Suzanne Brown: “Small steps are as important as the big leaps”

…Focus on gratitude. I write in a gratitude journal each night about 3 to 5 things that I’m thankful for. These are small moments from my day. I find myself looking for these moments throughout my day and remember these instead of the things that bring me down. I’m more positive because of this. The Covid-19 […]

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…Focus on gratitude. I write in a gratitude journal each night about 3 to 5 things that I’m thankful for. These are small moments from my day. I find myself looking for these moments throughout my day and remember these instead of the things that bring me down. I’m more positive because of this.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Brown.

Suzanne Brown is a strategic marketing and business consultant and work-life balance speaker, strategist, and award-winning author. She helps larger companies improve relationships with their marketing agencies and seasoned entrepreneurs grow their business. And she empowers working moms and companies to think differently about balance and take action, using her own experience and research as well as tips, insights, and advice from interviews with more than 110 working moms.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I studied numbers in undergrad and went into the marketing agency world. The ability to easily analyze and manage numbers, build bridges and speak Spanish opened doors in a unique way. I became an asset to my leadership team and quickly moved up the corporate ladder. The trick was and continues to be knowing when to say yes. About 5 years into my career, I went back and got my MBA, which enabled me to work in all sorts of unusual roles within marketing agencies, some of which I helped craft.

After working in marketing agencies for 11+ years, I became a mom. Our older son was born 10 weeks premature and spent 5.5 weeks in the NICU. I negotiated a transition to a part-time schedule (20 hours per week) for when I returned from maternity leave. This transition led to so many questions from other working moms. The interest from other working moms in how I’ve achieved my version of work-life balance has been something consistent since 2011 when my motherhood journey began.

After about a year as a working mom (12+ years in the corporate world), I became 100 percent entrepreneur. By that point, I had been a marketing consultant for almost 8 years as a side gig and it was time to focus on that side hustle. I’ve changed my business focus over time as the needs of my clients and the marketplace changed. And now OKsuzi Strategy empowers larger companies to work better with their marketing agencies and enables seasoned entrepreneurs to take strategic steps to grow their businesses.

In 2013, about 2 years into focusing on only my entrepreneurial endeavors, I realized there was something missing in the marketplace. There weren’t resources available to help working mothers transition to a part-time role. As an entrepreneur, I decided to create one. My thought was: “How hard can it be?” As entrepreneurs, we dive in with enthusiasm and create, but it’s often harder than we expect and this was no different. It took me 3 years to do interviews while managing another business. Over time, I realized I needed to write a book and wrote a second one a year later, again, based on a need in the marketplace. And my second business, Mompowerment, was launched to empower working mothers to create greater work-life balance and companies to become more balance friendly.

And now I have two companies. No two days look alike and I still get to be the mom I want to be.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

We did the brainstorm to name my work-life balance business on a Friday. I gathered a few local women who I had interviewed for the books, who understood what I was trying to do. (This is how the Mompowerment name came about.) On Monday, our younger son was born. He was a few weeks early because I got a horrible stomach bug over the weekend. Having a brainstorm to name your business one day and having a baby a few days later seems like the perfect way to describe how the needs of work and life happen side by side as an entrepreneur who is a mom. You must juggle the two sides.

I slowed down a bit for several months after having a baby, especially since we also had a toddler. I quickly had to shift things around. As a working mother and entrepreneur, it’s often about prioritizing and then reprioritizing. That’s how you get things done. And balance is a long-term approach, not a goal you achieve and never think about again.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Later this year, I’ll launch a course that empowers brand managers and others who work with marketing agencies to better manage their agency partners. I’m also in the process of creating some new Mompowerment content that I’m thrilled about. When the first book came out, I created templates for readers to use so they could quickly apply what I shared instead of trying to create tools after reading the books. I’ve created more of these templates to help the Mompowerment community create more equality at home and propose different kinds of flexibility at work. I’m excited to help with these conversations that are central to getting the support that working moms need at home and at work.

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 about that?

I have 3 mentors who encourage me and provide strategic feedback. All three of them are men who I worked for at some point in my career and they are all still leaders in large companies.

As I was looking to make some recent career moves, I clearly remember conversations with two of them. They were very kind with their feedback, but the message was clear that I needed to take a different path (almost the opposite of my intended plan). They suggested bold changes, which I’m still working on. They understand my skillset and I trust their perspective.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

As a working mom, on top of all of the usual things I juggle, because of Covid-19, I suddenly had to manage my kids’ remote learning in the spring and do it again for at least part of this school year. Sometimes that requires digging deeper into new concepts as part of that process. I love teaching adults through my public speaking, sometimes in a university or graduate program environment. Teaching young children is challenging, though, especially your kids.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

This shift to managing my kids’ education daily and sometimes teaching was totally unexpected. I had to quickly adjust and create systems to overcome this challenge. I use the systems I naturally have in place but with a new layer. What helps me most is planning.

