“Do one thing for yourself every day” with Erin Engelke

Do one thing for yourself every day, whether it’s a workout, talking to a friend for a few minutes or indulging in a favorite food. In order to be fully present in your role as a leader, you have to be in a good place mentally and making time for self-care is imperative to achieving […]

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Do one thing for yourself every day, whether it’s a workout, talking to a friend for a few minutes or indulging in a favorite food. In order to be fully present in your role as a leader, you have to be in a good place mentally and making time for self-care is imperative to achieving that mental stability.

As a part of my series about the strategies that extremely busy and successful leaders use to juggle, balance and integrate their personal lives and business lives, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Engelke, APR.

Erin is the Executive Director for Calm Waters Center for Children & Families, a nonprofit grief center located in Oklahoma City that serves children and families who have experienced loss due to death, divorce or other significant loss, providing free support groups and other services. She is also a certified trainer, public speaker and executive coach for Strata Leadership.

Prior to Calm Waters, Erin served in executive nonprofit leadership roles for Sunbeam Family Services, Feed the Children, World Neighbors, and MidFirst Bank. She has traveled extensively around the world, including Guatemala, Albania, and Peru and has a heart for seeing children and families thrive no matter where they live.

Her deepest passion is empowering other working parents to resist the pull to achieve work-life balance, instead seeking a fulfilled life. Her expertise and real-life perspectives have been heard on stages across Oklahoma, including as a TEDx presenter in 2014 and keynote speaker for the Junior League of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma City Working Mom Summit and other leadership conferences. She is a writer, blogger and founder of

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share with us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career?

I began my career in corporate and agency PR and marketing, with every intent of rising the corporate ladder, but four years in, discovered my skills and experience could best be utilized in supporting the development, marketing and community outreach efforts of the nonprofit sector. Little did I know how much I would fall in love with the nonprofit community! Over the past 16 years, I’ve led and managed marketing and development teams at four notable charities — World Neighbors, Feed the Children, Sunbeam Family Services and now at Calm Waters Center for Children & Families where I serve as the agency’s youngest Executive Director. In all four of these roles, I stepped in at a time when change was greatly needed and when strong leadership was needed. I excel at building a team from the ground up — quickly identifying what needs to be done and rallying a staff to help execute a strategy. I love seeing my teams succeed! My success is their success. Most of all, I get such joy out of witnessing the change that can happen because of a powerful mission.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started? What lessons or takeaways did you take out of that story?

When I was a young mother and leader, I traveled to a very remote community in Peru for work. It was there I met Gloria, a wife and mother, who (like me) worked tirelessly every day to balance all the responsibilities she had in her own life. The only difference was she lived in an environment with no electricity, no running water, and home with dirt floors and cracks in the walls. I sat down with Gloria and her adorable little 6-year-old daughter, to learn more about her life. She told me (via a translator) that she wakes every morning before dawn to prepare breakfast, get potable water, and feed their animals. She then works hard all day to provide for her family, ensuring they have their basic needs met. Her ultimate dream, though, was to become a goat milk farmer and, even though her to-do list each day proved to be long, she worked toward that goal one day at a time. I LOVED hearing from her…understanding her own challenges and recognizing that we are truly all in this together…that we all want the same things — to provide for our families, work hard and pursue our own dreams along the way. It was Gloria that spurred me on to tackle the work/life balance phenomenon and became the highlight of my TEDx talk from 2014.

What did I learn from that amazing experience with Gloria and her daughter? No matter who you are and how much power you have or where you live, work and life are blended and often collide, causing a life of chaos, too many obligations, and a feeling of being stretched too thin. Life is too short and time is too precious to be anything but fulfilled and complete. We should pursue a life that includes the best of all parts of you, not just the pieces that have been put into a “work” box or a “personal life” box. Focus on doing only the things in your life that fulfill you will provide better clarity on how time is spent and with whom. Say no to all the rest, and don’t apologize for it! When we commit to tasks or commitments or careers that drain us, we don’t have the energy to be present and joy-filled with our families or fully engaged while at work…creating that feeling of imbalance.

