It had to be better than “40 hours or nothing”: One woman’s quest for work-life balance
Plante Moran has always encouraged work-life balance; in fact, “balance” is among the 15 principles that the firm was founded on. So when Sue returned to work after her maternity leave in 1992, she hoped to broaden the firm’s definition of “balance” and work a reduced schedule. This was unprecedented.
“We’d just implemented voicemail across the firm,” she remembers, “which enabled me to stay in touch with clients more easily. So I proposed the idea to my team partner. At first it didn’t fly, but I wasn’t deterred. I knew there had to be a better answer than ‘40 hours or nothing.’”
Sue responded with a detailed plan of how this opportunity could be a win for her clients, the firm, and for herself. Her team agreed to a six-month trial run. After all, this was unchartered territory, and there were no guarantees it would be successful.
“But I just had this feeling it could work — and I was determined to succeed,” she said. “Ultimately, the clients remained satisfied, the firm was happy, and so was I. And so the alternative work arrangement was born.”
Of course, the challenge of being the first is that you continually have to pave the way. It took determination to see past the challenges and create new solutions. For example, someone on a reduced schedule had never been promoted to partner. Would that be possible? What was the framework?
“While I temporarily worked a full-time schedule for a specific engagement, my plan was always to shift back to a reduced schedule when the project was complete,” says Sue. “Yes, I’d helped the firm see the value in an AWA, but I wanted more. I wanted to be a partner — so I let my advisory team know that, while I wanted the option to maintain a reduced schedule, I was also committed to my career and making it work. We were able to figure out a plan, and I was promoted to partner.”
Many female staff and partners have commented that Sue Novak is a powerful influence on them. They note her courage, her creativity, and her drive. When something doesn’t go her way, Sue considers it a lesson learned, not a failure.
It took determination to see past the challenges and create new solutions.
Sue hopes that one of the lessons she can leave with other aspiring women leaders is to embrace a mindset that allows you to flex over time rather than to adopt the routine that works for someone else.
Sue and her daughters enjoying Sweden.
“There was a staff member who was having her first baby,” Sue remembers. “She looked at what I was juggling with work and my kids who were young, and she said, ‘I want your schedule. I pointed out that we didn’t have the same clients, we didn’t work in the same industry, and we didn’t have the same support network. I suggested she look at what a lot of people have done and leverage a little bit from each one. You have to find what works for you.”
Encouraging others is something Sue remains passionate about to this day. She believes in giving them different perspectives, exploring options, and daring them to think big.
“If you have an idea that something might work for you, then give it a whirl. If it doesn’t work, you figure that out and try something else. It’s more important to have a flexible, creative approach that you can bend and tweak over time. After all, something’s always changing.”