President of Customer 1st Performance, LLC, Debbie Harrington talks about her life as a mother and wife while having a career in the corporate world. In a time when women weren’t supposed to go to college and have a career, Debbie persevered and showed everyone that it was her right to have a career, to be happy, and be successful. Debbie shares her insight on how she was able to juggle her professional career and as a mother and wife, and, lastly, how she was able to distinguish which was more important to her.
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Carolyn Rivera Show 4
Career, Wife, Mother: Can You Have It All
We’re going to talk about the challenges we face as we look to be everything to everybody. That’s what we want to do. We want it all. We want our career. We want to be a wife. We want to be a mother. Can we have it all? With that, we’re going to get up close and personal with many different emotions and opinions. There are many things that we go through as we manage a job, a career and a family. I am excited to be introducing you to a special guest that will be sharing her background on our story and topic. I would like to introduce Debbie Harrington to the show.
Debbie has had an amazing career and certainly climbed up that corporate ladder while juggling a family. She spent many years in the financial services industry. She has had some significant accomplishments from reengineering processes affecting 30,000 associates to monitoring, measuring and improving the customer’s experience for a Fortune 50 organization as an executive vice president responsible for all of North America. That is not where her career ended. After that, she became an entrepreneur opening her own company in 2008. She’s developed a support platform that knit together learners, coaches, and leaders. She inspired a learning culture overall and tied learning and process together to deliver measurable results. Debbie, this is an impressive career and it is great to have you on the show. How are you?
Thanks, Carolyn. I’m happy to be here.
We are talking about challenges that come with building a career, being a wife and a mother. What would you say are the biggest challenges that women in the workforce have gone through since you started your career up until now?
When I graduated high school, which is all that most or expected to accomplish at that point in time, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Woodstock of the year before I graduated. Imagine, the war protestors were everywhere. In 1970, fewer than 11% of women that were working in any capacity had completed college. Compared to 2016, the stats tell us at that point, 40% of women had a college education. I reflect back and I think a lot about what was expected of me. I could hear my father emphatically saying, “It’s a waste of time and money for a girl to go to college.” I pursued it. I decided to go first to a community college and stay at home so my parents could adjust. On the first day at community college during the orientation, the dean got up there. He looked around the room and saw that maybe 15% of people in the room were female. He addressed that. He said, “Most of the women in this room, I want to set expectations for you. I realize that you’ll probably not make it through the two years at this community college and receive your Associate’s degree. You’re interested in getting your MRF degree.”
It’s clear that back then, women weren’t supposed to be out there getting degrees. More of being a wife and a mother was expected. It seems like your father and the dean had those expectations, too.Just because your desk isn’t neat doesn’t mean that you’re not able to completely blow the roof off the place. Click To Tweet
Unfortunately, I fell into the trap. I’ve followed right along and met their prophecy. I married the first person who paid any attention to me with the intention of having a dozen kids, baking bread, and growing our own garden. That marriage was a terrible mistake. Fortunately, we didn’t produce any offspring, but it definitely taught me some tough lessons. By the age of 25, having survived these difficult times, I emerged changed. I was now more thick-skinned, confident, and ready to step out on my own. I put down those rose-colored glasses. I got a job in sales and decided it was my right to have a career, to be happy, and be successful.
The fact that you changed your entire mindset, you became a new person. There are many times that we go through these tough times and we don’t even know how to get out of it. Can you think back and remember any specific moment or reason for how you were able to all of a sudden see things differently?
The world is changing. Right around 1971 and 1972, women’s rights were suddenly coming to the forefront. The pill was available. In 1973, Roe v. Wade passed in the Supreme Court. Virginia Slims was out there telling everyone that women have come a long way and they have rights. Ms. Magazine hit the stands in 1971 and it was groundbreaking. On TV, we had Mary Tyler Moore who was sitting alongside a male peer at the news desk. There were lots of things happening to support all women but I took them seriously.
When you think about that and the environment that you’re in, that’s what you do. You take a step back and think through. Maybe I am allowed to make some other choices. Maybe I should begin to take things into my own hands and see things differently. I focus on women and women’s firsts. One of the things that come to mind is Kathrine Switzer. She wanted to run in the Boston Marathon. She had to put down her initials in order to get her through to the next stage. We’re talking about the ‘70s and ‘80s, those with the beginnings of change. When you think about your career and where you were at that time, what additional insights can you give to people that are still thinking that they’re not ready yet?
