[IMGCAP(1)]In 2007, I was a few years into my current position as PwC’s leader for U.S. government, regulatory affairs and public policy. My job was challenging and intense, and simultaneously, my new husband was serving as deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, which was a great honor, an amazing opportunity and a round-the-clock commitment.
In the midst of this, I discovered I was pregnant with our first child. In fact, I learned the news a few hours before meeting Queen Elizabeth II at the White House. With my head spinning with thoughts of our future family, I completely forgot the protocol and titles I had been coached to recite and stood tongue-tied before the Queen, until First Lady Laura Bush graciously moved me down the receiving line. And that was only the first day of my pregnancy.
I had yet to “go public” with my pregnancy when our CEO unexpectedly asked me to join PwC’s U.S. leadership team. On the one hand, I was excited and honored to be tapped and I understood that as only the second woman on the team, I would be taking an important step. On the other hand, I worried about assuming a high-profile, high-intensity role shortly before maternity leave, particularly given that my husband’s demanding White House responsibilities meant he would be unavailable to shoulder much of the childcare burden.
I told our CEO I was expecting and braced for his reaction. I thought he might defer my appointment until I had returned to work and demonstrated my renewed commitment to the firm. But I was wrong. Far from retreating from his offer, he was excited for my husband and me, and he repeatedly encouraged me to take the time that my baby and I would need. Notably, the offer to join the leadership team still stood.
As it turned out, I had a difficult delivery and a slightly prolonged recovery. The firm’s leadership gave me plenty of space and time with my new baby. When they did check in, my colleagues discouraged me from coming back before I was ready and assured me that I could return on a reduced schedule. Our general counsel took over most of my responsibilities and luckily, I had put together a strong team that he could rely on, and they easily transferred reporting to him during my absence.
Fortunately for me and others at PwC, the firm’s commitment to flexibility has continued and flourished since my first pregnancy. I became pregnant again within a year of returning, and a scare during my second pregnancy forced me to reduce work and travel well before I had planned. The baby was fine, but my doctor advised against the added physical stress from travel while mothering a very active toddler. Meanwhile, my husband had a new job commuting between Washington and Dallas and was away three to four days and nights each week. There was a lot to juggle.
I initially worried about my PwC partners’ response to a more flexible work plan—particularly since my second baby followed closely on the heels of my first—but everyone embraced the increased telephonic meetings and remote work arrangements. I was committed to working and to bringing a healthy baby into the world, and the firm really supported those efforts.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but by accepting the firm’s offer of flexibility and by never apologizing for it, I set an important example. A few months ago, a colleague who had just had her first baby told me that my take on the work-motherhood balance had been important to her as she contemplated starting a family. It was wonderful to realize that my approach and the firm’s support for that approach were positively impacting others.
I work hard on a near daily basis to build flexibility into my life so that I can spend time on all the things that matter to me. I have continued to build my brand at the firm, while also helping the firm and our clients develop a better understanding of how a Washington presence and a good understanding of the overall political and public policy environment are so important to business success. But I often work remotely on Fridays and shift my hours so that I can pick up my kids at school, staff a field trip here and there, or work on charitable causes that are important to me.
As I stood speechless before the British queen the day I learned I was pregnant, I could not have contemplated juggling my husband’s hugely demanding job and our young family, while maintaining an upward career trajectory at PwC. “Leaning in,” to use Sheryl Sandberg’s term, is much easier when you are part of a truly supportive organization. I feel very fortunate to work at a firm that recognizes flexibility yields great long-term returns.
If I could do it all again, there’s not much I would change, though a more appropriate exchange with Her Majesty sure would have been nice.
Laura Cox Kaplan is PwC’s leader for U.S. government, regulatory affairs and public policy.
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