What does leadership mean to you? As a leader, how do you best inspire others?

Serving as a leader is a tremendous honor but also one that comes with heavy responsibility. We are called to set the vision for our companies, inspire and motivate staff, ensure financial sustainability, communicate effectively, and serve as the key representative within the community. In essence, be all things to all people! In order to inspire those around us, leaders must convey confidence in themselves and their teams, positively communicate (even in the challenging times!) and above all, genuinely care about their staff and their lives beyond the workplace. At the end of the day, each of us wants to feel valued and appreciated, not just be viewed as a means to an end. For me, I strive to be confident in who I am and my purpose while showing humility and kindness to those around me. I find that confidence breeds huge amounts of respect and motivates others to join you, whether that’s in leading your team, making decisions, or building relationships with clients, shareholders or donors.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have three! For starters, my mother taught me the value of hard work and how to step outside of my comfort zone, even when I didn’t think I could do it! She continues to be a wonderful example of what it means to be a mother and servant leader. As I began my career, I was privileged to work under the first female CEO of World Neighbors. She took a chance on me, seeing more potential in me than I even realized existed, and promoted me to Vice President of Marketing & Communications when I was 26 years old and 7 months pregnant with my first child. Her boldness, tenacity and strong leadership was an inspiration to me and the impetus for me to pour into the lives of other young potential leaders. Later in my career, I worked for another CEO whose leadership style was unlike any other. He believed in the Southwest Airlines methodology — if you invest in your employees, they will provide the highest quality of customer service to their clients. He genuinely cared about me, my family, and my long term dreams, wanting to help see them come to fruition, even if it meant I no longer worked for him. I credit him for teaching me the value of true servant leadership and consider him a life-long mentor and friend.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the main core of our discussion. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your life into your business and career? Can you articulate what the struggle was?

Absolutely! I’d be lying if I told you it’s been an easy journey. I’m a wife, mother of three children, community volunteer, executive coach, trainer, public speaker and writer. And that’s all above and beyond my full-time role as CEO of a nonprofit. If I reflect on what makes juggling all of that the most challenging, it is without question the pull to do it all. To say yes, even when I know I should say no. Whenever I find myself filling my life with “to-dos” that don’t bring me joy, that’s the exact moment I feel out of balance and can’t be fully present at home or at work.

In order to give greater context to this discussion, can you share with our readers what your daily schedule looks like?

I wake up early each morning for a 4–5 mile run. There’s something invigorating about starting the day with movement and exercise, especially if I have a particularly challenging day ahead and lots of decisions to make. Running clears my head and gives me a boost of energy and endorphins to energize me for the day! From there, I head to my office (about a 25-minute commute) at Calm Waters where I serve as Executive Director. One of the reasons I love my job is because no day is the same. I toggle between leading board meetings, writing mail appeal copy, strategizing on program development, asking donors for money or giving media interviews (and much more, of course!). I wrap up my day with enough time to stop at the gym and lift weights before heading home to a house full of kids and dog anxious to see me…and hungry for dinner! I typically plan my meals in advance, either meal prepping over the weekend or using my crockpot, because I would rather spend quality time with my family than spend all night in the kitchen. After dinner, our family spends time outside by the pool, going for walks or running to sports, drama or church activities. I often find myself managing five different schedules — mine, my children’s and my husbands, so having a shared calendar is imperative to keeping our household organized and on track. I am a blogger and contributing writer for other publications and use time in the evenings after the kids wind down to get my creative writing done or catch up on work from earlier in the day or attend a meeting for one of the three boards I serve on. Because my kiddos are getting older (currently are 9, 12 and 14), there is very little quiet time. They need more of me now than they did when they were younger!

Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life? Can you explain?

Interestingly enough, as my success grew, I actually found more clarity about what is most important and how I should focus my time. I became much more confident in the need for boundaries (not checking email while I’m on vacation, for instance) and giving myself adequate opportunities to unplug so when I am at work, I am fully recharged, present and efficient.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal/family life.