We’ve come full circle so well. That era gave a lot of hope to women. There has been a downward swing and flattening out. The glass ceiling that we all thought would crash a long ago didn’t quite happen. Here we are putting women at the forefront, ensuring that we give women equal opportunities and they have a voice. For women, now is the time. There is a push and a reason to take your career seriously and not see any limitations at all. Go for it.
Debbie, you mentioned The Mary Tyler Moore Show which gave us a different picture back then of what women can do. This was the big change, seeing a woman in a role that was typically meant for a man. It was on TV, which is a platform that we weren’t used to. That’s all good. It feels like all the signs were pushing you towards your mindset change and being more confident with what you are going after. You thought you were going to play the role of a wife and a mother. Suddenly, you find yourself needing or wanting something more. You ventured into corporate life. When you think back, how difficult was it for you to climb that corporate ladder?
It was challenging, I have to admit. I remember my first big break was securing an interview for a training position with a life insurance company. I interviewed with several people. I had the support of the training director and I thought I had it. When the call came and I was told that I did not get the position, I didn’t know what to do. I called back and asked for feedback. I was told that the head of the marketing was the negative vote. He didn’t like my style. He said I was too metro. He did not think that the suburban populations that we’d be serving could relate, or that I could relate to them. I struggled with it. I thought, “What was it about the way I dress, my hairstyle, makeup, my tone, or what my message was that came across that way?”
I went out and spending my last dollar buying a strictly suit, pulling my hair back, putting on minimum makeup, and showing up at his office. I ask if he would be kind enough to spend fifteen minutes with me so I could give him my point of view on what I thought the value was that I could add in training on these rural areas. I had been born in Schenectady, New York, which is one of the areas that needed to be covered so I wasn’t metro at all. It was his view and his impression of me in that first fifteen-minute meeting that would have changed the course of my life. I was able to connect with him in that meeting in a way that he realized that I have the ability to understand not just one particular type but be able to open up with people in general. He gave me a shot. He changed his vote and I got the position. A few years later, he promoted me to the training director when the training director had left. He became a great mentor and a great friend. He always reinforced to me the importance of not just taking no for an answer but of asking why, putting your best foot forward, working to make a connection and understand the needs of every client in this case the person who was looking to fill a position.
First of all, most people wouldn’t ever ask for feedback because they might be scared of what they’re told. Secondly, to show up at his office, ask for a face-to-face meeting, and show him why he was making a mistake in not hiring you, that’s impressive. It’s important to have somebody believe in you. He became a mentor to you. The fact that you are able to win him over and he became your mentor, that’s a fabulous story. What happened next?
It was a great learning opportunity also because it certainly drove home to me the importance of understanding who your audience and customer is. It’s not just getting into a situation where you are speaking to someone. You’re doing your homework and knowing what it is that they need that you need to do in order to win them over. I reflect on the fact that I mentioned Ms. Magazine. A couple of years into my job at that life insurance company, I found myself sitting across the desk from Pat Carbine who was the Co-Founder of Ms. Magazine. She sat on the board and she took me under her wing. She said that they need more women to succeed. They needed women in leadership roles. She also became a mentor. She introduced me to Gloria Steinem, which is the name that we all recognize.
Pat, herself, is an amazing woman. She had a quote on her desk that also gave me another great learning opportunity. It said, “Creative minds are rarely tidy.” Her desk was a mess. I remember up to that point being so afraid to have anything out of order. I made sure that everything was in tiptop shape because that’s the way, especially in life insurance and banking, things operated. That taught me was that it takes all kinds. The world is diverse. It’s because your desk isn’t neat doesn’t mean that you’re not able to completely blow the roof off the place as she did in her work.
It made me stop and look at, “What are the different personality styles? How can I begin to learn more about them?” I became committed to understanding and leveraging my insight into what drives people and how I can learn to connect with them and communicate with others. I honed these communication skills. I constantly work on listening skills which I think are underappreciated. Anyone who truly understands and leverages listening has a step up in corporate America and learn to relate to others.
