Lori Mihalich-Levin: “Activate Your Village”

…The book provided me with another (lower cost) option of something I could sell to my existing clients. Many of the new parents who take the Mindful Return course I created do so because their employer offers the program to them as a parental leave benefit. Now, in addition to the course, employers could purchase […]

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…The book provided me with another (lower cost) option of something I could sell to my existing clients. Many of the new parents who take the Mindful Return course I created do so because their employer offers the program to them as a parental leave benefit. Now, in addition to the course, employers could purchase copies of my book, and provide them to their new parent employees (in the same gift box as the company-branded baby onesie!).

As a part of our series about “How You Can Grow Your Business or Brand By Writing A Book”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD.

Lori Mihalich-Levin, JD, believes in empowering working parents. She is the founder and CEO of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and co-host of the Parents at Work Podcast. She is mama to two wonderful red-headed boys (ages 8 and 10) and is a partner in the health care practice at Dentons US LLP. Called a “working mama guru” by Working Mother Magazine, Lori has been committed to promoting women’s equality and leadership throughout her career. Her thought leadership has been featured in publications including Forbes, The Washington Post, New York Times Parenting, Thrive Global, and The Huffington Post.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what motivated you to become an expert in the particular area that you are writing about?

Sheer desperation motivated me to become an expert in parental leave issues, working parenthood, and all things juggling work + family. After having two children about two years apart and returning to work full time after each of my maternity leaves, I was in a dark place. Unsurprisingly, I discovered a wealth of helpful resources on how to nourish and care for my baby. I could take courses on everything from how to puree baby food, to how to massage my baby, and how to breastfeed and pump milk. But I didn’t find anything thoughtful or helpful about how to navigate the personal and professional identity transformation that happens to the parents of this amazing baby. I set out to create what I wished had existed for myself, when I transitioned from “professional” to “working mom”.

Can you share a pivotal story that shaped the course of your career?

At the time my second child was born, I was a risk-averse Medicare reimbursement attorney, who never envisioned creating much of anything. I liked to write and enjoyed interpreting complex regulations, but entrepreneurship was the furthest thing from my mind. I was succeeding at work, getting promotions, and was both “working hard” and “parenting hard.” At some point, though, I found myself crying on the kitchen floor night after night, wondering just how to keep all the balls in the air. I wasn’t sleeping much and couldn’t figure out how to meet everyone’s expectations.

Searching the internet for help, I stumbled upon a blog called “Abundant Mama,” and wound up signing up for one of Shawn Fink’s (the blog’s author’s) online courses, which promised to help me find abundance amidst the overwhelm. In joining this course, I was invited into a cohort of about 100 other moms from all over the world, who were also feeling burned out. The solidarity and the lessons on mindfulness and gratitude were my lifeline.

At some point, I said to my husband, “there really should be a program for new working moms that’s like this one — a program that brings them together in a forum so they don’t feel alone, and that teaches them how to make this life transition.” My husband, the ever-supportive partner and also, himself, an entrepreneur, quipped back, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” For me, that was the spark that propelled me forward in creating Mindful Return. I still practice law (as a Partner at a firm on a 50% schedule), but I now get to build communities and support working parents, too.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Are you working on any new writing projects?

I co-host a podcast called Parents at Work, which is an exciting project in itself! But so many of the parents I’ve interviewed for this podcast tell stories about how it was their manager at work, very specifically, that made their parental leave experience good or bad. I’m now in the process of launching a course specifically for managers of employees who are taking parental leave, to help build their manager empathy skills and provide them with resources to help them manage their teams as leaders while an employee goes on leave.

I’m also in the process of expanding Mindful Return internationally. We launched a UK Chapter in January 2020, and more chapters are in the works for the future!

As far as writing goes, I write a newsletter and a blog on a weekly basis, so that’s an ongoing project. I also just recently contributed a chapter to an anthology about mindset shifts.

Thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you please tell us a bit about your book? Can you please share a specific passage or story that illustrates the main theme of your book?

Back to Work After Baby is meant to be the supportive “you’ve got this, and here’s how to make career + baby work” guide you wished your best friend would have given you after you got pregnant. In the book, I focus on four themes that I believe make for a more successful transition back to work after parental leave: a mindful mindset, logistics, leadership, and community.

This passage from the book, subtitled, “The Letter I Really Wanted to Send My Employer,” sums up the message I would like all new moms to absorb:

Dear Employer,

I’m about to come back from maternity leave and there are a few things I want to make sure you know before you see me. First, and foremost, I am looking forward with great excitement to having intellectually stimulating conversations with you in a clean, quiet office.

Now, to confirm and deny a few things you may be thinking: Yes, it is true that I won’t be the same person I was before I left, and also that I may not be completely and entirely “with it” for the first few months. No one whose sleep has been interrupted every two hours for weeks on end or whose body was just turned upside down and inside out possibly could be.

