An Innovative Solution: Where Maternity Leave & Retirement Intertwine
News, Summer 2016
BY MARY LEE HARVEY DIRCKS
PHOTO BY DEBRA S. KAPLAN
Last summer, Sarah Sjolie landed her dream job as executive director at Live Well Omaha. Having spent 11 years in various leadership roles at CHI Health, she was well-prepared and excited to move forward. “This new leadership challenge gave me the opportunity to apply what I had learned to a small non-profit with a potential for big impact,” she says. Upon accepting the position, Sjolie realized another dream: she became pregnant with twins. “I waited a long time to be a mom and I wanted to do it really well. I wanted to breastfeed and get to know my babies—two babies!” Sjolie says. “I needed the time. And I knew that if I didn’t have that time and came back to work without that investment, I would probably resent myself and my career. And that’s not me, because I love what I do.”
Sjolie’s family life and her career were both heading in the exact direction she wanted to go, but she had a big dilemma: How could she give 100 percent to both with no regrets on either front?
Her creative solution emerged through conversations with trusted mentors, colleagues and friends. Sjolie knew that to be true to herself, she would need a full three months of maternity leave completely unplugged from work life to fully acclimate to her new role as a mother of twin girls. Given the work load and responsibility that goes with the executive director title, that complete disconnect could only be possible with an interim leader familiar and comfortable in the public health arena to be a stabilizing force at Live Well Omaha. “It was really important to me, especially taking maternity leave so new in my tenure here,” Sjolie says. “I do love this job, and I’d like to invest my time and growth and career goals for the foreseeable future here. So it was really critical that it was not just any leader, or a name or a title. It had to be someone staff felt comfortable to go to for support; someone that donors had confidence in and that board members and media had knowledge of and could reach out to.”
So, in stepped Sjolie’s long-time friend and mentor Mary Balluff, division chief at Douglas County Health Department.
Balluff’s husband had retired in June 2015, and she was preparing to do the same, having enjoyed a successful career in the public health arena, and previously in the private sector, in the Omaha area for over 40 years. “Nobody was surprised when I officially announced the date,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve been talking about it for two years!” She spent that time preparing her colleagues to step in and successfully do the work that she had been doing. “I purposefully set out to do some succession planning and had been preparing people for that,” she adds.
“At the same time,” Balluff reflects, “I struggled in my own mind. I was saying to myself, ‘How will I be relevant when I don’t work anymore?’” Fifty to 55-hour work weeks were the norm for Balluff. She served on numerous boards, on national committees and wrote at least three to five grants every year, as well as managing seven direct reports.
A magazine article gave her the push to stop working. “You will know it’s time to retire when you have enough, have done enough and have had enough,” she recites. She was well-prepared financially for retirement, so could check off No. 1. “I have had tremendous opportunity to do the things I’ve wanted to do, so I could never say that I hadn’t done enough. I was not going to look back with any regret.” So, check off number two. “Then all of a sudden I was just tired,” she says. “I knew that this was the time to retire.” Balluff had had enough.
Live Well Omaha’s need for an interim director with Balluff’s specific resume served as a perfect step into retirement. “It was a nice little transition to let me continue to work with people,” she says about the 20 hours weekly she logged at Live Well Omaha during Sjolie’s leave and as she retired from Douglas County Health Department. “When Sarah asked me, and I said, ‘of course’, it was not about pay and money but more about making sure women can maintain their leadership roles. I really believe in that,” Balluff says.
When Sjolie addressed her executive committee and then board of directors, she did so armed with a solution-oriented plan. “I had to shift my mindset from a very passive messenger about the situation to a very active, positive business woman,” Sjolie says about her presentation to the Live Well Omaha Board of Directors that she would be absent for three months of maternity leave in her first year with the organization. “I’m not a one-year investment for you; I’m a 10-year investment,” she told them. “If you invest in me now, I’m going to be a dynamo for you for the next 10 to 15 years. This is happening, this is a life choice and I’m going to do this well. Here is my plan, and it is cost neutral, and I will be back on this date and I will rock and roll for you.” Her message was strategically planned, positive and to the point. The response was overwhelmingly supportive, with comments such as, “We’re so proud of you, we’ll support you through this, we’re so glad you didn’t wait to start a family.”
Sjolie didn’t just drop a problem on her board of directors, she brought the solution of an interim leader to the table. “The goal of being solution-based is critical to the success of these kinds of things,” Balluff says. “I was mentored by people to always have a solution. Whether or not it’s the solution you end up with doesn’t matter. Bring what could be a solution.”
Balluff attended the last board meeting before Sarah left for maternity leave. “She helped facilitate some conversations around our closing strategic planning process so that the board could see her more in that role and tee her up as that individual while I was gone, and I think that was another big positive step,” Sjolie says. Balluff already had a working relationship with half of the board members, so they knew who she was and the kind of work that she had done.