Most people don’t think about listening skills in that way. They don’t realize how critical and important they can be. They take it for granted. Everyone thinks they’re great at it but it’s a skill that we need to continue to hone in on and work through. When I say that things still need to happen, it reminds me of the movie Hidden Figures. When Taraji Henson played the role of Katherine Johnson, she did all the work and knew all the numbers. Yet, she had to fight her way into the board room. When she finally got the chance, she was told, “You can sit there and say nothing.” When a question was asked, she was the only one who knew the answer. She took that step, she spoke up. That was a turning point. Debbie, as you think about your career, have you ever had to take a chance and fight your way into a position in order to continue to climb that corporate ladder?Anyone who truly understands and leverages listening has a step up in corporate America. Click To Tweet
As they say, “Eagles fly high. The higher you fly, the more endangered you become.” As my career blossomed, it got a little trickier. There were many situations that were not obvious to me as to what to do. There were times when just pure courage, conviction and my network provided the support that I needed to hold on. Sometimes I see things coming and other times there are shifts that happen overnight. Many times, I was thrown a life preserver. Many times, as you come through the other end, you’ll realize that you not only have survived but you’ve taken on greater responsibility. I would look at it as building a network is key. When the winds changed, for the most part, you have to have others around you who are going to protect and support you.
That’s a great point because the winds will always change. They’re going to happen. Some of the problems I think that we face is not being able to see that shift happening. When it does, not being able to redefine yourself and figure out what you need to change or which way you need to turn. Did you have some time when you felt it was over?
I had many near encounters when I thought my number was up. In one instance, my boss told me to find another job purely because she felt that I had a stronger emotional connection to the organization than she did. She gave me this news to find another job and then she left on vacation. By the time she returned, I had landed in a role. I didn’t waste a moment. A year later, she was terminated because of her inability to build and leverage a team. That wouldn’t have saved me. The environment was toxic and she was ready to cut off my head. I had to make a decision to find another place to land. When the environment is toxic, move on. Know when you can control and know when you have no control. In that case, I had no control.
Women have to fight to get a seat at the table. Because there are so few women at the table to begin with, sometimes women don’t always support other women. They feel threatened. They fear that maybe another woman is going to take their only seat. This is one of my pet peeves. Something has to give and we have to be able to change this somehow. We need to support other women. We need to elevate each other in the process. The need to focus on things we can control. We can certainly control that because that’s such great advice. Many times we might focus on things that we have no control over and then we’re just spinning our wheels. You talked about all the things that you did to build your skills, to find your network of supporters, and to have thick skin to go after what you want. Don’t take no for an answer. How did you compete for those larger roles? How did you ask for the big bucks? I’m sure that must have been difficult.
Women have an advantage. Our tendency to see and allow our emotions and feelings to play a role. Those years, there were few seats at the table. I think that’s changing. We see many more seats open up. The competition is now becoming cooperation so I’m hopeful for the future. It is important to know your worth, to approach compensation and your value as a matter. Sometimes, women more than men, are grateful for the compensation. They don’t do their homework. They don’t survey the marketplace. They don’t bring forth the data and the rationale to their management to ensure that they are being compensated fairly and that they are in the position that they can truly make a difference.
I remember twice in my career where I felt that I was undervalued. I did my homework; I went to my boss and presented the data. In both cases, my salary was adjusted. That may sound Pollyanna-ish but it happened to me. I went in with some data and said, “I don’t understand the discrepancy.” One was a man and one was a woman. They both looked at me, nodded their heads and said, “We’ll get back to you.” Within a matter of weeks, I was told that my salary was adjusted. Don’t be afraid to take on the establishment. Don’t be afraid to step out there and take on big projects and crush business projects. I can remember taking on a high-level project. I was scared to death until I realized that this is a chance of a lifetime. I got past the fear and at the end of the day, my personal stock soared. I was recognized for the business and received a huge bonus. It is important to realize your worth.
You have to go after what you deserve. Your self-confidence and your self-worth are based on that. It’s important and such great advice. People have asked me to talk about being a working mother. How do we balance that? Wanting a family, either wanting a career or having to work in order to support the household. It doesn’t matter. I know that family was extremely important to you, Debbie. How do you manage to have such an amazing career while juggling a family?
