Liz Hilton Segel: What I’ve learned about life and leadership from my mom and daughter

May 7, 2021Liz Hilton Segel, Managing Partner for McKinsey in North America, is on a mission to uncover new norms for modern leadership—from modeling well-being in the workplace to revealing what makes us who we are outside of work.

Two women who have shaped who she is today, at work and in life, are her mother Irma and daughter Kate. Recently the three sat down for a conversation that explored their perspectives on women in leadership, finding purpose and inspiration, and prioritizing well-being in a challenging year. Here, Liz shares her reflections from the conversation.

Career and leadership perspectives

Video Kate talks about the forces that shaped her outlook on working women and her sources of inspiration.

As the child of two working parents, I never questioned whether or not I would work. From an early age, I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and work in business. But it wasn’t until I actually joined the workforce that I understood the challenges that came with it—whether that was being one of the few (or only) women in certain meetings, balancing parenthood with a career, or navigating evolving expectations of what it means to be a woman in leadership. Through the years, the people who have grounded me and inspired me most have been friends, colleagues, and family members, whom I can relate to and admire. In light of this, and in honor of Mother’s Day here in the U.S., I sat down with two women who have been constant advisors in my life and influences on my career: my mom Irma and daughter Kate.

My mom completed her graduate degree in the mid-1960s while raising two young children and then went on to work as a psychologist, researching various topics including mothers’ work-life balance. She’s the first to point out that several important factors enabled her to work—an important one being that she had support at home, as well as a supportive partner and good friends who leaned in when she couldn’t get out of the house easily. Working in academia also suited her because it offered her flexibility to design her own class schedule and to work remotely outside of the academic year.

But the norms have changed significantly since I was a child. My daughter, for instance, notes the working women who surround her have made her feel confident that it is possible to be a strong working professional and impactful leader, regardless of what her future home life may entail. At 17, she’s already finding unique ways to speak up and lead, whether that’s serving as the president of her school’s mental health club, or bringing all of us at home together through a fun activity, or, more recently, calling a family meeting that resulted in our latest addition, our puppy Sydney Segel.

On balancing work and life

Video Liz describes the role models who help her get through those busy moments when juggling it all gets tough.

In our family, the challenge of balancing work, school, and personal lives is not new. But during the pandemic, for those of us who have been working from home and literally “sleeping at the office,” this balancing act has become even harder. It’s a topic my mom has researched with her graduate students and experienced firsthand. In our conversation, she reminded me that compartmentalizing—and not thinking about work when you’re with family—can be a helpful strategy.

Naturally, there will be overlap in our efforts to compartmentalize, so I have had to figure out my non-negotiables. According to my daughter, those include family dinner, which is why we have a strict no-calls-during-dinner rule. It works well for us. We have some family friends who tell us that doing the same is challenging, but they’ve found ways to incorporate similar rules into family walks or breakfast instead. What’s important is to determine your non-negotiables, establish realistic boundaries, and stick with them.

My mom has always reminded me: “You are a parent 24/7. There is enough time for you to do the things you love and to be there for your children. They will be happy if you are happy and fulfilled.” For me, pursuing my career has complemented the joy that comes with being a parent.

At the same time, there were times I had trouble keeping all the balls in the air, and that sometimes put Kate in the position of having to help me with the juggling act. She takes pride in her independence and attributes it, in part, to certain formative moments growing up she had to take ownership of a situation. She gained confidence along the way, and I learned to show myself some grace. Finding ways to make it work is a unique process for all of us, but for me, it’s been so comforting to know that I can count on the encouragement, and occasional commiseration, of my many friends and family members who are also working parents.

Finding inspiration and reconnecting to purpose

Video Irma, 87 years old, on what keeps her going and the opportunities she has to lead even today.

It’s natural to feel exhausted, especially these days when boundaries between our professional and personal lives have blurred and support structures we may have counted on are no longer available. I think of my colleagues across the firm who are parenting young children, who might be feeling overwhelmed with the need to keep it together. I think about the “onlys”—the only woman or the only woman of color—in organizations, C-suites, and board rooms, who may feel pressured to work harder, with longer hours, to prove themselves.

And I think about my 87-year-old mother, who was physically isolated during the pandemic. I’m inspired by her perseverance to make a difference in her communities no matter the obstacles. From my childhood to today, she has stepped up instead of waiting for someone else to fill the gap—whether it’s serving on a hospital board or organizing her bridge club. I admire how she continues to put herself out there, no matter her age!

I am so fortunate to have her, Kate, and so many other examples of resilient women leaders around me, many of whom are colleagues of mine. I am grateful for their influence on me and others, and I celebrate the many pivotal roles women play in all our lives.

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