“I knew enough that I didn’t have to ask very many questions; I could feel my way through things and I have enough connections in the community that I could reach out and ask people, so I rarely had to go to Sarah,” Balluff says. “It wasn’t a competition for me, so I knew what things needed to be done and I didn’t go places where I didn’t need to go. I was not about building my own career.” From Balluff’s perspective, this arrangement worked well because she was precisely clear in her purpose to maintain daily operations. “I could keep it fresh and do the things that needed to be done and be the voice, yet never had any need to be the queen. It just was not part of it,” she adds. “And that made the community very ready for when Sarah came back. They knew that if there were a critical situation, I would manage it. If there was something that could wait, I would set it up with Sarah so that when she came back she would have the opportunity to address it and move it forward in a way that was best for the organization.”
Balluff was present to allow Sjolie that time away, “But I didn’t just go on maternity leave and not hear from anyone for three months,” says Sjolie. Live Well board members were very supportive in the months prior to and during Sjolie’s maternity leave and after her return. Joann Schaefer, the board chair, invited Sjolie to bring the babies to a board meeting so everyone could meet them. “Board members sent notes and emails to just be thoughtful and acknowledge that this is happening and we value you, even though you’re not in your direct seat in this role, and we’ll see you when you get back in February,” she says.
Open dialogue with Schaefer about the transition process back to work was another key to Sjolie’s ability to successfully maintain her leadership role at Live Well Omaha. Breastfeeding twins is no easy task even without a full-time job, but Sjolie was personally committed to continue after her return. “My board chair, so my boss basically, was very open to talking about it. She said, ‘I know that this is really important to you, and your babies just need to eat. I don’t want you to get nuts about this. So whatever you need to do, you need to do and you can make whatever choices you need to make.’” That kind of acknowledgment empowered Sjolie to create her own rhythm with her schedule to meet the needs of both family and work load.
“Knowing that you can be authentic with where you’re coming from on any given day or where you are in your transition back to work as a human first and then as an effective leader helps you do a much better job and have a lot of passion for what you are doing. So, I think in that way investing in new moms is probably the wisest investment you can make.”
As proponents for public health and over-all community well-being, Balluff and Sjolie do not consider their scenario an isolated event. They hope it will serve as an example to other women and organizations. “It’s not just important that the board invested in me as an individual. This is how organizations should be operating all the time,” Sjolie stresses. “You don’t want to lose, not just me, but my people in this talent pipeline. Once you invest in moms, dads, or unusual suspects in various roles over time, it creates a healthier city.” Live Well Omaha’s mission is to make sure that the healthy choice is the easy choice in schools, stores, organizations and out in the community. Creating more opportunity for people to make positive choices leads to less chronic disease and a healthier, more productive city overall, Sjolie says. That same premise is true when it comes to the workforce and families. “How we treat employees inside organizations also impacts how our city thrives.”
Both Sjolie and Balluff stress that it’s just as important to treat retirees with that same respect, encouragement and support. They contend that people who are leaving the workforce as healthy individuals have much to contribute to the over all health of the community. “We have a great opportunity at this point in time with my generation,” Balluff says. Since her retirement, Balluff has noticed how much people in her age group offer in so many incredible ways—working, volunteering and helping within their families or social networks. “If every generation of this community is contributing to this community, think about how beneficial it is and what a great place it is to live,” she says. “You really don’t want people sitting at home isolated and not engaged. To keep our newly retired citizens active and engaged in our community benefits both generations.”
Balluff embraces that bigger picture and strives to contribute what she can as she discovers what her own retirement entails. She looks forward to giving more time to her five grandchildren, all of whom live in town. “I have always loved being a grandma,” Balluff says with a smile. “My greatest joy is that I get to do things with and for them.” She cares for her youngest granddaughter one day a week, allowing her daughter to work outside the home. Balluff also strategically chose two community boards to continue her service with, and works ten hours a week for the Women’s Fund on the Adolescent Health Project. “People say to me, Mary you have failed at retirement, but I say, no, this is the retirement I want,” she retorts. “There will come a time when it won’t be work-related or in the public health space, but I will always be involved.” In fact, Balluff has already offered to fill in for another colleague during her maternity leave. “I wonder if there may be more baby boomers that would consider helping in this way,” she adds.
Mary Balluff’s ease into retirement provided for Sarah Sjolie’s work-free maternity leave and peaceful re-entry into the workplace. Both attribute much of their success in harmonizing the balance between work and family to building and maintaining close, trusting relationships with other women. “I think there is something particularly special about female-to-female mentorship/sponsorship relationships, because you can be a little more authentic with one another and feel safe being in that space,” Sjolie says. “But then also know that you’re going to walk away and do excellent work, regardless of whatever phase or barrier you might be facing in your personal life.” Both of these women have benefitted from that kind of collaborative encouragement and commit to continue paying it forward to support others. W