Updated: Jul 20, 2020
I recently had the chance to sit down virtually over Zoom with Nikki Stapp Craumer, author of Mothering Mommy blog and a former colleague turned friend, to discuss the following: being Chief of Staff at a major company, balancing career and family – including letting go of mom guilt, and life after Corporate America.
Photo Cred: https://www.instagram.com/anastasia.shuraeva/
Nikki and I met back in 2016, while working at a telecommunications company, during a women’s course for top talent. Interestingly enough, we were both in Chief of Staff roles in different divisions and instantly hit it off. We faced many similar challenges and, as working moms, could relate to the work-life balance struggle. Since then, Nikki and I have both made career transitions and reinvented ourselves. I’m excited to share her perspective with you in this question-answer style blog.
Leadership skills become really important because you need to learn to lead without being the authority.
Q: Chief of Staff (COS) is such an interesting position, that not too many have the opportunity to experience. It’s runs the gamut from being at the heart of the business as a key advisor to senior leadership to the mundane of ordering cuff links for a retiring staff member (as I once had to do). How did you find yourself in this role?
A: You are so right, Karin! The role requires the most unique set of skills. One moment you are sitting between the executive you support and one of the most senior leaders at a major corporation – hearing future strategy conversations, and the next minute you are doing coffee runs!
I was selected for this role during one of the many transformations that the company went through. I had been managing the internal communications for our team, so I already had a seat at the table with our leadership team. The Vice President’s executive assistant (EA) went out on medical leave, so he looked at me (the most junior person in the room) to help him keep organized and take on some of the more operational responsibilities.
Q: Wow, so it sounds like it was a bit unofficial from the start.
A: Yeah, it was and I had no idea what to expect. I had a great relationship with his assistant, so I had an idea of the work she did. I thought I was going to be very much “behind the scenes,” but the job became much bigger than that. I’d go with him to all of his important meetings and I quickly realized that everyone from the team would come to me, to get access to him.
Q: I found that communication skills and organization skills are two of the most important qualities, besides a strong business acumen, that are needed for a COS role. Do you agree?
A: Absolutely. It’s part of the reason I was given my second Chief of Staff role a few years later. We had another reorg before I went out on maternity leave and the VP had appointed someone else to the COS role. A lot of this job is about your professional relationships. Working so closely together you need to have a bit of personality just click. My new VP and I got along very well and he knew I had prior COS experience, so he asked me to be in that role when I returned from maternity leave.
Q: That’s fantastic that you had a spot waiting for you when you returned. It’s great to see companies supporting working moms in that way. What do you think you learned from being in the COS role?
A: I really loved it and grew in ways I’d never anticipated! Unlike other managerial roles I had, where I led teams, there were no direct reports under me. Leadership skills become really important because you need to learn to lead without being the authority. You can’t always drop the VP’s name to get things done – it requires influence and relationship building. As the intermediary, you’re constantly communicating with people who are more senior than you and asking them for help or support on team initiatives. That requires building rapport and connections. It can be really challenging, but it was something I developed over time.
Q: After having that kind of role, it can be very hard to leave the C-Suite environment and go back into the business. One second you’re at the epicenter of the business and the next you’re back in a siloed function. How did you handle that transition?
A: It’s a challenging transition mostly because you lose access to that big picture strategy information I referenced earlier. When you are on a functional team, you really have a very narrow focus on the projects you are given. If I can share some advice, it would be to step up and always keep busy. If you have bandwidth, find new ways to contribute to the business, even if it’s not in your official job description. If you can create value to show your diverse set of skills, not only do you become more valuable to the team, but you show others what you are capable of outside of your designated role.
Q: Great advice! COS is such a demanding role. I recall being on a conference call working through a board presentation one Sunday night at 9 pm. Now that normally wouldn’t have bothered me, but it was VALENTINE’S DAY! What advice do you have for working moms that are trying to get a better handle on their work life balance?
A: (laughs) Yes, I remember late night Sundays prepping for the week. You’re always on: 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. There are ways to work through it though. At times, you need to find a way to give yourself a break.
Q: I can imagine this is where a lot of moms face the dreaded mom guilt. I found a really good article on the subject that I’ll link to for my readers here. How have you handled mom guilt?
A: I learned early on when I first became a mom that there really wasn’t any reality to this concept of “work-life balance” you hear all the time. My personal mentality became: at work you have to be at work and at home you have to be focused at home. Of course, occasionally the two will blur, but you need to have enough credibility that you can buy yourself flexibility when you need it. Here’s what I mean, define your priorities to the people in your life (your boss or team and your family). Always show up for the important moments – the graduation ceremony, the recital, or the sports event. The other side is to let your family know when you have a crazy week at work or the importance of a business trip that will seal the deal.
I’ve found that if you give into mom guilt, you’ll just be unhappy all the time. My advice is to try to find ways to manage the guilt if you’re dealing with those feelings. You might not have been at every practice, but you were front row cheering at the game. Try to feel good about that and not bad about what you missed.
Growing up, my mom ran her own business and she always felt guilty. She felt guilty when she was home that she wasn’t doing enough for the business and she felt guilty at work that she wasn’t doing enough for us kids. After seeing this, I made a choice early on that I would not feel bad about working. I knew I was giving it my all and was able to be ok with that, without too much guilt creeping in.
Q: What is the worst career advice you’ve ever been given?
A: This is probably more of a difference of style, but there are people that conduct business who are ruthless to get to their outcome, no matter what it takes and I had been directed to do so. A nicer way of saying this is, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” I just don’t believe that the squeaky wheel is always the best approach. My style is more to build the relationship so that over time, your wheel doesn’t need to squeak and will get greased regularly!
Q: Shifting gears a bit, I know you started a blog of your own. What inspired your blog Mothering Mommy?
A: The idea first came to me shortly after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. I just remember watching TV and wishing I could help. I couldn’t imagine if that was us and we had no running water or electricity with two small children. When I finally left my corporate gig, I started blogging with this idea of creating a place where moms could help other moms. Not necessarily a unique idea, but it was driven from this thought of helping another mom when needed. Although I like to share my thoughts with others to potentially help someone else, I really morphed it to more of a journal for myself, which I find very therapeutic.
Q: I read one of your blogs in which you talked about how your friends and family don’t want to be your material. As I’m writing my memoir, I can relate. How do you work through that?
A: That’s probably another reason I’ve shifted my blog. I didn’t want to overshare. The internet can be a scary place. You open yourself up to a lot of negativity and with children I felt I needed to be extra cautious. I’d tend to be more general when I can.
Q: With younger children it can be hard to find “me” time. How do you spend your “me” time when you get it?
A: Sleeping! I like to go to bed early. Occasionally, I’ll stay up and binge watch old episodes of The Office, Parks and Recreation, or New Girl. Another tip I’d share, is not to lose yourself. It’s so easy to get caught up in being a mom that we forget about ourselves. You deserve to be fulfilled and feel happy.
Nikki, thank you so much for your time and sharing your experiences with us. The more women can share their experiences and advice, the more women will be successful in whatever career path they choose.
Q: I’ll give you the last word. Anything else you’d like to share with our readers today?
A: Often, it’s the mom that picks up the extra duties – remembering the bake sale, attending the PTO meeting, getting a gift for the birthday party, etc. The burnout of retaining so much information both at work and at home can swallow you up. Make sure you ask for help from your support network. You don’t have to do it all on your own and know that you’re doing the best you can. If there’s one thing to leave you with, remember all of the things you ARE doing and please let that mom guilt go!