Ep 5: Break Free From the Ladder: Forging Non-Linear Career Paths

The Work-Life Equation podcast

In this insightful episode, leadership expert and author Jenna Fisher shares her inspiring journey and hard-won wisdom from over 20 years of helping women navigate the corporate ranks. Drawing from her bestselling book To the Top, Jenna provides a practical playbook for creating meaningful change and closing the gender gap in executive roles. She discusses the importance of authenticity in leadership, the power of sponsorship, redefining career paths as a "web" rather than a ladder, and how the leadership traits once considered "feminine" are now indispensable in today’s workforce. Jenna also offers candid advice on work-life balance, supporting parents through equitable leave policies, harnessing age diversity, and empowering the next generation to maximize their potential.


Read the full transcript

00:00:05 – Commercial
Welcome to The Work-Life Equation, hosted by Priya Krishnan and Paul Sullivan. During this episode, you will hear from working parents just like you who understand the daily struggles and triumphs while finding our unique work life equation. Now, here are your hosts.

00:00:23 - Priya Krishnan
Hello everyone, and welcome to The Work-Life Equation podcast. I'm Priya Krishnan and I'm the Chief Digital and Transformation Officer at Bright Horizon.

00:00:31 - Paul Sullivan
And I'm Paul Sullivan, the co-founder of The Company of Dads. Thanks for joining us today. Today our guest is Jenna Fisher, a leadership expert and senior partner at Russell Reynolds Associates. She has over 20 years of experience helping women navigate upper management and has recently written a best-selling book called To the Top, which focuses on closing the gender gap in executive roles. To the top, which hit bookstores last March and made the Wall Street Journal bestseller list, provides inspiring case studies and a practical playbook for creating meaningful change. We'll be picking Jenna's brain today on what inspired her book, insights from interviewing successful women leaders, and advice for helping the next generation maximize their potential. We're thrilled to have her perspective today. Welcome to the work life equation. Jenna, thanks for joining us.

00:01:20 - Jenna Fisher
Thank you so much for having me here. It's an honor to be here and I'm thrilled.

00:01:24 - Priya Krishnan
Thank you for being here. Jenna, would you mind starting us off by telling us what inspired you to write the latest book to the top?

00:01:32 - Jenna Fisher
Absolutely. Well, I've always had a passion for keeping women on a path to professional success. Starting when I was in college as a sociology major, I wrote my honors thesis on the differential between boys and girls in math and science. And what I learned in that research is that the only statistically significant discrepancy or difference between boys and girls, starting around the age of nine, was around levels of self confidence, not around levels of achievement. And then fast forward a decade to when I first started working at Russell Reynolds as an executive search consultant and leadership advisor. And I would hear I'm the only woman all the time from women that I interviewed. And so I started convening groups of female board members and CEO's and CFO's together, and that followership grew over time. And simultaneous to that, I also had the experience countless times where I would be introduced to an incredible woman who had stellar academic credentials, had worked in a super hot company, led an IPO, whatever it might be. But then she dropped out of the workforce, out of the birth of her second or third child, and then fast forward a decade. She wanted to get back in, but it was almost impossible to rejoin the ranks of the working in a financially meaningful way after having been out for so long. And this led me to think there has to be a better way of keeping women with a toe, if not an entire foot or more, in the world of work. Because when you think about the fact that women constitute 71% of high school valedictorians, over half of college grads, over half of graduate school grads, and yet only 12% of CEO's are women, I just feel like that's shameful and it's a loss to our companies, our country, our society, and we need to do better.

00:03:23 - Paul Sullivan
You know, there's a great stat, it's kind of great, but sobering stat in your book, that at this current pace would take 132 years to reach gender parity. I'm wondering if, you know, the book came out in 2023. You've got two decades of experience at Russell Reynolds. You've been able to see the world of work change or evolve between those pre COVID days, during COVID and what we're in now. Are you seeing anything from some of the companies that you advise that gives you hope that perhaps it won't take 132 years to reach gender parity? Are certain companies doing things that are really interesting and meaningful that other companies could learn from to speed that up?

