Work-life balance: It’s one the most commonly used terms among today’s working parents, as in how exactly do we achieve that work-life balance?
Janet Ladd, a Baltimore-based professional coach with Life Meets Work, a Talking Talent Company, doesn’t have much use for this on-trend catch phrase. “The term itself diminishes our ability to achieve it,” she says. “It implies there is a magic ratio, but in reality, one area of our lives bleeds into other areas of our lives.”
In a world made more “frenzied” by technology and multiple responsibilities, many parents find themselves at work and thinking about home life, she says, or at home and working their mind through job problems.
Instead, parents might want to try a different mindset: “I am a good parent. How does my work fit into that?”
“There is an awful lot to figure out,” says Ladd, who works with women leaders, workers transitioning to and from maternity or paternity leave and other “high achievers.”
She spent many years working as a consultant before a cancer diagnosis was her career “wake-up call.”
She quit her job, enrolled in a program to become a professional coach and became accredited through the Kentucky-based International Coach Federation. Now she works with clients throughout the East Coast.
Coaching differs from consulting as it allows her to work individually with clients rather than a whole company and, in general, with clients who are open to change. Her job, as she sees it, is to “hold the space” for clients as they embark on that change.
Working parents can work toward more “work-life fulfillment,” her preferred term, by starting with a simple question: What does life look like on your best days? Parents then need to set realistic expectations for each week and prioritize, she says.
One of her clients, an attorney, followed this practice and stopped work 30 minutes before she left for the day to allow for time to reflect on what had been accomplished and to plan for the next day. This preparation gave her the peace of mind she needed before she clocked out and readied her for the parenting that waited at home.
Balance is indeed what today’s working parents crave, says Marlene Thomas, an ICF-certified coach who works in the Washington, D.C. area. “Balance feels like that impossible dream,” she admits. “A lot of people are in these high-demand jobs that look perfect to the outside world, but they are not fulfilled.”
Her clients have included an executive who had moved hours away from his family for a job and worried about staying connected with his family as his daughter looked for colleges. Another executive was raising a 4-year-old as her husband worked overseas for six months of the year. For large stretches, her life consisted of working and overseeing their household. She too wanted balance.
“It feels difficult when you’re trying to do it on your own,” Thomas says, adding that coaching is not therapy but an opportunity to get clients to focus on their values and priorities.
Parents “can have it all,” she says, “[but] we sometimes don’t take the time to stop and think about what we want.”
Professional coaching is now an annual $2.35 billion industry with more than 50,000 coaches globally, according to the International Coach Federation. While baby boomers make up a large part of the clientele, women are showing a growing interest in using coaching as a more personalized way to seek career and life advice.
Janet Branch, CEO of a Maryland-based behavioral health firm and the mother of a grown child, sought the help of a professional coach more than a year ago so she could better organize all that she was juggling at her job. “This sounds kind of corny, but in certain positions, you really do feel alone,” she says. Her coach held her accountable in a way that her employees could not, which made for a “trusting place to make mistakes, and a great experience.”
“One of the biggest things I learned is that I was human,” she says.
Karol Kain Gray, senior vice president for finance and budget at Virginia Commonwealth University, first encountered coaching years ago while working at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Her perception then — and one that she believes many continue to hold — was that professional coaches were brought in when there was a problem at the workplace. But Kain Gray says coaching is really about professional development. In fact, it’s a perfect way for companies and workers to advance themselves.
“I think the one-on-one of coaching is much more conducive for people to share the issues they have on the job,” she says. “It’s much more intimate.”
Like Thomas, with whom she has worked, Kain Gray cautions that coaching is not therapy, “It’s a reset. It’s a redirection,” she says. “In some cases, it could be an upgrade.”
For example, one of her workers was “miserable on the job.” Kain Gray sent her to a coach who helped the employee focus on her skills and goals. The employee ultimately found a different job, one in which was more productive and happier.
“I think everyone needs a coach,” she says.