High-Profile Women Execs: How do they do it?

The topic attracted hundreds to the 92nd Street Y recently: How do high-profile female executives manage to raise families amid the demands of successful careers? Buttenwieser Hall was brimming with a mostly-female audience. A quote from an audience member, "Ah, the estrogen levels!", clearly depicts the mood as the crowd waited to be escorted to their seats for the discussion. The panel of three very successful women was moderated by the equally successful Lynn Sherr, ABC News 20/20 correspondent. The first question of the evening was, "Did it ever occur to any of you not to have a career and family?" Alexandra Lebenthal, CEO of the financial product and service company, Lebenthal & Co., cut to the chase when she responded, "I couldn’t imagine living without both things in my life." Although the circumstances behind juggling career and family were different for each panelist, they were in complete agreement that the decision to pursue a career coupled with the demands of motherhood can often be quite taxing. For Barbara Corcoran, chairman of The Corcoran Group, Inc., "I had a battle every day with my heart. I felt guilty when I was at work, and guilty when I was with my child, thinking I should be at work." Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, prompted laughter from the audience when she quipped that staying home with her infant "was great until four in the afternoon. After nine months, I realized I wasn’t helping my son with the mood I was in. So, I went back to work, and everyone was happy." The panelists admitted that the difficulty level of their "juggling act" gets kicked up a notch as the children get older and become more involved with school and extracurricular activities. One morning, when Lebenthal dropped her daughter off at school, she decided to browse through the children’s "When I Grow Up…" bulletin board. The caption under her daughter’s project read, "When I grow up, I’m going to have my own business just like my mom." Lebenthal, granddaughter of the founders of the company, is no stranger to the effect coming from a family with an entrepreneurial spirit has on children. Aside from the guilt and exhaustion, working women are also concerned about the choices they make in the childcare arena. Members of the audience were given a chance to pose some of their own anonymous questions to the panel by way of white notecards, collected by the ushers. When Sherr read the question, "What about women who can’t afford nannies?", Corcoran said, "My, God…you’ve got the wrong panel!" The question led to the lack of on-site company childcare facilities in New York City. When Lazarus mentioned the high cost of real estate to Corcoran, laughter predominated the stage once again. All kidding aside, there were many interesting points brought up by the panelists, moderator and audience members. Of course, the topic of the husband’s role was also covered. According to Lazarus, how a husband reacts to his wife’s success in the workplace makes "a huge difference." Without a doubt, the choice women make to work full-time is indeed a multi-faceted sacrifice. They often find society’s reaction to their decision can range from acceptance to disapproval. The ever-present debate of working mothers versus stay-at-home mothers was described by Lebenthal as "an intense battle, with each group a little jealous of the other." Toward the end of the discussion, the panelists offered advice to women facing the decision of whether or not to work outside of the home. Lazarus said, "Make sure you have a job you love. I can guarantee you will always love your children. But for balance, you also need to love your career so it doesn’t seem like work." Finally, Sherr posed the challenging question: "So, can you have it all?" No one had the answer, but all of the women shared a great sense of humor, infecting the audience. As for me, I could have stayed there for hours listening to more, but I had to go relieve my husband from his shift of watching the kids.

—————————————————— 'Momorandum': Professional Moms Advise on Juggling Work and Family