For years I have planned my week on Sunday and then planned each day the night before. On Sunday, I set my goals and priorities for the week and plan the general flow of each day to reach those week-long goals. And then each night I adjust my week-long plan for the next day, integrating any new information (e.g., new opportunity from a client, delays in projects, needing to help my kids more because it’s a new concept, etc.). It’s a constant setting priorities and then reprioritizing. I’m able to course correct and know what must be done and where I have flexibility. This is integral to running my two businesses and maximizing my time.

During the pandemic, I’ve included two new steps to my planning process. First, I share my schedule with my husband on Sundays and then we check in each night for the next day. We approach childcare (including school) and household duties as partners. We can course correct when not if things change. We’re both working at home at this time, so it simply made sense. I do lead the process, but I know I’m not alone in all of this.

The second part of this is that I plan my boys’ school days as well. I sit down with each of our two boys in the morning and we cover their tasks for the day since we get information from teachers about assignments. We write down these tasks on chalkboards that we already had that we moved to our breakfast area. I appreciate being able to cross off items on my daily to-do list and my boys do as well. And having the items on a list to help us all track how they’re doing with their time helps us know what’s done and what’s still left at a glance.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

Years ago while I was still in the corporate world, I remember one of my now mentors saying that you never want one client to be more than 50 percent of your revenue. That idea has stuck with me ever since. With that in mind, I’m constantly building a pipeline while also getting work done.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Normally in the summertime, I downshift a bit while my boys are out of school. We might travel or simply play a lot more locally. The focus is on fun.

This summer was different. In the spring, I needed more time to help my boys with their online school and my energy shifted away from business building. In the summer, I realized that this would repeat itself in the fall. Instead of downshifting, I lightened my workload a bit and shifted my focus over the summer to work on building my pipeline. That way I’m only doing work instead of both building the pipeline and doing work.

Over the summer, I focused on being of value to my network connections and reconnecting in a meaningful way. If that becomes a project because of their needs, then great. I’m top of mind when people ask my network connections about experts in my fields.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

I literally wrote two books to help with aspects of these challenges. I’m going to share 3 tips that I think can really help readers.

First, consider how you work. You might have had dedicated work time for hours and hours at the office, but that might change at home if you’re in each other’s space or if you have children. Try different ways of working. For example, if you know your day will have many interruptions, consider a productivity method like the Pomodoro technique, where you work for 25 minutes and take a break for 5. After a few rounds of this, you take a longer break. Use your fringe time wisely, though.

Second, think about maximizing your time. I rarely give formulas that relate to elements of balance, but I do when it comes to being more effective with your time. Maximizing your time = time management (planning and controlling your time) + productivity (making the most of your time) + staying on task (being focused). You must find ways to impact each of these areas and have them work together.

And, finally, understand your peak productivity and use that time wisely. This peak is when you’re at your best, so don’t check off a bunch of items on your to-do list. Focus on the most challenging stuff to get the most out of the time.

I’m most productive in the morning. In the spring, when we switched to remote learning, and in summer I continued to wake up early and used that time for a power hour. This school year is remote, so I’m doing the same thing. I use the time to focus on the most challenging and strategic projects for my clients. I sometimes work on, not in, my businesses. It was the time of day when I wrote my books and when I continue to do my writing.

If you’re not sure how to do this, find a day when you don’t have meetings (either create this time or take advantage of a day when meetings get canceled) and see when you naturally hit your groove. That is your peak productivity. Use that time wisely!

Bonus tip: Make sure you schedule time for self-care. My suggestion is small moments of self-care each day but do what works for you. And consider the 360-degree view of self-care, which includes fueling your body, drinking enough water, getting enough exercise and sleep. And then there is the layer of doing something that is specifically meaningful to you like getting outside, reading a book, journaling, or meditating. It’s hard to be at your best in your many roles when your cup is empty.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

My greatest form of self-care is traveling, especially exploring new countries. We didn’t get to do this over the summer. Instead, we stayed close to home. We’ve traveled to a few places for long weekends. We went to 8 Texas state parks between late March and late July. Getting outside can really help you reset, even a short walk in your neighborhood.