I was blessed. I remarried my life partner. He was self-employed and still supported me 100%. He was able to help me when I had relocations and travel presented. We were blessed with a beautiful baby girl. It was a challenge. One of my mother’s many quips was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” We believe that. My husband and I had the will to ensure our family was taken care of and our daughter had every opportunity to fulfill her dreams. We found a way. Much like in business, we built using communications, networks, and love. We built an infrastructure around those everywhere we went. Among the several moves we made, we reached out. Not only to business friends but through the school and church to find people who would be there for us and who could we be there for. We did have great neighbors. We leveraged programs and we took count of resources that were available. There were always after school programs and sports to complement the sitters that we had for our daughter. One day at a time, we were able to accomplish our goal of ensuring her life was on par with ours. It went well. In your career, you had three children so it was much more challenging.
I was a career woman from the start. I always wanted to work. After I got married, the following year, I had my first child. I had my second not shortly after that. A few years later, I had my third. I remember having mixed emotions. After my first child, it was exciting. As my family grew to three kids, it became a lot more challenging. Even though I wanted a family, I had many decisions to make. I worried about who was going to watch my kids when I went to work. I worried about what I was missing as a mother. Was I going to miss their first step and their first word? I was worried about whether they would know that I was their mother and not their babysitter. Was I spending enough time with them? These emotions run rampant in your mind. It’s a different household that I grew up in because my mom was a stay-at-home mom. Did you ever worry about missing out on that?
The thing that I always feel bad about is I also worried so much about missing out at work. It was a balancing act. I always wanted to be in both places at the same time. I had a great lesson early on. My daughter had a high fever and I had an important meeting. I thought it was the most important meeting in my life. I called my boss to say that I need to bring my baby to the doctor. I’d drop her off to her babysitter so I’d be there and attend the meeting. His reply was life-altering. He asked me, “Where do you need to be?” I said, “I can do both.” He asked, “What should you do? Should you be in the meeting worrying about your sick child? Should you be with your sick child worrying about business?” It made me stop, think, and reflect. I realized I needed to be with her. What would she remember? What would she think of me in the future if my instincts were always to drop her off when she needed me? I shifted my thinking and I certainly put much effort into my career. Whenever the choice came down to what was most important, there was no question with my priority with her.
All of us struggle with that same exact thing, worrying about work and worrying about the kids. Sometimes you feel like, “I can’t be successful at either because they both need me now and they both want my attention.” It is a juggling act. One of my favorite stories is as working parent and a working mother, I remember being in a meeting one time. It was right after my first daughter Gabi was born. I remember exactly what I was wearing and I remember the table in Washington, DC. in that conference room. There was this big meeting. I had on this purple silk blouse with ruffles everywhere. I was still nursing my daughter. All of a sudden, I could feel my body changing. I grabbed a pad of paper, picked it up and I put it covering my blouse. I’m counting the seconds. I’m like, “When is this meeting ever going to end?” Finally, it did. I remember you looking at me saying, “What is wrong?” I put the pad down and you’re like, “Run quickly. Go home.” Sometimes you have to be in two spots and it’s difficult.
There are many times throughout our lives when we’re faced with these challenges. We have to figure things out. We have to figure out where we’re supposed to be. I think about the game of Survivor. There are many people who find themselves at the bottom of an alliance and then they have to figure it out. They have the option to give up or do something different. That’s what life is all about. Now, we’re going to talk about life served weekly, having a career and having a family. We want to hear from you.
What is your name and where are you from?Building a network is key in business. When the winds changed, you have to have others around you who are going to protect and support you. Click To Tweet
My name is Veronica from New Jersey.
Welcome, Veronica. We’re talking about career and family. What choices have you made and why?
Learning about how you had to balance everything resonated with me. There were many times that I had to make a lot of the same choices that you guys were talking about. I was born in the ‘90s. I had my son really young. There was a time where I had to balance school, work, and my child. As I’m older, I have a career. I have to balance my career and my son. It’s always that balancing act. When it starts tipping over, you have to figure it out. As you said, you have to make something work. You guys talked about how important a support system is and pulling from the resources in your community. That all rings true with me. There have been many times where I’m at work and my son’s school is calling my cell phone and my work phone. He’s sick or something happened. I have to get on the phone and figure out if I’m leaving or have someone pick him up. What do I do? It’s all a careful balancing act but the point of it all is that we can do that. As you guys said, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” You just have to figure it out.