By Teresa Monge

New York mom Marisa Thalberg gave birth to a beautiful daughter, and shortly thereafter to an idea. Returning to work after her daughter’s birth, Thalberg found herself in the throes of trying to blend work and family, a task in which she knew she wasn’t alone. "The idea of Executive Moms was born out of a sense of need. My life had dramatically changed. I felt like I was starting school again. And I needed a support system, someone else who was going through the same ‘parent versus career’ challenge. But what I was looking for didn’t exist. So I created it," Thalberg says. Today, Executive Moms boasts over 700 members, all professional women from the tri-state area, many needing the same things — information on reliable child care, a good neighborhood pediatrician, assistance managing a flex-time schedule. What Executive Moms offers all working women is the reassurance that there is someone else out there dealing with the same issues, and hopefully someone else with some answers to their questions. Thalberg says the group is not just for new mothers and mothers of young children; many members have teenagers. Executive Moms offers something for everyone, she says. Executive Moms has a simple mission, Thalberg explains: to provide peer support and to show women that they can survive in both roles. "The women in this group are non-judgmental. It’s not ‘us versus them’. That’s totally irrelevant," she says. "We feel great about our lives. Our lives are rich. We don’t feel guilty." Executive Moms works on a simple premise: An interested working mom can check out the website online at www.executivemoms.com. If she is interested, she can register online. There is no fee. In turn, she will get Executive Momorandums, which are tidbits of advice, words of wisdom, or just common sense meant to help busy moms. Recent "momos" advise on traveling with young children and the extra equipment that's needed: rent what you need, have it delivered, and have it taken away when you’re done. Another gives information on how and where your children can volunteer, including information on sending these volunteer efforts to ZOOM!, the PBS show. Another key aspect of Executive Moms is its various events. One recently offered a panel discussion on childcare. Last spring, members took advantage of a day at a spa. "This event was not issue-related. It was just a treat for us. It was our most social event so far. It was very heartwarming," Thalberg says. "The women who attended really enjoyed it. And I got a lead on hiring a new nanny." Another event, planned for September, will feature a panel discussion on making job hours more flexible. The daily grind is a big focus. Leora Tanenbaum, a mother of two young children and author of the upcoming book, Catfight: Women and Competition, has been a member since late 2002. "For me, the primary benefit is feeling part of a community.," she says. "Being a mother of young children can be lonely regardless of whether you work for pay or take care of children full-time. Although I work for pay and I do get out of the home every day, most of the people in my work life don’t understand or remember what it’s like to deal with children. Sometimes I feel that I live in a completely different world from my colleagues. It’s comforting to have a community of working mothers who, from what I’ve seen, are not judging each other, and who seem genuinely interested in each other. The women associated with EM seem comfortable and secure with themselves, and it’s nice to be around them." Rebecca Brooks, owner of The Brooks Group Public Relations firm, finds that her role as an Executive Mom is almost more of a mentor. "I feel like I’m giving a lot of advice rather than needing it. I feel really good about that. I started my business in 1995 and I’ve been able to blend my family life with my career quite easily." When Brooks’s first child was born, she took the baby to work with her when he was a month old. When her second son was born, she waited two months before bringing him to the office. Now, in addition to running her own business, which represents beauty and fitness companies, products and services, she volunteers time to help Executive Moms organize its events. "Executive Moms is always looking for volunteers. At each event, we ask for volunteers, and many people initially are interested. But it’s harder to get them to follow through," Brooks concedes. How does Brooks manage her busy work schedule and her family life? "I take off on Fridays to spend the day with my children. The other days, I am out the door at 5pm. If I really need to spend more time working, I can work at home. I’ll do it after my children are asleep. It’s a rule with me. I want to be home. I just do it," Brooks says. As for Marisa Thalberg, who, when she is not running Executive Moms, is senior vice-president of marketing at Sure Fit, a home furnishings company specializing in slipcovers, she finds herself in a bit of an odd situation when it comes to meshing her work life and her family. "It’s the ultimate irony. I was trying to find ways to make my work life and family life easier and I created this organization that takes up some of my free time. But I’ve made these choices and they’re good choices for me," she says. "I feel confident and I know that I’m very professional at what I do. I think it’s great for children to see their moms go out to work; their moms become their role models. I don’t have ‘superwoman’ expectations. My husband and I have made compromises. We live in the city so we don’t have a long commute. We don’t have the most exciting dinners, but my husband, daughter, and I eat well." Husband, David, she says is "the supportive executive dad behind Executive Moms."