00:04:02 - Jenna Fisher
Yes. Well, first of all, I want to say I have a lot of hope, and I do believe we will short circuit the 132 years. And there are many things. There's no silver bullet, as in life, there's very rarely a silver bullet to success. It's doing many, many things well. And the good news, bad news, is that no company is doing everything perfectly, from what I can tell. And so there's lots of room for improvement. And I do enumerate many of the things and ways in which companies can start to effectuate change in my book. But I think that one of the things that really caused me to write my book when I did is I realized, going through COVID, that it used to be thought that the more traditionally, dare I say, male in air quotes, forms of leadership, being disruptive, being risk taking, heroic, galvanizing, all these more extroverted, loud forms of leadership, that was what people thought were the hallmarks of a great leader. That in probably being six foot, three inches tall. But what we've come to learn both over the course of time as well as through a lot of data, we have an exclusive partnership with Hogan, which is generally considered to be the preeminent assessment tool. This is leadership assessment in assessing the capabilities and skills of people is it actually, what is most dispositive of success is the ability to, yes, sometimes be those more almost militaristic forms of leadership. But equally, the important thing to think about is how does that person pivot in a different circumstance and exhibit seemingly anachronistic kinds of traits, like being pragmatic, being reluctant, being vulnerable, being connecting. The leaders who can do both of these things, depending upon the context and time, are the leaders who are actually set up for the most success. And I think we saw this in droves with COVID with a real need to lean in, with connectedness, empathy, kindness. These are areas we saw women really shine as leaders. And we actually went back and pulled the data of the last 10,000 position specifications that we've co created with our clients. These are the documents we write at the onset of every search to say, here's what our client is looking for in its next leader. And we have actually seen that the demands that have been placed upon leaders have evolved and changed over the course of time. And I think that's a good news for women. And by the way, I should mention, I do believe that companies are going to get religion around this, not out of some benevolence or kindness or being sort of do gooders, although I do believe it does good. But really, because of cold blooded, carnivorous capitalism, I think the companies that figure this out the fastest, the best, the smartest, are going to attract the best talent, retain the talent, promote the best talent, and ultimately be more financially successful. And that is why companies will do all of these things, and we can get more into some other ideas as we go through. But that was something that, just to frame the conversation, I learned at the outset of my research for the book.

00:07:09 - Priya Krishnan
And you interviewed 50 successful business leaders in the book. And were there some common themes that stood out for you? Were there successes, lessons that people should take forward? Were there missteps that you would highlight from the book?

00:07:27 - Jenna Fisher
Yeah. Well, I would say one thing that really struck me in my over 50 interviews for the book was that the women who had made it to the top did so not by being somebody they're not. They did it by being authentically themselves. And I think, you know, decades ago, the conventional wisdom was that if you were a woman, one of the very few in the corporate world, at the top or near the top, you had to almost, you know, be a man, if you will, or act like a man or look like a man to continue to be successful. But, you know, now we see that actually it's much more helpful to be yourself, because people do want to be led by authentic leaders, and they do want people to show them what they're really like as humans. And that ultimately engenders so much more loyalty and success as a leader. And I had one woman I interviewed for the book, Dame Vivian Hunt, who. I mean, she's a dame, so even the queen loved her, clearly. She was the. The vice chair of McKinsey, the global consulting firm in London at the time of the interview. Now she's the chief innovation officer of United Healthcare, which is a fortune ten company. And she shared this story of early days in her career. She felt like she had to kind of show up as people expected her to. And it wasn't until she was four or five years into her career at McKinsey that she got some 360 feedback. And she read the feedback, and she thought, gosh, this doesn't really even resonate with me. Who do these people think they're working with? And she realized that she had not kind of let down her mask to let them know what she was really like, whether it was things about her family or her upbringing or her hobbies or interests or her sense of humor. And so she gathered the courage to say, you know what? I know I'm doing a good job here. I don't think I'm going to get fired, but I do get fired. I'm pretty sure I can find a job somewhere else. And so she just decided to let down her mask. And she really credits having that courage as the moment that her career took an inflection and really elevated and escalated, and people really started wanting to work with her in droves, because, again, I don't think people want to work for a robot or an automaton. They want to work for a real human who can empathize with what they're going through. And so I think, as we think about how people are successful today, that authenticity is a really important element to consider.