Yes, it is true that I may never look like the gunners down the hall who stay at the office until 8:00 pm every night and never take a sick day or vacation day. My day care does close at 5:45 pm sharp, and I do get charged 10 dollars per minute if I’m late, and that little petri dish of a baby will get some awful bugs. But you can count on me to be back online after bedtime…and I won’t miss a deadline.

Yes, it is true I love my baby. And my career. I am not conflicted about loving both. But I do feel pulled in many directions every day.

No, it is not true that I have somehow lost value to you. No, I did not waste hours of my day pumping milk. Did you know I’ve learned to hold the pump with one hand and type with the other? And while you may not see it yet through the bleary eyes or ponytail, I am and will be a leader in your organization. I anticipate the needs of others — clients and screaming babies — in ways you have never imagined. I prioritize like nobody’s business. I am more efficient than anyone on the team. I also have a newfound superpower of connecting with people — colleagues, clients, you name it — thanks to this fundamental thing many people do called having children.

I have a few small requests for when I come back. Meet these, and you will win my unending loyalty. Cut me some slack the first few months. I won’t be sleep-deprived forever (or so the experienced parents tell me), but for the moment I am. Be kind. Ask about my child. When my kids get sick, tell me to take care of them first, and mean it. Don’t expect me to return unchanged by motherhood; but do expect me to be an amazing, talented, intelligent, and thoughtful employee. Keep me around and engaged in the work that’s going on. You won’t regret it.

See you soon,

Mindfully Returning Mama

You are a successful author and thought leader. Which three character traits do you feel were most instrumental to your success when launching your book? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The most important, I believe, is my #1 strength according to a StrengthsFinder assessment I took a few years ago: I’m an “activator.” I’m simply not content to see a problem but not do anything to fix it, or to have an idea and not run with it. Rather than thinking about writing a book for a few years (or decades!), I realized that I had pretty much already written a book with all the blogging I’d been doing, and I resolved to get that paperback out into the world as quickly as I could.

Another of my superpowers is focus. I simply don’t get distracted easily, and I’m good at knowing what the “next baby step” is on large projects. Writing and launching a book is a process with many, many steps. I was able to list out what all those things were, and then set those tasks against a calendar to make progress over time. For example, I decided to write a chapter on each of the themes I listed above (mindfulness, logistics, leadership, and community), so I gave myself one month for each of those four chapters. With two little kids in tow, that was all I could muster! But within 4 months, I then had the manuscript for the better part of a book.

Finally, I relied on my ability to build community and connection. To interest people in reading your book, it helps to be able to reach out to your audience in personal ways, and get them excited about your work. I walked across the street to ask my neighbor (and CNN reporter) Dana Bash, to read and review my book, given she was also a working mom. She agreed, wrote a wonderful review, and helped spread the word. I wrote to my working-mom-crush Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One Has the Time, met her, and invited her to read the book and write a review. She agreed. Reminding myself that I couldn’t help anyone with my book if they didn’t know about it helped me overcome my fears of reaching out, too.

In my work, I have found that writing a book can be a great way to grow a brand. Can you share some stories or examples from your own experience about how you helped your own business or brand grow by writing a book?

First, the book provided me with another (lower cost) option of something I could sell to my existing clients. Many of the new parents who take the Mindful Return course I created do so because their employer offers the program to them as a parental leave benefit. Now, in addition to the course, employers could purchase copies of my book, and provide them to their new parent employees (in the same gift box as the company-branded baby onesie!).

The act of promoting the book also served to increase awareness of the Mindful Return brand in general. Because of my book launch, I was able to get some press in the Washington Post about my online course, which led me to new employer clients.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming an author and promoting a book? Can you explain to other leaders why they should invest resources and energy into this? Can you share a few examples of how writing a book in particular and thought leadership in general can create lucrative opportunities and help a business or brand grow?

Yes, it takes time to write, edit, launch, and promote a book. Time away from other tasks of running a business, to be sure. But it is absolutely time well-spent. Having a book allowed me to confidently raise my speaking prices between 2x and 5x from the days before I could hold myself out as an author. And the size and reputation of the companies that hired me for speaking engagements grew after the book came out, too. Rather than speaking only for small organizations, I was now being invited to keynote the launch a parent group at Unilever or moderate a panel of working caregivers for Workday. I was interviewed on TV about the book, and I’ve been able to reach international audiences with it, too. None of that was happening for my company before the book came out.

What are the things that you wish you knew about promoting a book before you started? What did you learn the hard way? Can you share a story about that which other aspiring writers can learn from?

