for her. And that’s a problem.

I’ve seen this happen so many times successfully, I wish more women would try it. It really does often work. You have built up years of goodwill, experience and value. Maybe you go in and propose a different role, a role that maybe doesn't require as much travel or doesn't require a managerial oversight over a group. Maybe it’s not as prestigious, maybe it doesn’t have you on track that you were originally, maybe you are going to make less money, but the point is, you are still in the game. You are continuing to move forward, but you moved into the slower lane. The hard part of that is thinking: who’s passing me in the fast lane? The people who started before you and maybe the people who started after you and that could be disconcerting. That can give you a sense that you are not doing any one thing well. When I hear women say that, I think, either you have not redefined success for yourself or you are not feeling good about what you are trying to do.

There will come a day when you raise your hand and move back into the fast lane perhaps, but in the mean time, you are continuing to move forward. When you leave completely, you are stopping off at the side of the road. You'll have to go into the slower lane to get back in, you will.  There is just no way to go from stop to fast because it doesn't happen. The only way to comfortably do that is to redefine success. Only you can do that for yourself.

The same thing goes with caregiving. You cannot be all things to your children. You have to pick priority parts of your caregiving that will make your work life work.

I don't volunteer my kid’s school. People find that shocking. That shocks other mothers. They just say, “Wow, how does that work?” I tried. I tried to find a specific, contained way to do that. It never worked. It always bubbled into a big thing.  It just didn't work for me. My kids really didn't care. I do the things that really matter to them like show up at their games. I had to redefine success of being an uber-volunteer at my kids' school. That was just not going to be part of my world at that moment.

 Recently, Judith Warner revisited Lisa Belkin’s Opt Out article with a NYT magazine piece, the Opt out generation wants back in. It was about people who had chosen to completely leave, and who were facing a penalty as they were going back in if they were able to get back at all. What was your reaction to that article?

I’m really glad that what I call the opting out smokescreen has been lifted. It’s been 10-year diversion from the true conversation that we all need to be having.  Work and life have radically transformed for all of us in the last 20 years. Not just moms, not just women, about all of us. That whole, on-ramps, off-ramps, discussion is a huge diversion from having to do the hard work. We made it about moms and women. And it’s not.

It’s about how we work and manage our lives in a 24/7 world, where there are no clocks and walls anymore to tell us where work ends and life begins. That’s it. That’s the real deal. Our organizations have to do some hard work. And our public policy needs to be rethought.  And we personally need to learn some new skills. How to manage our work -life fit day to day and manage life's transitions is a brand new skill set that we need to learn.

And so if we think it’s about moms and women, trying to stay in the work place, we're not going to be motivated to learn all that and make those changes. So I’m hoping is that now we realize, that's really not what the problem is. Now what do we do?

What do you think about the rise of entrepreneurship over the past decade or so? Is starting your own business or path that more people should consider in order to achieve work life?

People think that if you are in control of your schedule, you will not have a lot of the problems you had when you were working for someone else. But what that means is if you're not working, you are not making money. You have to be even more vigilant that the work-life fit you were trying to achieve with this change, is at least happening a little bit. Especially when you are starting out. You easily could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You could. It is not the work-life fit nirvana you imagine it to be.

I think we have to make where we are, work.  Most people I meet who leave, never presented a plan to their manager, never tried it. It needs to be the first step we all take. You are basically pushing your rock up the mountain trying get the momentum going behind what you are doing. You have to make sure that you are vigilant that the work life you are trying to achieve with this change, with going out on your own (is that used to happen a little bit, ?) because if you can just easily could 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

I honestly think we need to try more to make where we work work. Most of the people that I meet that left never presented a plan to their manager to work differently. I think that needs to be the first step we all take, because, why not? Try it. You were going to leave anyway. See what they say. Most managers that I know and have met in the workplace have said: “I would be open to that. I don't want to lose a good person.” You got to have a plan. You have to come to the table with the potential solution. They cannot give it to you.

That goes back to the skill set problem - people don't know how to come up with that plan. They just leave and think OK I'll start my own business. Then all of the sudden for years, the cash is not coming in quickly enough and they're not getting a vacation. There's seems to be an unending stream of things to do. How are you going to manage that? So again if you want that, awesome, but don't make it your work life solution. That's the answer because it’s got its own set of issues.