00:09:51 - Paul Sullivan
You know, I don't want to be critical of robots or automatons, but, you know, there's one thing we know in corporate America. There is business speak. There are phrases that persist and frame a lot of conversations. And one of the most persistent, of course, is climbing the corporate ladder. And the alternative to climbing the corporate ladder is your career has plateaued. I know. Between us. I know you have two kids. Priya has two. I have three. We've all played the game of chutes and ladders. You climb the ladder, and then if you make a misstep, you take the slide. You go all the way down. You, in your book, toward the end, when you're giving some practical advice, you try to eschew the ladder and paint a different picture. And that's the picture of a web. So please describe, what does it mean to think of our careers as a web and not a ladder?

00:10:41 - Jenna Fisher
Yes. And you may or may not have noticed, but the COVID of my book actually has sort of a stylized web on the COVID to sort of give you the background.

00:10:51 - Priya Krishnan

00:10:52 - Jenna Fisher
Yeah. Yes, exactly. And so really, because I do think this idea, when we look at the inflection points where we lose a lot of women, people talk about that first rung of the ladder. And, you know, I will tell you in all honesty, if you asked me six years ago, hey, here's the resume of a 53 year old VP. Will he or she ever make it into the C suite? I very well may have said to you, you know, if they're not there already, maybe they're just not going to be. But now I think that was such a misguided sentiment because maybe there were reasons that that person wasn't running a 26.2 miles sprint every day of his or her career. And maybe they're going to break into the C suite at age 55 when their kids are off in college and they're more free to travel for work. I interviewed several women in the last chapter of my book, the long tail, who didn't even work outside of the home until their forties, and now they're hitting their professional stride in their sixties or seventies. I mean, after all, we're hopefully fingers crossed all living longer. And so I think we really do need to give people the freedom to run the race at their own pace. And one of the women I interviewed for my book is the EVP of technology at Autodesk, Amy Bunszel. And she talks about really needing to be more courageous in our hiring decisions. So often there's this inclination to just look for the purple unicorn and to think that there's such a thing as the perfect candidate. I mean, I can tell you I've done over 600 searches. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate. Everybody has their puts and takes. And so if you have somebody in your organization who is a great contributor and they're a culture ad and an a player, maybe what could be helpful? Instead of giving them this up or out of like, hey, either get to the next promotion milestone in the next two years or forget about it, you're out of here. Maybe it could make sense to say hey, you know, do you want to take this? You know, perhaps what might seem to be kind of, you know, a sideways step, but exposing that person to another part of the organization in the idea that over the course of a few years, they get different experiences that will ultimately position them that much better for p and L management, which is the key if you want to be a CEO. This is part of the reason why very few women become CEO's, because they don't get p and l exposure. We have lots of women in legal path, lots of women in HR, lots of women in sales, but really, the key to running an organization is having that p and l exposure. And so perhaps by rotating around, that could ultimately inure to the benefit of those women and men who want to get that exposure. So I think we just need to be a bit more open minded and also look at the data around potentiality. We have assessment tools and data that can point out for us who really has a longitudinal success rate of being able to pivot and have learning agility. Those are things that are so much more dispositive than just checking a box.

00:13:53 - Priya Krishnan
You spoke about the 53 year old VP who comes in and could she or he may break into the C-suite. And in the book, you also talk about developing age diversity and making age very much part of your DEI strategy. Do you talk to us about that and how organizations should think about it?

00:14:13 - Jenna Fisher
Yeah. Well, I will say if I were to write a second book, my working title is retirement is for quitters. Because I do think what we've all sort of thought of as retirement is largely a social construct, and we're losing so many people who have such invaluable skills and assets. But ageism, which is one of the last isms, I think that's tolerated in corporate America, if not more broadly outside of America as well, is a double whammy for women. Because here's why. When you think about the fact that for a heterosexual couple, the woman on average is about three years younger than the man, it might stand to reason that when that couple, if they decide to have children, especially for an organization where the woman gets an outsized parental leave benefit relative to the man, which hopefully that's changing. But for now, that is the case. Still, in many, many locations, that couple might have a pretty big earning delta, right? Just because three years early in one's career can make a pretty big difference from percentage basis, they might very rationally say, oh, okay, well, you get a much longer parental leave than I do. I'm making 30% more money than you. So I'll focus on being the breadwinner, and you focus on home and hearthstone. And that point, that schism, really becomes more and more exacerbated through time. And that's what I think. Ultimately, you see a woman who comes back to work, and yet she's the one who's getting all the calls from the childcare providers, she's the one getting all the calls from the dentist in the school and thinking about, when are we running out of mustard? And that mental load becomes so divergent. And it's not that anybody is intentionally trying to harm women, but the way that the structure has been set up really is a pretty big pitfall. And so if the woman is just for the reasons of biology, taking a little bit more time out of the workforce, it might take that woman a little bit longer to get to the senior director level, the VP level, the C suite, than it does the man who doesn't have as many interruptions. So one of the things I hadn't even thought about before I wrote my book was the importance of parental leave, especially for men to take paternity leave and the importance of companies to not just offer it, but to celebrate those men who, when they come back, great. Wonderful. And, you know, just making there be zero friction for men to take it, because men also have, you know, the patriarchy isn't just bad for women, it's bad for men, too. And so I think that we need to create frictionless environments so that everybody can sort of live their best life and contribute to their best, you know, highest purpose at work.