Books are hard to sell!! There are millions (billions?!) of different books out there, and I wish I had known exactly how challenging it was to get people’s attention long enough to get them to purchase a book. The success my business has had financially has absolutely been more about the brand-boost from the book than the revenue from book sales. Had I been able to zoom out at the beginning and recognize that this was a long game about audience and brand building, rather than about book sale numbers, I probably would have been less disappointed when I wasn’t selling millions of copies at launch.

I also learned that book launches are pretty ephemeral things. The year after a book comes out, it’s pretty much “old news,” so it’s really important to go out of the promotional gate with a bang that first year.

Based on your experience, which promotional elements would you recommend to an author to cover on their own and when would you recommend engaging a book publicist or marketing expert?

I am 1000% in favor of hiring a book publicist or marketing expert, and doing so well in advance of when you anticipate launching the book. It turned out that my publicist needed a few months to prime the sources pumps for launch day, which pushed out the date of my expected launch by quite a bit. My publicist was able to develop high-quality promotional materials, craft press releases, and access databases of journalists — all of which I simply never would have been able to do on my own.

Things best left to the author, I believe, include reaching out with personal pleas for reviews and testimonials, engaging friend and colleague networks to help celebrate the launch, and advocating at locally-owned book stores for the hosting of book talks and events.

Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your own experience and success, what are the “five things an author needs to know to successfully promote and market a book?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. Identify *Exactly* Who Your Audience Is. No, your book is not for everyone! If your answer to “who should read your book?” is “Everybody!”, it’s as though a server at a restaurant asked what you wanted to eat, and you responded, “Food”! My own book is for Type A, motivated, professional women who are entering parenthood for the first time — and for the employers who hire and want to retain them. It’s impossible to market to everyone, and as the saying goes, “there are riches in niches.”
  2. You Can’t Help Anyone If They Don’t Know About You. I mentioned this above, but it’s worth repeating. I, and many people I know, have trouble getting our heads around the idea of “selling” and find it hard to feel as though we are promoting something. My husband, who has an MBA and a marketing background, helped me understand that if my goal really is to help people navigate this difficult life transition, I couldn’t do that if new parents didn’t know anything about my work.
  3. Activate Your Village. In the parenthood world, they say it “takes a village” to raise a child. It also takes a village to successfully promote a book. Asking for help from friends and loved ones, and hiring help from experts, are some of the best things you can do to set yourself up for success. When I was a new parent, I isolated myself and approached the baby endeavor with a spirit of “I’ll just figure this out myself.” It led me to burnout, anxiety, and way too many tears on the kitchen floor. Don’t try to go it alone in book marketing, either. Pull out an Excel file and list out everyone you know who is in your target audience. Send them advance copies of the book and ask for reviews. Then, start a new tab of people who aren’t in your target audience, but who probably know people who are in that target group. Reach out and ask them to help spread the word. Making lists, tracking your outreach, and setting deadlines and goals against those lists can really help organize the village-activation effort.
  4. Send Out Many Ships. In book marketing and life, many people will ignore you. Many people will say no to you. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a worthy book, program, or product. It simply means they haven’t said yes yet. The more people you reach out to, the better your return rate of yes responses will be. I now have a dedicated PR manager who helps spread the word about my business, and for every 30 podcasts she pitches, she may hear back from 1 or 2 with a positive response. She is not dissuaded. She is relentless, but in a kind and effective way. If it’s not in you to keep reaching out again and again after rejection, hire someone who is unfazed by this. My PR manager is this person for me.
  5. Celebrate all Successes, Large and Small! It’s easy to fall in to the trap of “more, better, bigger, faster,” with a book promotion. There’s always something next on the to-do list. There are always more people you can reach out to. There are always more book sale goals to achieve. But the process, and not just the outcome, are worth savoring and enjoying. When you get a positive review of your book on Amazon, tell someone you love about it. When someone writes an awesome review, toast them at dinner. When your friend group wants to celebrate your launch, let them — and enjoy the event. A “successful” launch that you didn’t take the time to enjoy, even after all the sweat and love you poured into writing the book, wouldn’t feel like much of a success to me at all.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

I would truly love to have a private conversation with Sheryl Sandberg. Her books — both Lean In, and Option B, which she co-wrote with Adam Grant — inspired me many times to take action, and gave me courage. I started what proved to be an amazing mentoring circle after my second baby was born, because of her. I’ve dared to do bigger things because of her example. She writes with an authenticity and vulnerability that I have tried to emulate, and I would love to get her perspectives on life, women, and leadership.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The best place to go is www.mindfulreturn.com. Feel free to follow Mindful Return on all the usual social media channels, too (@mindfulreturn on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Clubhouse)! I host a weekly room on Clubhouse on Fridays at 12pm Eastern via “Moms Club” all about juggling work + baby.

Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success with your book promotion and growing your brand.

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