Several years ago, I was in a high profile role at Feed the Children and was traveling every few weeks, working early mornings and late nights, managing national press interviews and celebrity appearances as well as rebranding the organization nationally and internationally. I had three very young children at this point, ranging in age from 2 to 7 and was exhausted from trying to stay on top of it all. One night, I was packing my suitcase for another trip out of town for work when my son (who was 7) climbed into my suitcase, looked at me with his beautiful green eyes, and said “Mom, take me with you. I don’t want you to leave anymore.” That was it for me. I knew then and there that no amount of “success” was worth losing out on time with the people who meant the very most to me.

Ok, so here is the main question of our interview. Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal/family life? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. First, identify what fills you with joy for each aspect of your life — personally and professionally. Those become the standard by which you determine how you spend your time. I’ve made the mistake of saying yes to serving on nonprofit boards or community committees…all because I was honored to be asked…but then discovered I truly didn’t have a passion for that cause or mission, resulting in me dreading the meetings or the tasks I was expected to accomplish. That dread and anxiety about the commitment bled over into other aspects of my life, draining me from enjoying what I did have a passion for. Don’t say yes to a commitment if you don’t love it!
  2. Second, realize that work/life balance does NOT exist. It’s not realistic and you’ll wear yourself out trying to attain it. Focus instead on having a fulfilled life…doing only the things in your life that bring you joy…from your earlier discovery. Say no to all the rest, and don’t apologize for it. When we commit to tasks or commitments that drain us, we don’t have the energy to be present and joy-filled at work or at home.
  3. Set boundaries when it comes to responding or doing work after hours and when you won’t. Serve as an example for those around you that life is much bigger than a title, job duties and a position. I’ll never forget several years ago when my husband and I decided to take a weekend trip away to celebrate our anniversary. The grandparents had all three kids for three luxurious days, and while we knew they would eat nothing but McDonald’s and cupcakes, we couldn’t have cared less for the rare chance to get away and reconnect. I only made it a couple of hours into the trip before my phone started burning up. Text messages from my staff. Emails from my boss. Phone calls from the media, requesting interviews. My plan to escape work was quickly dissipating…and rapidly. I had to respond. Yet one email response led to another and then another. I just had to put the issues to rest before I could truly relax and enjoy my trip. The only problem was, with each request fulfilled, I received yet another one. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a patient husband who understands my work pressures, but enough was enough for him. Confiscating my phone (by throwing it into the back of our oversized SUV), he lectured me on the need to let it go. We were on vacation, for heaven’s sake, he said. I was setting a precedent that couldn’t be reversed if I let it continue. And he was absolutely right. Not only was I allowing myself to stay connected to the office when I was legitimately supposed to be disconnected, but I was communicating to my staff that vacation is nothing more than me working from another location for the day. And I was sending the message that they, too, would have to abide by the same standard for their own vacations. Boundaries are important, especially for leaders. Make them and hold to them!
  4. Fourth, ignore the background noise. There will always be someone who doesn’t agree with your choices and how you spend your time, but your life is not theirs. The firmer you stand on your character, values, professional and personal priorities, the more balanced you will feel and the less you will “hear” the naysayers. Leadership is a lonely place and there is often little support once you rise to the level of the C-Suite. Find a community of like-minded leaders who will remind you of your truths without judgment or scrutiny.
  5. Finally, do one thing for yourself every day, whether it’s a workout, talking to a friend for a few minutes or indulging in a favorite food. In order to be fully present in your role as a leader, you have to be in a good place mentally and making time for self-care is imperative to achieving that mental stability.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Life has a way of presenting unexpected challenges, some of which you don’t always think you can tackle. But in most every instance, you CAN accomplish far more than you could ever imagine. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I feel like our greatest need as a society is to just BE KIND. We’re not all going to agree with each other, but kindness is the universal language and can bridge all barriers — racial, political and otherwise. I tell my kids often that my primary role as their mother is to raise them to be good, kind human beings. It begins at home and with those we lead — just be kind!

What is the best way for people to follow you online?

I would love to connect with your readers! I can be found on Instagram at @erinengelke, Facebook at or on LinkedIn. Read my blog for more tips on living a fulfilled life at

Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!

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