00:16:59 - Paul Sullivan
Yeah, I want to pick up a little bit more what you just said there on parental leave for fathers, or by extension, you know, non-birthing parents. Obviously, something we do at the company of dads is focus on lead dads, and they're the go to parent who are not just parenting, but also supporting the wives in what they're doing. But, you know, you can make the case for equal parental leave for both the individual. It's good for the mother and father to have time to bond with the child. Good. Perhaps, you know, juggle the leave a little bit to get more time at home with the child. But you can also make the argument that it's really important for gender equity in the workplace. If you have 20 weeks of leave and the birthing, the mom has to take all 20 weeks. You do that three times, it's 60 weeks. If the father only takes a week, well, that's only three weeks. And so there's a 57 week difference. That's all. You can make the case. It makes total sense. But what I want to ask you is, somebody with all your experience advising top leaders, how do you convince some of those managers that the off the cuff comments that they make are pernicious? The comments like, hey, yeah, you know, how was your vacation? Welcome back, or, boy, you know, when I was at your level, I didn't take any time off, man. I just sat down just working, and those comments persist. They're bad for the dads. They're bad for the moms. Even if they're said in jest, they set the wrong tone. So how do you, when you come in or when Russell Reynolds comes in and you're working as, you know, coaching with these guys, how do you help them realize that that is not just bad for those individuals, it's bad for the company as a whole?

00:18:31 - Jenna Fisher
Yeah, well, I mean, several thoughts with that question. Part of me wants to go back to, if you really want to retain women, you need, and we make up half of the population, half of the talent out there. You do need to create environments where you can see it to be it, because it is a war for talent out there. I'm on the bleeding edge of this every day as an executive search consultant, and I see truly how the best people will migrate to the best places. And so I would use an ROI argument, for starters, as like, a reason why. And then there are obviously so many studies that prove that more diverse teams yield better outcomes, they yield more successful financial results. And so, you know, they're more representative of their customers, their clients, their employee base. So I think there are myriad reasons why, just from, again, a completely selfish perspective. But I think you make another important point here, Paul, which is sometimes we think Dei programs, whatever, have to be these big, expensive, complex things. And of course, we here at Russell Reynolds do go in and we do unconscious bias coaching and all, you know, and help companies unpack how they can be more equitable in their hiring decisions. And that is very important. But sometimes it's as simple as, like you said, the words people say. One of the women I interviewed in my book, Sarah Mensa, who is the GM of the Jordan brand at Nike, I think, said it very well when she was talking to her. Whenever she has anything pertaining to her family that is going to take her out of the office for a few hours or whatever the case may be, she goes around and she does something, she calls leaving loud, which is she lets her team know, hey, I'm going to beat my son's soccer game for the next couple hours. Feel free to call me if you need me, or I'll be back online at 06:00. It seems like such a small thing, but when you give people the mental and psychological freedom to feel like, hey, you know what? This company actually supports my life outside of work. And whether or not people have children, most people have. Maybe they have an elderly parent or they have a pet, or they just have a hobby they like to spend time doing. I mean, I think the more we can allow people to feel that freedom, you will end up getting so much good work out of them, and they will be so loyal. Several years ago, I had a guy on my team who apologized to me because he had to take his son to the pediatrician. And I said, first of all, please don't ever apologize to me or anybody else, but especially to more junior people, because there is no apology needed. Like, we all have these things we have to do. It's just part of life. And I know that you're going to be online until whatever you need to be tonight to get everything done. And so I think if we can measure the outputs of what people are doing instead of the inputs, we really operate from a place of trust. And again, I think in a knowledge worker environment, we're going to get the best out of them, you know?