I also bookend my day with self-care. Each morning I do a self-care check-in while I’m turning off my alarm. It takes moments but in that short time, I’m able to make small mental changes to set myself up for success for the day. And I write in my gratitude journal and read each night before bed. These are small moments of self-care that help me fill my cup each day and that has helped me stay sane. If I need a bit more me-time, I take it. I might read for a few minutes mid-day, go for a walk, or chat with a friend.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

For starters, consider limiting your time reading all the negativity out there. You can glance to see what’s going on and relevant to your needs and then move on to work. Or look online for the things that bring you joy. If you don’t want to read the news, consider creating Google alerts for specific types of information that go directly to your inbox.

In addition to changing how you read the news, here are 5 things that can help you find the positive side of things:

Start with shift your attention to what you can control such as your approach to business, focusing on family, and being of value to your clients and network. Be the best version of yourself instead of focusing on the noise. It’s amazing how so many families are finding joy in the simple things. Be present in those moments of connection with those you love.

Second, focus on gratitude. I write in a gratitude journal each night about 3 to 5 things that I’m thankful for. These are small moments from my day. I find myself looking for these moments throughout my day and remember these instead of the things that bring me down. I’m more positive because of this.

Third, find ways to maintain a connection with others. Being in your house without much contact with others can be very isolating for you and your children. We can call or use face-to-face chat to maintain connections. I have done virtual happy hours later in the evening or started my day with an online coffee chat with friends. I sometimes talk to a friend while taking a walk so that I do double duty and come back feeling recharged from the physical activity and the connection. We’ve done Zoom calls with grandparents and written cards and letters for my grandmother who doesn’t have a cellphone. Yep, old school!

We’ve tried to ensure my boys maintain connections as well. For them, we’re trying to create fun ways to engage with others. We’ve done Zoom playdates that include building LEGOS together or playing chess, or a game like bingo, or even basketball (our 9-year-old has a small hoop on his closet door which a few friends also have). We sent out a small craft to a handful of my 6-year-old’s friends to do together. My boys helped with the 10-minute prep and it was less than 5 dollar in postage and supplies. And we did the craft for about 40 minutes. All the kids loved it.

Fourth, people are getting things done at home. When you can’t go out, you find more to do inside, including projects you’ve put off like cleaning out your closet or changing your décor. We’re creating spaces in our homes that we enjoy more. My husband is actually building desks with my boys to use during remote learning. They’re using their woodworking skills from Cub Scouts and bonding as well. They’re really excited about building these from scratch.

And, finally, companies are showing more flexibility than ever before. I’m really excited about this side of things. While there is a lot of focus on the challenges that working moms specifically are facing, this is the moment to ask for what you need. The timeline to shifting to remote work and creating greater flexibility has been compressed. We need to shift our thinking to the opportunity this provides instead of focusing on the fact that this is a hard moment for working mothers. We have established this is hard on working moms. Let’s start talking about solutions and sharing what we learn and how to fix it. Let’s change the narrative and empower each other.

Instead of trying to negotiate solo, though, reach out to other working moms and approach your manager, department head, or senior leadership as a group. You’ll have greater negotiating power and help your employer be more strategic with how it approaches flexibility and benefits.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

As a family, we have definitely felt socially isolated during the pandemic. We are still cautious since our numbers in Texas spiked during the summer. My boys are very social, so this isolation has been one of our biggest struggles.

We’ve gone with families from our boys’ school to local state parks and hung out but stayed in our separate groups. The parks limit visitors and we head out early, so we’ve only seen a handful of families while out. This time outside has been a lifesaver for our family and our friends. Getting out into nature can really help with overwhelm, stress, and general wellbeing.

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

I paraphrase something a grad school professor shared with me: “Small steps are as important as the big leaps.” It’s hard to make big leaps. Writing a book seems like a big leap, but really, it’s a series of small steps. Doing each interview (I interviewed 110+ professional working moms for my books) and writing each chapter eventually built up to two books. There were days and weeks I didn’t think I did enough, but then I looked at all I had accomplished to get to that point.

We must celebrate each of those steps in a meaningful way. For example, we opened up a special bottle of wine because of a milestone I completed.

The question then becomes how you track these. I attended a panel a few years ago, and a panelist suggested that we put all your successes, big and small, into a folder each Friday afternoon. I dubbed this your “I Rock” folder. That way, you can look at what you’ve achieved over time. It shows you the progress you’re making over time in the moments of doubt and helps to build momentum. Is is helpful for entrepreneurs and employees. It shifts how you look at your accomplishments over time.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow me on Twitter for strategic marketing tips and stories. Read the Mompowerment weekly blog, find @mompowerment on your favorite social media platform, or follow me on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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