What’s your advice to two new parents, a couple who are thinking how do we figure this out, what do we do?

I definitely think you have to create your own work-life fit vision individually. Each partner needs to sit down and think what do I want? And be as clear as you can about that. Then you sit down together and see where the plans match up and where the mismatches are. Then come up with some kind of coordinated partner vision of your collective work-life fit. Then ask yourself what do you both need to do to make this work. Maybe that means that one of you is going to have X flexibility and the other is going to have Y flexibility. That’s the big picture. Then I think you have to have a weekly work-life fit practice. Touching base, tweaking it, making sure you are doing this and I’m doing that.

I tell people when you don’t have clocks and walls to tell you where work ends and life begins; you can’t be a passive bystander in your work anymore. You have to be much more proactive about it. You do the big collective reset together and then you have to work together to manage it week-to-week.

Maybe you could use your kids as an example, how do you get your kids on board with the practice and thinking about their work life fit before they’re working?

I really believe this is a skill set we all need to succeed in a modern world. I really think kids need to be introduced to thinking about how you get things done. In my kids’ school system, they do have a calendar they have to write all of their assignments in. I am trying really hard to get my kids to think through their activities that they have to do.

I am trying to get them from this age to have a combined work and personal calendar. Most of us do not have that. We have separate calendars. Right there, that’s a problem. You have to be operating off a complete picture.  At the beginning of the week, I try to get them to sit down and think: What do I have to get done? Then where do you have the space to do the other things you want to do? You want to babysit because you want to make some money. How do you make time for that? Who do you have to reach out to make that happen? Get them to start to be thoughtful about it, to make sure that what matters to them is going to happen.

I guess they’re a little bit young to start thinking about where their careers are heading. But they have started talking about what their work-lives will look like?

This came up over vacation. My older daughter wants to be a doctor, she interested in pediatric cardiology. She said: I’m really nervous about it, how I’m going to have kids and manage my work and life? I said, okay; so let’s talk about that. What could you do? And I said, okay, first of all you don’t have to be far away from your hospital. Maybe you aren’t going to work in a big metropolitan hospital. Maybe you’ll work in a suburban hospital and you’ll choose to be close to the hospital, so you’re not travelling a long way. You can join a practice with other doctors where you can coordinate the work together and cover for each other. You can make that part of the decision-making, about which practice you want to join.

So the goals for me are: to get her to see the possibilities and what she can control in this process and how not be overwhelmed by what seems like an intractable problem, when there is the solution that she can put in place.

The theme that seems to cross everything you do is you help people in your home life and in your work see possibilities for change both on a theoretical level, in terms of understanding success and how they want to define it, but also very practically. You are talking to your daughter about where she could live and work.

I want to reframe something. The practices that are in both of my books are based on the themes that I pulled from studying hundreds and hundreds of people in workplaces. The reset practice and the tweak it practice are all based on common themes that the people who successfully did this practiced. All I did was translate them into steps other people can take to get them done.  So I help people by translating, offering up practices and processes they can follow, but then within that, offering up solutions that will work for their situation. Does that make sense?

What’s neat is day to day, the tweak it practice is supported by academic practice. It’s about operationalizing personal asset allocation theory and boundary theory. There are two academically proven and studied concepts. The broader work -life fit reset process is a planning and a thought process that is also supported by academic research. I think it’s important for people to understand that there are solutions out there that have been studied and proven, but then how do you apply to your own life? That’s really the next step that they have to take.

You’ve been doing this work with organizations for quite some time now.  It’s been how long in total?

Almost two decades.

So, where are we? You are the authority on this. There are some conversations on motherhood that are cyclical, but the flexibility conversation seems to be moving forward. Would you agree with that? Where are we?

We’re at point where organizations are saying: ok we have to deal with this. But how do we do it? Obviously putting a policy and program place and having HR “own it” is not working. It’s not changing things So I think where we are is really now having to go back to that point earlier which is okay, you know, do the hard work.

