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Jumping Back on the Ladder: Talking With Harvard's Christine Heenan

Christine Heenan, who spent her twenties in the Clinton White House, notes that even after jumping off the corporate ladder, "You can absolutely come out on top."
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Brenda Barnes, now CEO of Sara Lee, has gotten a lot of press because she left the corporate workforce for a decade to spend more time with her children, and recently returned to be CEO of a major company. Barnes is indeed a rare person, and women can make themselves feel guilty and bad for making trade offs when they're raising a family. But there are plenty of women out there who illustrate that scaling back work to spend time with family is not a professional death sentence in the long run.

Christine Heenan, who spent her twenties in the Clinton White House and later, time with little kids running her own small business, notes that even after jumping off the corporate ladder, "You can absolutely come out on top. I had a period of time I thought, I'll never be back in those circles..." She's now back in a demanding new leadership role at a global institution, a role that requires the whole family's cooperation, but, "after a decade of really balancing work with my kids, we approach this new challenge as a team. I couldn't have considered this career move if I hadn't taken that time to be with my kids more 'til now."

Heenan got her start on the Clinton White House policy team, and in 1995 became the head of government and community relations at Brown University, where she also taught. When Christine was recovering from delivering her first baby, her boss from Brown called Christine in the maternity ward: there was a crisis at work. After Christine had her second baby, she left Brown to start her own business, the Clarendon Group.

The Clarendon Group won a Sloan Foundation Award in 2006, for "business excellence in workplace flexibility." Obviously Christine made flexible working a priority when she ran the Clarendon Group. Indeed, she told me a fond memory of first starting her company and preparing a presentation with her first employee, also a mother. Christine took all the kids to the local park while her colleague hammered out the pages on the ink jet printer. Heenan noted that she would be curious to measure her employees' children's impressions of what work looks like, since the kids spent so much time in the office with their mothers, and felt like they had the run of the place. To them, kids and work were comfortably intermingled.

As I read Christine's story in the book Womenomics I thought, great, another "success" story about a high-powered woman who jumps off the corporate ladder to start her own business and get a life. But, Christine's story doesn't end with Clarendon. She jumped back on the ladder, in a major way.

In July 2008, Christine became Harvard University's Vice President for Government, Community, and Public Affairs. I was curious, how did her ten years in a flexible work environment -- her own -- affect her return to a corporate role?

I asked her how she decided to return.

She said,

"My kids are now at an age where we could make the decision as a family." She said that because so much of her time during the past decade was spent "as a mother and a professional had been considering those needs I thought it was the right time" to take her own career goals into account again.

Still, "It's been an adjustment of a year- but it's been more of a team spirited discussion because of how the decision was made." Christine told me that recently she was walking the dog with her ten year-old son and complained to him, "'I have 100 emails- I don't want to work any more today!' And my son said, "'Mom, we talked about this.'"

I asked her if she actually worked harder running her own business than for someone else?

She said,

"I restructured my relationship with Brown into a consultant role after her second son was born. Two years into that, I hired my first employee who was actually my neighbor, whose background was banking and non-profits, but was home with her three young children at the time. She and I, and our next employee - also a career professional now home with a new child -- and our moved into a sublet office, then gradually grew.

"As your own boss, it's not so much working harder as much as work always being with you. It's your name on the door. But for me it was an easy trade off for being able to do what I wanted. No one could tell me I couldn't."

"Our flex policy was fairly organic. When it was just me and my neighbor we traded off aspects of work and time with the kids. The way we ended up having so many moms working flexibly was that's what we became known for. At any given time at the firm, there was at least 50% of the staff working flex schedules. It wasn't always women- for example we had a male colleague whose new wife was beginning a brutal schedule as a resident in Boston, and he worked two days a week [from his home] in Boston."

Q: Could you describe a little how you negotiated when considering the Harvard job? Was flex on the table?

A: I did raise it in my first meeting with the search firm. I had nothing to lose; I wasn't looking for a job. If they had explained that this was where [considering me] would have ended, fine. I was prepared to be out of the running due to my family demands. But it was actually the two women at the search - one pregnant with twins - convinced me to interview for the job. They argued: why not at least have that conversation?. So I did go forward with the search process, and I did raise it in my first meeting with the search committee. The most honest and important piece of advice I got in that first meeting was from a senior level colleague at Harvard who said, "It's pretty safe to say everyone at this level is 24-7, and no one much cares where you are at 3 in the afternoon...."
Since taking the post, Christine has noted that both men and women model that attitude. Christine noted she has a colleague who is general counsel whose son is a very competitive high school wrestler. "There have been times that Jeff's wrestling matches meant tied up evenings or weekends, and that is not hidden from view -- everyone shares in and endorses those priorities here. It is really nice."

Q: What do you miss about being your own boss?

"After school; I miss that after school window. Both my children are boys. If you ask them at 6 pm to elaborate on their school day, they've forgotten it! They're like, that was 5 hours ago mom! But we manage phone conversations after school, and I try to go home for homework time and the backpack download. I learned from not doing it right at first. When we started this year, I felt very disorganized and out of a groove. Now we have better check-in structures... We're much more attuned to the family schedule, we all review the week on Sunday."

Q: In Womenomics you talk about the loss of status you first felt when you left the DC-NY power corridor. How has that changed over time?

A: "One thing I have learned about myself in the last year is that the most important status I confer myself is, at the end of the day, my performance as a mother and a wife. I feel as though I'm more often challenged now by 'am I doing everything right as a mom?' than when I was worried about "am I off the fast track as a professional?" for the decade I was out of Washington DC.

"If you are committed to trying to do it all, you have to let yourself off the hook. It's easy to assume anything you're not doing right in one sphere is because of devotion to the other sphere." She noted, your son would still have that problem if you were home every afternoon!

Q: What quick tips do you have for making work and family work?

A: "Try to live as close to the office as possible. I am three miles from desk to door. If you can't live close, when you get that call someone has a fever make sure you have a relative or friend who can do emergency pick ups.

"I think having at least one colleague who is really aware of your commitments outside the office -- who knows next Thursday is your son's birthday -- is very helpful. It's helpful to have an outlet to be supported in your family responsibilities at work. At Harvard my assistant Monica -- she's really my partner in helping me balance. I think its ok to be explicit about your family commitments with your team -- to say please make sure your note this day in my calendar for family.

"And, we have the Sunday night ritual of calendaring. Who has kung fu on what day? When are this week's baseball games? My husband travels a lot so it's important we all understand what the week looks ahead.

Finally, let yourself off the hook! Women are so inclined to let themselves beat themselves up... Rather than focus on the fact that you got to the pickup five minutes late, or to the office meeting 5 minutes late, focus on the fact that you got there."