5 Career Lessons My Mother Taught Me

This blog post first appeared on the Dress For Success website. In honor of Mother’s Day, we are sharing excerpts of the blog to pay tribute to all of the wonderful hard-working mothers who inspire us every day!

Sunday is Mother’s Day, and there is no shortage of personal stories reflecting the struggles working moms face as they balance job and family obligations, all the while reaching for the next rung on the career ladder.

Full disclosure: I am a female executive, but not a mother. My biggest career influence, however, is a working mom. My own mom. She was ambitious at a time when few women openly admitted to having career aspirations.

My mom’s career started shortly after high school when she left her small town in Maine for a bigger small town in Iowa to look for her first job and take courses at the local college. Mom was married a few years later and, within a year, was a new mother to my older sister. She kept working, first out of financial necessity and later, as she has confided, because she couldn’t picture herself not working. It was the best example she could set for her two daughters. My mom never missed an opportunity to ask for a raise or promotion when she felt she deserved one, and she didn’t shy away from changing jobs when it meant more money or better benefits.

The lessons my mom taught me guide the decisions I make every day. Below are five things I learned from watching my mother be both a successful working woman and a dedicated mom.

1. Be someone others can count on. In a healthy office environment, people look out for each other. Managers and colleagues will be more likely to provide you with flexibility if you have earned their trust. Show you are part of the team by volunteering for assignments, covering for a sick colleague and returning the favor when someone asks you for assistance with a project. In doing so, you will have a better chance of getting the support you need when you’re faced with conflicting work and personal demands.

2. Get organized. My mom’s favorite quote is, “When you want something done, ask the busiest person you know.” She was precisely that person at work and at home. I try to be that go-to person in my office, too. Busy people have a gift for multitasking. They make (and complete) to-do lists. They tackle challenges head on; they don’t wait to be asked, they do what needs to be done. It’s this level of initiative that makes it possible to accomplish more than you thought possible. When my mom eventually retired, it took two full-time people to replace her.

3. Be stingy with your personal time. My mom did not burn the midnight oil. She was home by 5:30 every night, and she didn’t work weekends. She also didn’t take the job home with her — mentally or physically. This separation of career and family is important. You need that mental divide between the “you” at work and the “you” that is mom, wife, friend or family member. This advice applies whether or not you are a parent. I’m not always able to disconnect completely from work, but I do my best.

4. Stand up for yourself. If you don’t, no one else will. Mom once told me of the time she covered for an absentee coworker in the accounting department. When the woman eventually left the company, mom quietly stepped in, balancing the books to the penny each month. When she learned the firm had advertised to fill the vacancy, mom asked for a meeting with the company president, where she politely explained that she was already doing the job and had been for several months. She felt the position should be hers, and the company president agreed. She was just 22 at the time, and it was the first of many promotions in mom’s career.

5. Ask for help. The reality is that sometimes we can’t do it all. Accept this fact and look for ways to build your support network. Stay close to family members. Get involved in your local community. Make friends. These network connections are all sources of advice, referrals and direct support. Do the same thing at work. If your job is one where you can delegate all or parts of assignments to others, don’t be afraid to do so.

As a working parent, you will always have a long list of activities, events and projects competing for your time. If you have a strategy in place for managing them, you may find work/life balance a little less difficult to achieve.

It will never be easy — but then that’s why we have a special day set aside each May to recognize the super moms who perform miracles and magic tricks every single day. Happy Mother’s Day.

For the full blog post, first published on May 1, 2013, visit the Dress For Success Blog.

What career lessons have you learned from your mother? Tell us in the comments section below.