The Tension of the High Achieving New Mom

simi_nwogugu_photo3_e2ea.jpgContributed by Simi Sanni Nwogugu of HOD Consulting

I started off as a coach for high-performing off-ramping women – women who step off the fast track to care for young babies – because I believed that was what I needed when I left my fast track job to care for my two boys born 16 months apart. I’d read the research about how these women lose their confidence and how the few that successfully returned to the workforce returned to lower pay and slower (mommy) tracks, and I wanted to do something about it.

After a few months of coaching only women out of the workforce (paid for by the employer they left who wanted them to come back), a potential corporate client asked if I would coach women who were still working. Specifically, they wanted me to coach three high-potential women who were pregnant. The Chief Diversity Officer said to me, “We find that these women who have achieved a lot in a short time, rising rapidly through the ranks, are the ones most likely not to return after maternity leave or they return and then quit after a few months.” It didn’t make sense to her that these were the women who left because they were the ones usually on executive track and therefore had more to lose! I accepted the assignment and learned so much from it that approximately 80% of the women I now coach are in the workforce, are not planning to “off-ramp” anytime soon, and are successfully dealing with what I call the tension of the high-achieving new mom.

So who is the high-achieving new mom? She is an extremely smart woman, most likely from Generation X (late 20s to early 40s) and most likely with an advanced degree, who has risen very rapidly in her organization because of her individual achievements and strong work ethic. Because of her rapid rise, she may find herself managing people who have more experience at her organization than she does and may sometimes feel like an impostor. At the same time, she is trying to cope with being a new mom at home – because she is so smart and has always succeeded in challenging new roles at work, she had anticipated that becoming a mother would come to her just as easily, but she is finding that to not be the case at all. Uncomfortable with the idea of not being able to give 150% at work and still be a super mom at home, she starts to wonder if she should exit the workforce… at least until her child is old enough for school after 3-5 years of developmentally-appropriate interactions with her.

Sound familiar? If so, keep reading. After coaching many women like you, I have identified a few factors critical for your success (and for the success of the employer that wants to retain you).

Get Management Training/Coaching. As an emerging/middle manager, you have to realize that your staff may not conduct the tasks exactly as you did prior to your promotion, but as long as you are motivating (not micromanaging) them to produce the desired results, you are doing a great job! Straddling the responsibility of managing the output of your subordinates and the expectations of your boss (and the C-suite) while keeping an eye on your unit’s role in implementing the organization’s strategy can provide a tough challenge for even the smartest people. For help, sign up for leadership training courses if your firm offers them or request an executive coach to help you make the transition from excellent individual contributor to excellent manager.

You are not an Impostor! In a 1978 study called The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women, psychology professor Pauline Clance and psychologist Suzanne Imes found that many of their female clients seemed unable to internalize their accomplishments. External proof of intelligence and ability in the form of academic excellence, degrees, recognition, promotions and the like was routinely dismissed. Instead, success was attributed to contacts, luck, timing, perseverance, personality or otherwise having “fooled” others into thinking they were smarter and more capable than these women “knew” themselves to be. Many of my clients have been so successful in their careers that they often carry the title of being the “youngest” this or “first” that (first woman, first African-American, etc.) so they often share their anxiety about not being up to the task. When I share this study with them, there is almost always a look of dismayed recognition – there was a name for what they had been feeling most of their lives! There isn’t anyone who is excellent at what they do that doesn’t feel this way at least once every few days – the important thing is to recognize it as what keeps you in a learning mode and use it to further improve yourself rather than let this feeling sabotage your success.

Build a Strong Support System. My clients are incredibly resourceful at work, relying on mentors and advocates when facing a tough work issue, but it sometimes seems that the resourcefulness does not transfer to the home because they refuse to get help with childcare responsibilities. They believe that childcare, if it is to be done properly, is the sole responsibility of the parents and therefore create enormous strain on themselves shouldering all the responsibilities that their spouses refuse to take on. A client once said to me, “I want my husband to be a more involved dad and if I get a nanny like he’s been asking me to do, it will give him an excuse not to do any of the things I want him to do with our son.” I pointed out that he wasn’t doing it anyway so who was suffering? I involved her husband in a 360-degree feedback program and hearing his reason for wanting a nanny (missed the intimate couple time he used to have with his wife, wanted her to take some time to pamper herself or have evenings out with her friends because these are the things that made her happy) made me incorporate building a personal support system into her development plan because I believe that any development plans at work would be useless if she didn’t take care of the situation at home. Not everyone needs to hire a nanny – often, the support we need is right there in the form of relatives, in-laws and maybe even a friend that stays home with her kids.

Develop an Open and Honest Relationship with Your Manager. In my experience, by far the number one reason many women leave their jobs is their relationship with their manager. Not having the support of a manager can be a major source of stress as you’re constantly trying to cover up any personal issues so as not to give the manager proof that you’re not capable of doing your job. The clients that have been most successful at managing work/life balance attribute it to the trusting relationships they have developed with their managers. As a high performer, you are an asset to your team and your manager recognizes that (at least a good manager does and if he doesn’t, you probably don’t want to work for him anyway) and will welcome any suggestions you may have on how you can be more productive at work, even if it means taking a non-traditional approach (telecommuting, working a compressed week, taking a short leave of absence to get your personal affairs in order). Many clients tell me, “My company will never support that” without even trying and then get pleasantly surprised when a manager backs them up on a radical proposal to HR. The important thing is to look at the situation from your manager’s point of view and make an effort to develop a realistic win-win proposal for both parties.

In working with my high achiever clients, I have had ample opportunity to understand the mistakes I made when I was a working mom in Corporate America. It is okay to feel like a fraud sometimes because it means you care about what you do and want to be great at it – however, it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help because it is the only way that you can truly have it all.

Simi Sanni Nwogugu is an executive coach and the founder & CEO of HOD Consulting, a diversity consulting firm that helps clients retain and advance women. She has over eleven years of finance and strategy consulting experience with various organizations including Goldman Sachs and MTV Networks. She has also successfully launched and led two organizations, including Junior Achievement of Nigeria and 2Hats Network LLC. Simi received her MBA from Harvard Business School, and a professional certificate in Organizational and Executive Coaching from New York University. She received her Bachelor’s degree with Honors from Mount Holyoke College, where she developed the passion for helping disadvantaged women and children. She is married with two young sons and divides her time between her two favorite cities in the world – New York City and Lagos, Nigeria.