00:21:28 - Priya Krishnan
And I think organizations have such a big role to play in this. I mean, as bright horizons. This is what we do with organizations, is think about how do you design benefits to make sure that people actually have the supports they need, whether it's at home, you know, for their loved ones, pets, elders, etcetera. I've always had this belief that if you want equity in the workforce, you have to have inequity and benefits. So if you want to support women, you need to make sure that they have disproportionate support because they might be taking on more of the household load. If you want racial diversity, you have to think about student debt differently. Is that how you see employers best employers are attracting this best talent? Do they have these three or four magic bullets from how they're supporting women or supporting diverse populations in their workforce? Could you talk through that? Are there things that people are doing which are unique and special? You said nobody's getting this 100% right.

00:22:29 - Jenna Fisher
I think there's lots of room for improvement. And, you know, there is unconscious bias that we need to at least admit is happening before we can do the really hard work of undoing some of that. But I think one of the things that gives me a lot of hope is that I have had literally countless men since I published my book almost a year ago now come to me saying, what can I do? And I think one of the really important things that companies can cultivate is allyship. Almost all of the women that I interviewed in my book talked about a really influential man that she had had in her life early on, somebody who believed in her, somebody who was her sponsor. And I wanted to delineate for a moment between mentorship and sponsorship, because I think a lot of women, especially younger women in the workforce, do have good mentorship. A mentor is somebody you admire. You want to be like you see yourself as, and that's great. I wholeheartedly love it. Go for it. But I think what is actually more dispositive of success and more helpful is for women. And this also is true for, I would say, historically underrepresented people of color is having a sponsor or multiple sponsors, people who will be your advocate, talk you up when you're not in the room. It's the people who are looking out for your best interests, who want to make sure you're given good opportunities. And in retrospect, I realized as I was writing this book that I was very fortunate to have sponsor earlier in my career. I didn't call him that because I don't think I knew that word in that context back then. But it was somebody who I did not see as my mentor, per se. I mean, it wasn't somebody that I went to lunch with or wanted to be, like, in the sense of, like, wanted to, you know, kind of have the same life that he had. But I greatly admired his work, and we bonded over that. I mean, again, we didn't golf together. We worked together. I worked my tush off, but there was a reciprocity in that. And when I was not in the room, he would say, oh, hey, you know what? Jenna, she's amazing. She just did this with this client. And as a result of that, I got opportunities that people who were five or six years my senior didn't get. And so I think really seeking out those sponsorship opportunities, and by the way, companies can help create them as well, with high potential women in particular, to say, hey, you know what? You need to make sure you have somebody looking out for you. But you, if you're a young person, you can also think about who's maybe four or five years my senior, who I could work with and let it be about the work. It doesn't need to be about joining a wine club or, you know, talking about vacation planning. It really needs to be predicated on the work.

00:25:08 - Paul Sullivan
You're listening to The Work-Life Equation podcast with Priya and Paul. Our guest today is Jenna Fisher, author of To the Top. We're just going to take a short break and we'll come back for part number two.

00:25:29 – Commercial
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00:26:23 - Paul Sullivan
Welcome back to The Work-Life Equation podcast with Priya and Paul. Our guest today is Jenna Fisher, top recruiter at Russell Reynolds and author of To the Top. Jenna, before the break, you were given some great advice about how people should think in the corporate setting. But, you know, reading the book, you give a shout out to your husband, Colin, you mentioned you have a son and a daughter, both teenagers. How have you made this, you know, work, your own work life equation? And what from that might others learn something from?

