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What Would Donna Do?

| April 19, 2022

by Beth Holtz

What Would Donna Do?

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Beth Holtz, Senior Manager for Strategic Initiatives and Administration in Research Computing, Princeton University.  She is a MOR alum.  Beth may be reached at [email protected].]
I have a tendency to over commit. Not only am I a people-pleaser, but I also get great satisfaction contributing to ongoing projects and making other people’s lives easier. ‘No’ was not a word I readily used, which made it difficult for me to set boundaries and balance my work and home life. Over the past three years I had to learn how to change.  Balance has been the key to keeping me afloat.
When I started working on today’s Tuesday Reading, my MOR coach posed the question “if I was talking to my ‘do it all’ self of 2.5 years ago, what would I have been telling myself?” I spent weeks reflecting and I realized the change to start setting boundaries to balance my workload started with my boss.
In 2019, work (for most of us) was still done while sitting at a desk in an office for 8 hours a day.  Two and a half years ago, I was a newly single mom with young children, the manager of a team, and I was struggling to balance raising my kids with being the employee I wanted to be. When I was home, I felt like I was failing at work.  When I was at work, I felt like I was letting my kids down. I was a mess. My boss, Donna, canceled her morning meetings and insisted we go for a walk. I was easily led and we walked for two miles.
We spent the time talking about work, kids, news, mental health, vacation plans – all of it.  And in that hour, Donna set my mind at ease by simply listening. She then reassured me that my work was strong, that my team was thriving, and that I was a good mom. She also told me that I was paid to think and not just to sit at a desk. And while it wasn’t common practice, she gave me permission to work flexibly so I could balance all that was on my plate.  I had a strong bond with my boss and was open with her, so this walk was a quick trigger for me to modify my habits. 
Heading into the pandemic, I had already been approved to work remotely one day a week.  The added times where I couldn’t be in the office I was able to remotely manage my work and team to keep up productivity without taking on the stress and anxiety of false expectations. I offered my team the same flexibility, as needed, for family emergencies and appointments. We established trust that increased our work product and honored a true work-life balance.
When the pandemic hit, we were all thrown into a new-found normal where, for a lot of us, flexible and remote work was the norm.  Most of us in IT will argue that we have been more productive with remote work. It enabled us to successfully juggle abridged or hybrid work hours in response to our family schedules and allowed us to quickly pivot and adjust as policies changed. Flexibility became a standard practice.
Now that our organizations are back in person more, or headed in that direction, it is proving difficult to put the remote work genie (and all of its personal benefits) back in the bottle. While flexible work policy creation is in the hands of senior administration, remaining empathetic to the needs of our staff (as much as possible) is in all of our hands.
So I always ask, what would Donna do? 

  1. Be empathetic – the ability to connect with others over a shared understanding of their emotions will help expand awareness of the issue at hand. We may not always agree, but this added perspective will provide the context we need to review the situation and lead through it.
  2. Provide honest and productive feedback – hearing from my boss that I was enough was reassuring and calmed my anxiety about productivity at work. The more often feedback is provided, the easier it becomes to provide and receive – even negative feedback. 
  3. Prioritize assigned work – be conscious of the work that is assigned and make sure the timelines are prioritized and fit within a standard work week. For people like me who are slowly learning to say ‘no,’ having management support to prioritize work and timelines prevents excess overtime and anxiety. 
  4. Be flexible – while we are restricted by work policies and support needs, providing flexibility for our teams however we can is a great way to build trust and to support work-life balance. Without flexibility offered years ago, I may not have been able to keep my job and I definitely wouldn’t be in the position I am in now. 
  5. Be a Champion – as managers, we are not just responsible for work product but also for professional development of our team members. Understanding what your team needs to be successful and advocating on their behalf will help with job satisfaction, increased retention, and will create a more positive work environment.   

I still don’t say ‘no’ as often as I should, and the act of changing my work habits has led to more stress and extra work than I care to admit. Having someone in my corner who listened, empathized, and made every effort to understand and support me was a huge component of my success. Unfortunately, Donna was in an accident and passed away two years ago.  This made an already hard time even more challenging.  How I miss her, her listening, and her inspiration.  I am so privileged I had the opportunity to be supported by and learn from her, and to now share a bit of her with you.  Just because we’ve always done things one way doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of finding a better way, as Donna did for me. The support of management is a great way of endorsing that change. Whenever we can, let’s all be like Donna. 

This Week’s Survey

Do you feel you can say “no” as often as you should to achieve your desired balance?


From Last Week

Last week, we asked: Which of the following is the most challenging as you lead for results?

  • 33% said measuring progress.
  • 23% said focusing on the priority results.
  • 20% said clearly communicating expectations.
  • 13% seeking feedback to improve outcomes.
  • 11% said taking the next best action.

Collectively, one in three of us finds measuring our progress most challenging.  There is a balance to be had in metrics being easy to collect and in being meaningful.  Measuring progress can be an iterative process where perfect is the enemy of good enough.  The next time you find yourself struggling to measure progress, consider trying to simplify to a measure that, while not perfect, can still help guide progress toward delivering results.