Creating Solutions: My Interview with Flexjobs CEO Sara Sutton Fell

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I met Sara at a Work-Life Congress two years ago. She was warm, energetic and clearly a force to be reckoned with. The idea for FlexJobs came to her in 2007 when she was pregnant with her first child. She had started looking at flexible work arrangements for herself, and discovered how challenging it was to find something (a) legitimate and (b) in-line with her career. An experienced entrepreneur, she knew she had to step in and create solutions to fill this need.  I  love someone who sees a pervasive problem and goes out to fix it. 

1. What was your vision for your career when you started out?

My vision for my career was never to be an entrepreneur, but being introduced to the concept of entrepreneurship while I was in college did allow me to open my mind to how I could create something of value. At University of California, Berkeley, I was lucky enough to be able to create an interdisciplinary major, “Society, Technology, and the Environment”. Did it have anything to do with entrepreneurship? No, but it did hold for me one of the key elements of any successful entrepreneurial venture: passion. Since then, my career has taken a number of twists, turns, and loop-dee-loops, but the central focus has always been my passion for whatever project I took on.

2. How did becoming a parent shape your career path?

Well, it was more what happened as I was becoming a parent that shaped my current career path. When I was 7 months pregnant with my first son, I found myself laid off and job searching. I was looking for flexible work opportunities that were in line with my professional and career goals and that would provide work-life balance and telecommuting options. I was completely amazed and frustrated at the number of scams that existed in the work-from-home and flexible job niche, and I knew there must be other people in my position -- people who want legitimate, professional opportunities that are flexible, part-time, freelance, and telecommute-friendly. That’s how the idea for FlexJobs came about.

3. What are your 5P priorities (Personal, Parenting, Professional, and Pay)?

Personal - Doing something healthy every day. Whether it’s eating a salad from my home garden during the summer, attending an early morning yoga class, or getting out for a hike, living a healthy life is a priority for me.

Parenting - Being there to pick my boys up from school every day. Even though this occurs in the middle of a traditional workday, I always take a time-out from work to see my boys, hear about their day, and help them transition from school to home.

Professional - We’re in the middle of a round of hiring for FlexJobs, so my professional priority at the moment is focusing on really doing my due-diligence to find the right people for each position, and to manage this growth so that the whole company, and each person in it, is better for it in the end.

Pay - As the CEO of a business, I’m always looking at budgeting, determining the best use of resources, etc. So when I think of “pay” I like to think of alternative ways to treat myself -- rewards that take my mind away from the money aspect of the business and focus more on the larger picture. And one of my favorite ways to reward myself is to get a much-needed massage.

4. What is your biggest challenge as a working parent? How do you address it?

Focusing! Working parents, especially with today’s technology making this too easy, can be distracted by work when they’re at home, and by home when they’re at work. I try to be clear with my time -- work time is for work, and family time is for family, but it’s amazing how work can sometimes sneak itself into family time and vice versa, especially when you work from home!

I do a number of things to help myself address this. I have great childcare and back-up childcare so that during the workday, I can truly focus on work. But my husband and I take turns dropping off and picking the kids up from school, and we’re both lucky to have jobs that are flexible enough for us to take that special time out. In addition, I use Google calendar to keep myself and my family organized, so we all have a good sense of what each day will bring. And finally, when the workday ends, that’s it! I put down my devices and focus on reconnecting with my family.

5. What are your unique talents? How do you see them manifested in your life as a professional and as a parent?

I think one of thing I’m proudest of is being a supporter and a cheerleader. As a CEO and a mom, there are plenty of opportunities to say “no,” but one of my favorite things is finding a way to say “yes.” At work, everyone feels free to throw out ideas, no matter how crazy they are, knowing they’re receive consideration, and at home, I try to be a huge cheerleader for my family and their dreams and goals.

6. What motivated you to create FlexJobs?

Well, as I mentioned before, I experienced the problem of not being able to find legitimate flexible jobs amid all the scams out there, and I trusted my gut feeling that a lot of other people were probably trying to find the same thing. The idea of having one place where job seekers could go to find legitimate, professional-level jobs that help them find work-life balance was one that I just couldn’t get out of my head. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

It’s the same feeling I had when the idea for 1 Million for Work Flexibility came to me. With FlexJobs, I am able to see, on a very real, individual level, just how many people are looking for flexible jobs, and the amazing stories behind their searches. I’ve heard from working parents, retirees, military spouses, people with disabilities, students, and countless others who need flexible work options for a variety of reasons. It seemed to me that a groundswell of support was possible if only there was a place to direct that support. 1 Million for Work Flexibility aims to be that place -- where people can come together to voice their support for flexible work options.

7. Is flexible work for everyone? What advice do you have for parents who are considering flexible work?

The great thing about flexible work is that it takes many different forms, so there really is something for everyone. Working from home, having a flexible or alternative schedule, working part-time, freelancing, and other options all qualify as flexible work. So, even if one of those individual options isn’t a great fit for you or your career field, the others might be!

For working parents, I advise taking some time to sit down and really think about what flexibility is the best for your and your family. Consider all the different types and determine which combination of flex will help you achieve your goals and support the life you want or need for yourself and your family.

8.What has been your biggest challenge creating a virtual team? What are you most proud of?

Creating and managing a virtual team is definitely a unique managerial feat! A challenge for anyone hiring telecommuters can be finding the right “fit” in a potential hire. For our team, that fit is a combination of independence and collaboration, the ability to self-manage and work independently, while coming together and working as part of an overall team. It’s also about proactive communication, willingness to try new things, and commitment to the mission of FlexJobs. I’m most proud that we’ve been able to build such a strong and collaborative team across multiple time zones, and that because of our focus on hiring the right “fit,” we’ve been able to keep our turnover extremely low.