00:26:56 - Jenna Fisher
Yeah, I mean, I'm a big proponent of saying that having it all does not mean doing it all. And I think you have to be very intentional about what is most important to you. I know that when I first had our son, I knew of course, I was going to go back to work and continue on my path to becoming a partner at Russell Reynolds. And I very necessarily could not do two full time jobs, being a full time caretaker of a child in a home, as well as my career. And my husband also has been a CFO, so he has also a big career. And so what I decided is I'm going to focus on the things that are most important to me. We outsource as much as we can afford to. And then for me, I was like, okay, you know, I don't necessarily need to be responsible for feeding or bathing my child. I mean, I need to make sure that happens for them, but I didn't need to be the one to do that. What was really important to me was I want to spend quality time reading to them, playing with them, talking to them. And so I would make sure to leave the office by 05:00 every day, get home by six, and spend, you know, the intervening hours before my, my son would go to bed just hanging out with him. And my husband similarly picked the things that were meaningful and important to him. But it wasn't even until COVID that we ever got to have family dinner together because we just wouldn't get home from the office in time to do that. But nevertheless, we felt like we were really able to do the things with our, you know, ultimately two children that were most important to us as parents. But, you know, I think, you know, one of the yins to my yang is Eve Rodsky's book fair play, which, for those of you who haven't read, I highly recommend. It's more about the home equation and the home side of things. My book, of course, is more geared for corporate life and companies and how people can navigate their way through that. But I do think it's just as important for, you know, the father to know, you know, the name and number of the pediatric dentist and when the ketchup's about to run out and, you know, all of those, you know, myriad little things. And really having equality on that front and mutual respect for one another is for us, at least really, at the very foundational elements of our parenting relationship. And I would also have to give a shout out to my mother in law because she is a woman ahead of her time. She was one of the first women to graduate from the Columbia School of Business. She had a career when my husband was young. And I really do think that having a working mom for my husband was so foundational, important for respecting women, seeing what they could offer the world, seeing their relevancy and importance outside of the home, and also learning how to be independent. I mean, my husband, when he was seven, learned how to make his own lunch, how to make his own bed, walked himself to and from school. You know, he gathered all of these skills, and he still is the one who probably knows how to operate the washer dryer better than I do in our house. So, you know, I think having a working mom in particular can be so impactful for young boys as they're thinking about women and what their ideal role model is of a woman. So shout out to her.

00:30:17 - Priya Krishnan
And Eve Rodsky was one of the guests on our show, and she's a good friend of both. So, you know, we absolutely believe that you have to find this equation at home. And you're so right. I had a similar thing. My challenge was different. I had a stay at home mom, and I resist the help for the longest time. And so my husband would keep saying, hey, my mom worked. And I know this is tough. Why are you resisting the help? So the formative years are really critical. I want to go back to the career side of things. Just given you're both a coach and you're a lead recruiter, and you've seen this for many, many years and over several decades, what are defining characteristics and how much of this is nature versus nurture? So you highlighted the fact that the skills that women have are now more valued versus or in a more volatile and sort of complex world, the skills around empathy and, you know, your ability to swap and be vulnerable, etcetera, are valued. How much of this are you seeing as a trend, and how do men inculcate these, and how do women enhance these as they move forward in their careers?

00:31:32 - Jenna Fisher
That's a great question. You know, it's interesting. One of the first people I talked to when I started writing my book was the chief data scientist at Hogan. And I asked him, I said, can you please have your research team delve into all of the ways in which men and women are statistically significantly different from one another? And he and his team set about for many months looking at millions of data points to try to figure that exact question out. And ultimately, long story short, there are actually no ways in which women and men are statistically significantly different from one another in terms of how we show up or the skills that we really have. That being said, I do think there are differences in terms of our acculturation in the way that boys and girls from a young age are socialized. I mean, when you think about the biology of it, other than the fact that women are the ones who birth children, we don't necessarily know any more about raising children than men do. It's just we've been, you know, had a probably a baby doll shoved in our arms for the age of four instead of an army figure or a truck. And, you know, we're encouraged to babysit instead of, you know, mowing lawns or whatever. And so I think that, you know, when there are millions of differences that come through socialization, through nurture, of course there may be a perceived difference, you know, 30 years later, but these are all skills that men can learn. And we're actually seeing a big demand from our male leaders in, like, please help us learn how we can be more empathetic leaders, how we can be more collaborative and vulnerable in our leadership style, because we're seeing that it's paying dividends. And so it's not that men or women either, either gender cannot do these things well or does these things better than the other. But it's really a matter of having learned the behaviors.

