Rikleen Institute LLC

Role Models, Icons and the Importance of Good Advice

January 24, 2011

As someone who gives advice for a living, I am always interested in reading advice that other people give. Good advice should be practical, achievable, and motivational. If it does not contain some of these elements, the advice is unlikely to be helpful. Advice can be counterproductive - or even harmful - when, rather than motivating, it recommends actions that are not realistically achievable, or is not a practical response to the question asked. This was the case with a recent advice column in a popular legal publication.

The question asked was one that all of us who speak and advocate on women's advancement hear frequently. A mid-level associate on maternity leave was concerned that her absence would impact her career advancement. She sought advice on whether there was anything she should do while on leave to help her career.

The answer properly congratulated the associate on the birth of her baby, praised her commitment to her career, and expressed support for the difficulties women face as they strive to meet their work and family obligations. The columnist then stated that, "no matter how good" the associate's intentions, "any type of absence from the office, particularly a six-week or more long-term absence" creates a disadvantage. Accordingly, the young associate was advised to begin her transition back from maternity leave by staying in touch with her office during her absence.

As someone who took extended maternity leaves, I understood the need to remain connected, and recall responding to inquiries or otherwise keeping in touch as needed. But the advice then crossed a line which left those who advocate for a supportive and diverse workplace cringing. Specifically, the columnist stated that "new mothers who have been most successful in their transition back from maternity leave are those who never lost touch with their law firm during the time they were out. … By doing this, there really was no transitioning back when their maternity leave was over. It was as if they really were never absent from the office." The columnist then stressed how such women kept up with voice mail, email, correspondence and even took on "minor" assignments.

In other words, the columnist's advice gave the impression that the most successful women handled their maternity leave by turning it into an arrangement whereby they basically worked from home and met most of the day-to-day obligations they would have faced were they at work full-time.

The columnist then offered a real world exemplar of how this transition can be accomplished. But the example provided was not of someone who would be a realistic role model for most working mothers. Rather, the columnist chose an icon, someone well-known - and highly respected - precisely because her achievements go far beyond the successes of most other lawyers - male or female. The columnist spoke of this powerhouse lawyer as "an example of someone who really understands how to have it all." Then, as if to offer further inspiration, the columnist provided excerpts from the superstar's bio which reinforced her rock star credentials. The columnist insisted on vouching for the fact that, even as this woman was "building her amazing career as an attorney, she was also a devoted wife, mother and active member of her community."

The advice-giver did a disservice both to the young associate seeking the advice, and the law firm where she worked. Maternity leave policies are not meant to be coded pieces of paper that provide in writing for a particular experience which, if actually undertaken, will lead to lost career opportunities. And firms should not test the "loyalty" or "commitment" of their employees by expecting maternity leaves to turn into extended workdays. If we are ever to be truly successful in creating a more flexible - and therefore more successful - workplace, there cannot be a wink and a nod at policies that are expected to be honored in the breach.

Similarly, it does no good to use as examples those who reach icon status. By focusing on the superstar, the columnist failed to provide a realistic role model. It would be as if someone wrote to an entertainment publication asking how to be a more successful singer, and was told to simply belt out a song like Barbra Streisand would (or for those of a different generation, Alicia Keys).

We admire icons for achieving a status that few can match. Our role models, however, help us become the person we hope to be, and bring us closer to achieving our goals.

As someone who strives to succeed, and understands the deep responsibilities that come with the title of equity partner, I think the advice could have been far more helpful had the associate been advised to identify role models to whom she could turn for counsel to help her navigate within her own workplace. The associate needs to learn how to selectively identify when her accessibility may be particularly important, and how to draw reasonable boundaries around her life as she adjusts to her role as a new mother. The firm also has an interest in sending a message to its younger attorneys that there are important times in all of our lives when family can take full precedence, without penalty or repercussion.

We all need a workplace where the icons of the world continue to shine as examples of exactly what they are: extraordinary individuals whose lives are not role models for most, but rather examples of the pinnacle of achievement. That is something we all can admire - even as we turn to our role models for more realistic guidance on how to succeed in our careers and our family lives.