That is true, Veronica. You’ve demonstrated all of the different emotions that all of us go through and what we need to do to figure out how to support our family is critical. I’m glad that you’re resonating with the information that we’re sharing because that’s what it’s all about. This is another avenue and network to hear that you’re not alone. People have gone through exactly what you’ve gone through. Debbie, do you have anything else to add?
I think it’s amazing that you’ve been able to do that, Veronica. It’s not easy and what are you doing? Where are you working?
I’m a teacher.
It’s wonderful that you push through everything and giving your life to others as well. That’s fabulous.
It’s important for people like me to hear you guys because a lot of times you do feel like you’re alone. I appreciated what you guys are doing.
Thank you so much.
Thanks for being there. Bye.
It’s exciting to hear that people are going through the exact same things that we’re going through. Doesn’t it make it all worthwhile to share stories and hear from others? We talked a lot about growing the career, having a family, and being able to balance all of that. We chose to work. That’s a choice that we made. There are others that choose to work from their house. It doesn’t matter what your choice is. For every family, it’s a different story. I want to make sure that people out there realize that we climbed that corporate ladder but there are many other people who are making other choices and having just as many challenges in the process. Do you see any difference in when you look at your daughter and how she’s balancing her family because she has a big family?
My daughter has definitely advanced through her higher education. She has taken on some big challenges, work financial profits. She had to step back as her husband’s career moved forward. She has been the primary caregiver for their three children. That doesn’t mean she quit her job. She worked full-time and has more flexibility because in nowadays’ environment, there is more virtual capability. In some ways, it’s wonderful because you can manage your time and errand your priorities. In some ways, it adds a whole other level of pressure. You’re running that much faster to ensure that you’re there to get your kids on and off the bus and to their activities, also be in calls and delivering your projects. I think that the world continues to change and evolve. Whether you’re an at-home mom or a working mom, the challenges are there.For women in business, it is important to know your worth, to approach compensation and your value as a matter. Click To Tweet
Regardless of where you work, those same challenges are there. I’ve done both as you have as well. I want to thank Veronica for sharing her story with us. I’m glad that you have felt that you resonate with the topics because that’s what it’s all about. That’s the kind of story that I love to hear about and the kinds of things that I like to share with you guys. We all make choices, deciding on what you want, whether you want to work or whether you’re not, whether you have to work, whether or not. Can you afford to stay at home? Is a two-income family necessary for you now? We face the struggle of continuing to break down barriers in the workplace. We’ve made a lot of ground. The opportunity to take any role that you want is out there. If you want to climb that corporate ladder, you can if you choose to. There are many things that we still need to do and the message is that if you want a career and family, it’s possible. It’s up to you to make it happen. Don’t give up on your dreams. Find the solutions that work for you and remember, we’re all different. We talked about that this is not a one size fits all topic because every family is different.
Every family has to choose what fits them. We all have a different story. Don’t judge yourself on somebody else’s story. Create your own story. It’s up to you to make your choice and what will work best for you. Sometimes we get sucked in other people’s opinions and what they tell us. You have to do what’s right for you. We talked about how things have changed and what are the things that we still want to do in terms of building our support network. When you do that, things happen. I want to personally thank you, Debbie, for sharing your story because it is a powerful one. You’ve provided much support to many people throughout your life. I’m glad that I’ve been a part of that and I wanted to give you the opportunity to let people know about your company. Can you share that with us right now?
My company is Customer 1st Performance. We provide consulting, training and learning platform. If anybody out there is interested, you can give me a call personally. The number is (646) 290-7000. We do have a website and that’s Customer1stPerformance.com. It will be great to hear from you. Thank you.
Anyone out there who is looking for some consulting on training on customer experience and all the things that Debbie mentioned, please don’t hesitate to call.
I close out this session just thinking about and warning all of you to take away a couple of things. We talked about knowing your self-worth so make sure you do that. If you choose to work, get a seat at the table. Do your homework and build your network. Remember, the show is all about you. Share your topics. This is Mama C, signing off.