00:33:16 - Paul Sullivan
You know, when you think about the workplace advice that you're doing, you just mentioned that. It wasn't until COVID where you started having family dinners together. I think a lot of people started having family dinners because you weren't having dinners with anybody else. Nobody was going to, you weren't going out. But when you think about Russell Reynolds, you were still doing great work during the pandemic, working from home. Companies were still hiring and firing people. The economy kept chugging along. Now we're in this moment where people are trying to figure out what does work look like in 2024? What does it look like when people are in the office for a certain amount of time? What should they be doing when they're in the office? When they're at home, what should they be doing? Some CEO's take a much harder line around being in the office. Some CEO's take a much larger line. When you think about the best that you learned from working remotely during COVID and the best that you know from all your years of working in a more traditional office environment, how can those two be melded? And what advice do you give, not even to the tippity topic, who are trying to figure out, you know, what this, what work is going to look like for them.

00:34:23 - Jenna Fisher
Yeah. And honestly, this is also why I wrote my book when I did, because this is, we are, I think, undergoing what is the biggest shift to how we work since the advent of the industrial era and when it began 100 years ago. And so I think we're living through and trying to figure out exactly what the perfect recipe here is. And it's not going to be one size fits all for every organization or even for subgroups within organizations. But what I found really interesting was that the very nascent days of COVID I don't know that we knew it was the early days, but this was about September of 2020. And I conducted a survey of about 200 of my clients and I asked them one simple question. I said, when it is safe to do so, how many days a week do you ideally want to go back into your office? And although the vast majority, I think it was about close to 70% of people, said two days a week felt about right to them. The really interesting finding for me was that at the barbells at the ends of the spectrum, it was literally only men who said to me, I want to go back in five days a week, like, bring me back to 2019. And conversely, it was only women, it was 100% women who said, I never want to go back in with any regularity, save for special events. And that really led me to believe that although at first, the pandemic clearly had a detrimental impact on women's careers, as so many parents had to help manage their children's online school and domestic helpers were unable to come do their normal jobs. But I think as time went on, once kids were back in school and the new normal of working remotely became a huge benefit for families, women in particular. Many knowledge workers in the world said, hey, we've proven that we can do our jobs just as well. And so, you know, it's funny, I think about my grandmother, and when I was a very young child, she lived on a farm. And I remember when I was five or six, she got her first washer dryer. And up until that point, she would always scrub laundry by hand. I remember going out and helping her hang it on the line to dry. But once she had her first washer dryer, I can assure you she never did that again. And I think similarly, the system we have of driving to offices every single day, for many of us, not for everybody, but that was modeled after the assembly line created at the advent of the industrial era, when a time where managers had to physically see their teams. We didn't have computers, we had to make sure the work was getting done, and we didn't have ways of collaborating and communicating electronically like we do today. And so I think one of the things that COVID has really shown us is that what's most important in thinking about managing people is how you measure their outputs, not their inputs. And it used to be, I'm sure we can all, if we're all. Anybody of a certain age can remember a time where you knew somebody who was getting into the office every day at 630 and not leaving till 10:00 at night, and you'd be like, wow, that Bob, he's just crushing it. He's a killer. Well, who knows what Bob was actually doing all day, right? I mean, we don't know. And now we can look at somebody's technological footprint to see, okay, what are they contributing? What value are they adding? And, of course, there are new skills to be learned and muscles to be flexed and learning how to effectively, remotely manage people. But I think this is an amazing opportunity. And I also think there's an egalitarianism in the zoom world, because everyone's box is the same size, and it's not about being the loudest or the tallest or sitting at the front of the room. But, you know, to your point, I do think that we all are at a point now where we realize there's also real greatness and culture building that comes from being together. And I always used to say that great things always happen to me when I got onto airplanes because I would always get to see people face to face and spend time with them in ways that I wouldn't in my normal day to day. And so I think what's important is that we are very methodical and think through. Okay, if we're going to come together, what are we going to accomplish together? And let's make sure we're not just all sitting in our offices and spending 2 hours commuting to just be doing the same thing we'd be doing at home. And so I think the companies that are really leaning into flexibility, but also being very thoughtful and intentional about when do we want to look into the whites of each other's eyes? And it's going to be different for everybody. There might be a 25 year old on my team who has three roommates and a dog at home, and they're like, I got to get into an office. Or there might be a young woman who has young children living in Tokyo, and she's like, I've got to. I need the space of being in and out. Right? So there are all different reasons why some people are going to want to be in an office all day long for those apprenticeship moments and those mentorship moments. But equally, there are times when you just want to get work done. Sometimes being at home and cranking it out in your home office makes the most sense.