To really change the organization to create culture flexibility is something that requires a complete organizational commitment and that means time, money and people.

Organizations are begrudgingly coming to the realization that they have to make the commitment of those resources to make meaningful change happen. I’m not sure organizations are quite to the pain point yet where they have had to make those choices. We’re coming there fast, because we’re going to have a convergence of issues. They are going to come together and ultimately make the need to take those steps unavoidable. Three of the main ones that I’m seeing are:

1. There is a real drive to reduce the real estate that companies are going to carry, just purely from a financial standpoint. They don’t need to have this big office space, when people can telework.

2. Not one person you actually want to hire and keep under the age of 30 is going to work for you if you make them come in every single day in their cubicle. For no reason they can see other than you want them to do that, and that’s not going to work for them.

3. The third issue is elder care. The cliff of elder care that we are approaching is mind-boggling. If you actually think about it, it could scare you. And that is a situation that affects men and women. It is not gender specific. It’s going to affect people who don’t have kids, young people, and older people. There has to be some flexibility in dealing with because there is no care support in the community. There’s very little.

So all these things coming together are going to drive companies to take the steps they need to take to really create culture of flexibility where the whole organization is involved, but we’re not quite there yet.

Can you give us an example of a company that you’ve worked with recently where you’ve seen the shift happen?

The best example I often use of a national, professional services company we worked with that didn’t have anything. I use them as an example because we went from 0-60. In a course of a three-year period, they went from basically very little day-to-day flexibility to where surveys showed that 94% of the people need that flexibility and how they manage their work-life fit. The engagement scores were great.

They had to do it because they were under great competitive pressure from other organizations in their industry that were much further along. Senior leadership made the commitment. They said we’re going to do this, we have no choice, we’re going to put the people on it, we’re going to put the money on it and we’re going to put the time on it. They did it.

They hit that pain point sooner than a lot of organizations did for competitive reasons. Also, because in their particular industry, the number of graduates with the skill set that they need is not going to be enough to replace the number of people who are going to retire in the next few years. So there is incredible pressure to retain as many of those people as they can.

Have you seen particular industries where these ideas and understanding of the future of work is catching on quicker?

It’s so funny. Here’s something that I find fascinating. You said, the future of work. Really what we need to be talking about is the future of work AND life. Think about it, right? We still see it separate. We really do. Until we break that barrier, nothing is going to change.

Absolutely and I know, you know, I know it.?

Right. That’s how deep it is in our culture. It comes out in our language. That’s why we don’t deal with this because we still are some visceral level, see it as separate things.  And it so is not.

That reminds me of that Towers Watson study that came out last year on the benefits of sustainable engagement.

That’s one of my favorite studies.

What is the difference between regular old engagement and sustainable engagement? Work life is a piece of that. It talks about how you know the more successful companies really give emotional and social support to their employees. How do you see that shift?

If you look at study, they identified five drivers of sustained engagement. The first four are not going to shock you. Leadership, goals and objectives are clear, good supervisor, can you buy into the company’s image, and the fifth one is workload.

If people aren’t able to manage their work-life fit, and their workload is such that they’re just overwhelmed all the time, they cannot sustain their engagement. They cannot sustain their productivity and their ability to do their job at their best level. It makes sense to add sustainability to that. Sure, they can kick butt for six months. Eventually, they may just say, “forget it” and burn out. They’re going to leave or they are going to get sick.  That’s why it’s such an important addition to the engagement conversation. That’s the missing piece. It brings life into the future of work conversation.

Do you feel like if companies were able to do a better job at sustainable engagement, it would increase average job tenure? People would reestablish loyalty with their organizations and not leave, or do you think it’s something employers should put in place regardless?

It’s super expensive to lose somebody. It’s super expensive to lose even what we would consider to be a low wageworker. That turnover data and costs are drawn from a number of different angles. It’s very costly for every organization. This issue is critical. Let’s take what many would consider to be the top pool of candidates to draw from, at least theoretically. A study by Universum this year of 21,000 business school graduates from across the globe, found that their number one priority is work-life balance. Number 1. That’s business school people.

