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Reflections From a Working Mom: 7 Ways to Stand Out While Staying Sane

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shot of a busy working mom...
shot of a busy working mom...

This fall, my nest will empty out as my younger child takes flight for college. Naturally, this has caused me to reflect on my two decades as a working mom and a career that ranged from super high-powered (Marketing VP at to less intense (part-time work at smaller companies) as my husband and I raised our children.

The decisions I made about my career and life were never easy, and choosing when to 'lean in' versus when to focus more on family was deeply personal. But I've also watched other women grapple with similar questions, and for those who chose to pursue a career in addition to raising a family, I've seen many navigate it brilliantly, while others struggled.

What made the difference? Over the years, I've picked up some strategies, many from successful bosses and other working moms. Here are my favorites:

1. Articulate crisp boundaries up front. Nobody is going to usher you out the office door at 5:30 PM. But if that's when you have to pick up your child, tell your employer before you take the job. Your company can only respect your hours when they know your limits up front.

2. Identify what makes you special. Deliver it in spades. Do you bring a unique contribution that is hard to duplicate? Do you power rapidly through your work and deliver concrete, visible results that make an impact? Is your manager thinking, "It would be really tough to replace this talent"? If not, figure out how to get there.

3. Wear your smile. Have you noticed that the person with the positive energy usually wins?

I remember being pretty incompetent at my first job out of college. The company even told me they were taking a risk on hiring me. I started at the same time as a young MIT-trained statistician who was brilliant (and intimidating). She was also somewhat sarcastic and stingy with her smile. I worked hard and was friendly, but my work deliverables didn't hold a candle to hers.

One day, the executives were deciding whether to assign me (the barely useful worker with the positive attitude) or her (the highly useful worker with the glum outlook) to an important project.

You can guess the end of the story, but I was floored at the time. She was so good and I was so green! I carry that lesson with me to this day and it has not failed me. My daughter even says she has absorbed this lesson.

Although it's hard to feel perky after spending the night up with a sick child, do whatever it takes to maintain a good attitude at work. Happy things will follow.

4. Prioritize ruthlessly. Distinguish motion from progress. Each day can be filled with activity, but few initiatives genuinely move the needle.

Here's how I suggest thinking about it: 20% of the effort yields 80% of the results. Constantly ask yourself, "Is what I am working on part of the 20%?" If it is not, stop doing it. Refocus on what has a measurable impact.

5. Be "out to lunch." It is well worth the time to get to know -- and even share a beverage or meal with -- colleagues in your own and other departments. The better you know the people you work with, the more you learn, the more influence you gain and the more you're likely to make each other successful. Just because you're not sitting at your desk doesn't mean you're not being productive -- utilized wisely, lunch is work.

6. Push it down. A successful boss taught me a simple rule: Always delegate to the lowest-cost resource. It's an opportunity for less experienced people to grow, and it lets you focus on higher-level initiatives.

Don't limit yourself to on-site employees. Since the economic downturn, many talented professionals have begun freelancing online. You can find online freelancers for many services, including writing, translation, market research, website design, programming and more.

When you delegate, think through your objectives and deliverables in detail and create crisp instructions up front. People are only as good as the well-articulated guidance you give them; the one thing nobody can do is read your mind.

Be available for check-ins to provide any course corrections, but don't be a helicopter boss. Most people do not respond well to being micromanaged.

7. Hire other working moms. It's good for business. When I look back over my own career, some of the very best hires I ever made were working moms with flexible hours. These women made a huge difference, often contributing more than employees who were in the office full-time. Their exceptional motivation, work ethic and talent made a unique, measurable and lasting impact on the business.

Where are they now? One is president of a thriving business. Another is senior vice president of marketing at a publicly traded company.

The truth is that the most important tip is to follow your heart. You know what is best for your career and family. Some of these strategies will hopefully help, however, as you embrace the indescribable joys (and challenges) of raising your daughters and sons.