00:39:12 - Priya Krishnan
Thank you, Jenna. Now we're getting to that section where we have. It's a rapid fire section. We have three questions that we ask all of our guests. So. And we grade most of our guests at the end of it.

00:39:25 - Jenna Fisher
No pressure.

00:39:26 - Priya Krishnan
No pressure at all. In your own words, would you define what work life balance is?

00:39:33 - Jenna Fisher
I would say feeling like I touched most of the important segments of my life at the end of a week in a meaningful way. So whether that's self-care, in terms of my health, sleep, exercise, whether that's my relationship with my children, my relationship with my partner, friends, community, you know, all those different elements. Feeling like at the end of every week, because it's not necessarily. Some days are going to be very much skewed one or the other, but at the end of the week, saying, you know what? I feel like that was a pretty balanced. I kind of got to the things I needed to, and, you know, sometimes you take learnings and you shift and you say, oh, you know what? That was tough because I was traveling that whole week, and I really didn't spend as much time with my kiddos as I want to. So let's carve out some special time in the next few days to really have some makeup time on that. But I think at the end of every week, feeling like I kind of mostly, for the most part, got it right. That feels pretty balanced.

00:40:32 - Paul Sullivan
All right, speaking of carving out special time, what is the go to thing that you like to do just for you as your way to unwind?

00:40:42 - Jenna Fisher
Oh, I work out 100 minutes every day. Yeah, hundred minutes every day. Workout, running, walking, weightlifting, and I love to listen to music, so I'm a Swiftie, so I definitely always have some Taylor in the mix.

00:40:59 - Priya Krishnan
100 minutes is very inspiring. What empowering advice would you give to mothers listening to our podcast? You know, seeking to excel both in their careers, but also while they're supporting their families?

00:41:13 - Jenna Fisher
I would say go for it. You know, I have. There's this woman I interviewed years ago. I was doing a CFO search for a tech company, and people kept referring me to her, and I called her twice, and she declined to participate because she felt like she needed to check other boxes before she was ready. But everybody kept saying no. She's like the walking definition of what you want. So I finally through, I knew that I knew a mentor of hers who I was friends with. So I got around her kind of circuitously and compelled her to interview for the job. Long story short, she ended up being a smashing success. She's now even more impressive and successful than she had been seven or eight years ago. And I often think she was loathe to go for it. And I feel like if you are a woman, especially if you've had kids and figured out all of the hardships and indignities and challenges and frustrations of all the things of being a parent, you can certainly figure out how to make that next promotion work. So. And don't just be kind to yourself. Don't think you need to be perfect. Perfection is not perfect. And you'll be a lot more human if you just kind of focus on the things that are most important to you and let some of the other stuff go.

00:42:23 - Paul Sullivan
This has been great. You've been listening to The Work-Life Equation podcast with Priya and Paul. Our guest has been Jenna Fisher, author of To the Top, partner at Russell Reynolds Associate, an all-around interesting person to listen to. Thank you, Jenna, for being our guest.

00:42:39 - Jenna Fisher
Thank you for having me.

00:42:41 – Commercial
What's more magical than a childhood filled with days of play, learning, exploration and discovery? At Bright Horizons, we think of childcare as a chance to help a child experience it all. Our teachers go beyond the usual ensuring your child has an enriching, satisfying day. They take the time to listen, engage, encourage, and celebrate the wins big and small. At Bright Horizons, we put the care in childcare. Visit brighthorizons.com to find a center near you. Thanks for tuning in to this episode of The Work-Life Equation. For more parenting resources, visit brighthorizons.com and be sure to follow us on social media.

Priya Krishnan, Senior Vice President, Client Relations and Growth Operations
About the Author
Chief Digital and Transformation Officer
Priya Krishnan comes to Bright Horizons after founding and running India's largest childcare business. She is the winner of many awards for her work in the space, including Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Young Turk, FT1000 for Asia, and Red Herring Asia.
The Work-Life Equation podcast