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Tips On Adjusting Your Career Arc To Fit Your Family Life

Through three phases of her children’s youth, hotel exec Lisa Zandee relied on clever strategies to make her career work for her family.

Tips On Adjusting Your Career Arc To Fit Your Family Life
[Photos: Flickr user Petras Gagilas]

It was a little over 12 years ago, and Lisa Zandee had risen to a high-powered job as a vice president of W Hotels. She had a team. She traveled the world.

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Then she had her first child, Callum.

But it wasn’t the end of the adventure—only the beginning of a new one. Looking back, when Zandee mulls how she has managed to juggle work/life balance over a dozen years, she breaks it into three phases.

Prioritizing

When she returned to work after her maternity leave, Zandee found herself with a new challenge: juggling work with caring for Callum (not to mention getting some of that precious commodity, sleep). Her first strategy: prioritize ruthlessly.

She calls it the “80-20 rule.” Previously, almost compulsively, she would attend to every detail. Technical minutiae consumed her. When it came to small things–down to straightening the napkins at a function–her attitude had been, “It’s easier for me to do it than to explain to somebody else how to do it.” Her standards were exacting. Who better to meet her high expectations than herself?

But with a demanding infant at home, it was time to let go–to cede at least 20% of what she used to attend to to others. “It made me focus on the macro issues,” she recalls. “I asked myself, ‘What are those things that I need to focus on that really make a difference?’” Her leadership style changed. She invested more in training her team, and came to trust them more.

An example: Whereas previously, if a hotel was entering a new market, Zandee had felt compelled to study everything about that geographic location, and to write up the plan herself. Now, instead, “I would overall set up the process,” she says. She remembers in particular an event at the W in San Diego, the first where she had genuinely stepped back and let the team do its work. “I was doing it more from behind the scenes,” she recalls, “walking the space after the team had set it up.” She was a general now, not a soldier.

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While building a strong team can ultimately feel like a lightened load, Zandee allows that there was something regretful about it, too. She had loved attending to details, doing something she was good at, and the thrill of being caught in the moment. “But you can’t have everything,” she says. “Something’s gotta give.”

About three years after Callum was born, Zandee’s daughter Caitlin arrived. More parenting meant a new phase of Zandee’s work–and new lessons to learn and decisions to make.

Consulting

The first lesson was retroactive, and one Zandee had thankfully already followed: “I never sign noncompetes,” she says. This allowed her to light out on her own as a consultant for several different hoteliers, and to center her focus on U.S. hotels, cutting out demanding international travel.

The next big–and perhaps counterintuitive–decision Zandee made was to simply be a consultant, not to build a consulting company. “I went into that very consciously,” she says. “I kept it very simple, with really good projects that were financially worthwhile.” She could certainly have incorporated and grown a substantial consultancy, she says, but “I didn’t want employees to look after. I had my kids to look after. I had my clients to look after.” If she occasionally needed help, she’d hire a contract worker on a project basis.

In these years, Zandee also took care to be very strategic about choosing clients. Well-paying clients were often–but not always–a priority. Important, too, was to work with key stakeholders in the hotel industry–to make sure she was still being invited into the right rooms, that she wasn’t forgotten by the big players. “Sometimes there were projects that I could get a lot more money from,” she recalls, “but it wasn’t going to get the same visibility, or it wasn’t going to teach me something.” Stretched in several directions, and with two youngsters at home, she had to make the difficult decision to decline such projects.

Where Family And Career Overlap

About three years ago, an opportunity came up for Zandee to join Denihan Hospitality–current owner of The James Hotels, which Zandee had helped launch as senior vice president of brand management. Denihan was run by a brother and sister, so family was in the DNA of the company, and Zandee knew it to be a place where “you aren’t judged by being seen in the office at 9 o’clock at night. There are places like that in the industry.” She accepted the job.

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These days, she finds, the art to work/life balance is to find ways to integrate her children into her work when possible. When they visit a hotel, Zandee is able to audit its family-focused offerings: the kids’ menu in room service, for instance, or the hotel’s babysitting options. She sometimes calls her children “kid advisers” for Denihan, and the two have been used as models in hotel brochures.

It’s in the nature of a high-powered, full-time job that you sometimes bring it home. When that has to happen, Zandee makes sure to be strategic about which work to bring home. “I try to think which things would be interesting for them, and which would not,” she says. If she’s been lecturing her kids about staying off email, how will it look if she’s glued to her own device that evening? Better to bring home the lotions to sample, or to page through magazines examining coverage.

In some cases, she’s even able to turn a work lesson into a valuable life advice. Recently, she discovered that some old and clunky branding for The James was still available online, to her dismay. She had known that it was important to teach her kids about how online behavior can follow you into your later years, but she had lacked an illustration. Now she had one at hand: “Look how hard it is for things to go away,” she explained.

If you’re strategic about it, bringing work home can actually make parenting more effective, Zandee claims. Without the James logo object lesson, she says, “I would have just been a mom lecturing.”

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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