Hogan Lovells

Hogan Lovells

Thursday, December 15, 2011

When a Trailblazer Leaves Work

by Dori Ann Hanswirth

We heard from so many impressive women at the Hogan Lovells Women’s Executive Summit in October, many of them mothers and even grandmothers, who kept their careers going while raising children.  One thing we did not talk about, however, is what may inspire a woman to decide to leave her career. Michele Flournoy, the chief policy adviser to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and one of the highest-ranking women in the Pentagon, recently announced that she is leaving her job in February to “rebalance” her life.  Flournoy, 51, married, and the mother of three children ages 14, 12, and 9, has decided to spend more time with her family.  Two years ago, Flournoy said during an interview that she valued being a mentor to other women:  “The thing I feel the most is wanting to do well by the younger women who are counting on me to kind of open doors and blaze a trail for them.”  Now that Flournoy is stepping down, should those younger women still look to her as a role model?  In my view, the answer is a resounding yes.

Look at Flournoy’s amazing career.  She started with an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a master’s degree in international relations from Oxford.  She is now undersecretary of defense for policy, the job that is considered the “brains” of the Pentagon.  In that role, Flournoy is changing the way America fights its wars.  She is one of the chief authors of the military strategy reassessment that the Pentagon gives to Congress every four years.  She has been influential in U.S. military strategy since as far back as 1993, when she wrote a scathing report on military failures that resulted in the deaths of 18 servicemen in Somalia.  And she’s good at what she does.  She won the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service in 1996, the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service in 1998, and the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 2000.  Not bad for a woman who spent her childhood playing beach volleyball.

Flournoy’s job is about as big as it gets, and, had she made the choice, it could have gotten even bigger.  She is highly respected at the Pentagon and was regarded as a candidate to become a future secretary of defense.  Why would she leave at the height of her career?  Well, I don’t know Michele Flournoy, but it was easy for me to understand her decision.  She is reported to spend 14 hours a day working, and on weekends too.  She also has one child who is now a teenager and two younger children who will be teenagers soon.  And that, dear readers, says it all.

Nobody prepares us, we women who chose to pursue not just a job but a career, and a rewarding one at that, and also to have a family, for how much our teenagers will need us and for how much we will want to be there for them.  A lot of the talk about “work/life balance” – a phrase I abhor because it assumes, falsely, that the spheres of work and life are two separate things that never intersect when in reality work is and always will be only a subset of life – focuses on parents of younger children.  Many people who have not yet had the experience of raising teenagers believe that once children are “out of the house” (as in, they are about 5 years old and they start going to school), a mother’s workload will start to lighten and, over time, give her more time to focus on other things, like work.  This premise is completely false.  Being a good parent to a teenager takes a tremendous amount of intelligence, empathy, creativity, and toughness -- maybe even more than being a top Pentagon adviser.  And it takes time.

I am the mother of two boys, now 20 and 16.  Over the last few years, I have seen my children need me in ways that they hadn’t before. I feel more of a need to just be there -- physically present – to make sure they are where they are supposed to be and doing what they should be doing.  A lot of the time they don’t want to talk to you, so it’s good to be around when they do.  We have to help our kids get through those challenging teenage years and come out the other end as productive and happy young adults.  And it’s not just for their sake.  Of course we need to be there when our kids fail or get hurt, but there is nothing more satisfying than helping them to succeed and be happy.  The feeling of winning a case (which let’s face it is a pretty darn good feeling) pales in comparison to the feeling you get from seeing your child do well and knowing that you had something to do with that success.

Managing the resources that a mother devotes to her family and to her career is a challenge that changes over time. And there is no one right answer that works for every woman, or one that works for every time in a mother’s life. I completely understand and respect Flournoy’s decision. At the same time, I’m glad she does not intend to disappear completely, and is planning to spend some time on the campaign trail for President Obama.  Society needs people with Flourney’s talents and wisdom to be part of public life.  I hope we have not seen the last of her. Should younger women who view Flournoy as a mentor and role model feel disappointed?  Not in my view.  Flournoy is making a gutsy move by saying it’s OK to be there for your kids.  And the workplace should be flexible enough to welcome Flournoy back with open arms should she ever decide that’s what she wants to do.

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