What's driving this? What driving this is the visceral understanding on a part of individuals is that we've experienced this major transformation. It’s not about balance per say it’s about this shift away from clocks and walls. They don't know how to work through it, and there is no new language to describe it. I don't really think what they are talking about is balance per say, it’s that they are acknowledging that we have to manage all these parts of our lives together. They need to be in a place that's going to acknowledge that.

I truly believe if organizations were to make flexibility and how, when and where their work is done part of the culture, part of how that organization managed it’s business, and people have the skills and tools to meet the company half-way, we would unleash so much engagement, it would be profitable to organizations. Then yes, I think people would stay, I really do.

I have seen people stay who were going to walk out the door because they were able to get some flexibility in how they manage their work-life fit. I’m not talking about parents.   I'm talking about people who are super passionate about long distance running and marathons, and they couldn't find a way to do their training and so shifted their work life so they could train. Totally psyched. People who wanted to go back and get a graduate degree and felt the only way to do that is to leave. The company said no, give us a plan and we'll figure out how to make that work.  They were able to pursue their education and remained super committed to the company. So, there are just so many different ways to do this, if we acknowledge this reality, I think the pay off would be tremendous.

How do we encourage employers to be more open about what we need to make us feel engaged and in all parts of our life and how we can talk about different priorities with the same amount of respect I guess.

Ok, so this is going to sound a little contradictory. We need to bring life into the workplace, but I think we need to take the “why” out of our conversation.

All that should matter is, are you going to get this job done, how will you get this project done? Ok, we're going to get this job done? Doesn’t matter why. It should be completely eliminated from the conversation. When we do that, the situation will change.

It’s contradictory, right? As soon as we have an acknowledgement that people all have lives, let’s be clear: I don’t want to know what you’re doing or how you are doing it, but how are we going to get the job done. Let’s keep it focused on that.

The next level is how are we going to support each other.

So the conversation should be not about so much what are you doing and why you need to make this shift. It’s more about what we need to get done, how can we help each other get what we are trying to achieve?

This next thought is often misunderstood so I want to be clear. It’s unfortunate that so much of this work life conversation focuses on motherhood and parenting, because ironically, it hurts mothers.

In this debate, I heard both Alec Baldwin and Joe Scarborough both talk about how they made major work life fit shifts because of personal family situations. Alec Baldwin, a movie star, went to work on a little sitcom that everyone thought had no chance of succeeding. It was 30 Rock. He needed a consistent schedule to go see his daughter in California.

Joe Scarborough walked away from his dream job. I actually talked to him personally about this and he said: it was my dream job to be a U.S. congressman. He needed to be with his son, so he left his job. He didn't know what was going to do next and then started Morning Joe. It’s not just always about moms. We have to move this conversation away from moms. I actually believe if we did that and we made a flexible work-life fit continuum more the norm, then women would stay in the game.

I really believe that if we made just about all of us and what we all need to do and some of us are going to be on a different point on that and at different times. It would be great if we made it just about all of us and what we all need to do, all of us are going to be on different points of that continuum at different times. But we're not there yet.

You are really talking about seeing possibilities and what’s exciting about the two dad examples that you brought up is how successful those two men were. It shows just because you take an alternative path doesn't mean it won’t work out. You just don't know what that looks like.

Exactly, they have to redefine success. They had to do all the things that moms had to do. They did it for reasons that they needed to do it. I wish we would focus more on that and how that worked. Instead of judging that this is right, this is wrong, this is how we should do it;No, there's no way you're wrong.

This is why I love my job. The reason I love my job is, I’ve never heard the same work-life fit reality. They are honestly like snowflakes. I find that fascinating.

Now, that being said, organizations especially, they need to make money, we’ve got to put the profit on the board. Then how do we create a work place that acknowledges that, but uses that flexibility to actually achieve that profit goal?

Yeah, that's the question absolutely. So all we have to do is do that, solve that question.

We will! Organizations will get to a pain point, where they have to start to invest the resources in making fundamental cultural changes around flexibility, make it a part of business strategy. I think individuals will get to a point where they recognize, it’s like reading a book, or swimming, we have to learn how to manage our work-life fit, day-to-day and through major life transitions. Once we do that, I think it’s going to be amazing.

I do too.