Learning to Balance Work and Family

Business professor Kathy Korman Frey uses block models to teach her class how to identify leadership traits.
Business professor Kathy Korman Frey uses block models to teach her class how to identify leadership traits.
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Kathy Korman Frey
Adjunct Professor, George Washington University School of Business
Monday, April 13, 2009; 12:00 PM

A business class at George Washington University encourages students to take an entrepreneurial approach to balancing work with a personal life -- and to tell others their stories.

Adjunct professor Kathy Korman Frey was online Monday, April 13, at 12 noon ET to discuss the course and strategies for achieving work-life balance. She is also founder of the consulting firm Vision Forward and its business curriculum initiative, The Hot Mommas Project.

Read more about the class in "

CEO of Me Inc.

," an article that appeared in The Washington Post Magazine as part of its

Education Review issue


The discussion transcript is below.


Kathy Korman Frey: Welcome to today's online chat around "Balancing Work and Family." My name is Kathy Korman Frey. I teach Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership at the George Washington University School of Business. As you will see in the Q&A that is coming, a lot of balancing is about thinking and acting entrepreneurially. As such, the Hot Mommas Project - also mentioned in the CEO of ME Inc article - is affiliated with GW's Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence.

See more on the class, and the project here

I am open to any and all questions.


Rockville, Md.: Being an entrepreneur is good for some women, but not all women are well suited for entrepreneurial efforts. So, what can we, as women, do to help companies offer REAL flexibility for work-life balance?

(I'm a masters student at GW and have two entrepreneurial efforts going on.)

Kathy Korman Frey: You are right, first of all. Not everyone is cut out for entrepreneurship. One of the themes Vanessa Gezari (article author) and I discussed was being thrust into a kind of "life entrepreneurship" as responsibilities mount in our lives. So, if you don't have kids - you may be taking care of an elder relative, you may want to write a book, you may want to serve on a board.

So, the first point I want to make is: Don't write yourself out of entrepreneurship so quickly. We all become life entrepreneurs, and need some support in that. That is part of the reason why the Hot Mommas Project case database exists. To get a sense of a menu of options a starting point so that we don't have to reinvent the wheel.

The second point is about helping companies help employees. (P.s. I like how you capitalize "REAL" when you refer to flexibility because that, right there, is the real question). This is very important, because behind spouse/life partner, your relationship with a company/employer is the most important source of support in your life. Our Hot Mommas Project survey pointed this out very clearly. I recommend the following:

1. Results-based culture - The first step in flexibility is a corporate focus on defined results. If you know you are supposed to do x by Friday at 6pm, you could theoretically do that at 9 pm or 5 am from your house.

2. Be your own advocate - Approach management about an entrepreneurial idea involving flexibility. A majority of the "Master Balancers" from our survey put on their negotiating hats and got to work! So, don't think it's going be served up on a silver platter is the bottom line there.

3. Think corporate - You must have "business empathy" and put yourself in corporate's shoes if you want to make this work. Where do they have flexibility and line-items for this? Stay away from areas which, historically, are a no-go. Go for the grey area.

There are other things, but, I'll stop there for now because I am not as fast of a typer as I thought. STARBUCKS - help!

EXAMPLES: I will be posting a bunch of examples from actual companies during this Q&A. To get started, Best Buy and Discovery Communications are good innovators in this field. UPS does some great mentoring programs for its staff.

The dark side: I always like to be positive, but - as my friend Julie says - I have an obligation to tell you the real deal here. Many companies hire consultants to get on "best places to work" and other similar lists. Not ALL but SOME. So, you MUST understand the TRUE culture of a company and, as another reader said earlier - see what is truly "acceptable" at that company. In our Hot Mommas Project survey many women were pained by what they called "lip service" their company proliferated re: flexibility or diversity or other trendy topics. However, the real day-to-day culture of the workplace did not support true flexibility.


Zeenie, Gaithersburg, Md.: In your opinion, what is the secret to successfully balancing work and family?

Kathy Korman Frey: This is a zinger. Wouldn't we all like to know this? Sometimes I think we achieve balance by severing our ties with reality. No, okay, seriously. In our survey, the most SUCCESSFUL balancers are:

1. Incredibly focused. They are very very clear (bordering on ruthless) about their priorities and have stopped being "yes people."

2. The second major element I noticed in the survey takers is an attitude or a confidence. That is the confidence to decide "Here is what success means to me." Anyone who has spent years comparing themselves to what they think/thought they could/should be knows what I am talking about here.

3. Last, is a very subtle but important item. It is a personal competitive advantage. If you want to cash in your chips with an employer, clients, etc. for flexibility, more pay for fewer hours, and other dreamy scenarios - you need a personal competitive advantage. What is the item at which you are BETTER and DIFFERENT? Build this EARLY in your career. Don't be just like the person in cubicle next to you or you'll have no leverage. This is true for ANYONE, not just women.


Boston, Mass.: I was glad to see you call out company "lip service" vs. real results in the first question. What can/should people do when they feel their employers are not truly embracing the balance like they say they do?

Kathy Korman Frey: Ooof. This is a tough one, especially in this economy. I am skeptical about one person changing an entire corporate culture - unless it is the CEO and her/his team. However, someone always has more negotiating power with a personal competitive advantage. Meaning, they are NOT dispensible and management will listen. However, the #1 thing someone needs if the culture is not what they would like is patience. #2 you can act entrepreneurially and form an internal group. Make some aspects of the group allign with management's goals. This will start to get noticed. Clearly, it's more complicated than that - but, you get the basic idea.


Reading material: Are the case studies mentioned in the article available for anyone to read, or just class participants? I'd be interested in referencing them for a project I'm working on.

Kathy Korman Frey: Yes - anyone can read the Hot Mommas Project cases. They are free, online, and permanent (as long as we get funding). You can find them in the case library section of To get full access, you need to log in. But, we are not spammers so don't worry.


Washington, D.C.: Professor Frey: Just a comment: I really wish your class or discussions around work/life balance were "acceptable" when I was in college and law school in the late '80s early '90s. (And frankly, for all the lip service given in law firms about providing more balance today, it's not a reality -- nor do I see that happening any time soon.) Having these discussions would have caused big problems on the work front -- the "guys" would have jumped on that as an admission that the women weren't as dedicated and somehow too "weak" for the profession. As a result, many of the women of my college and law school generation (I'm 43 now) had to work longer and harder than the guys and simply -- and inadvertently -- sacrificed a personal life. By the time I figured out that I could and should have demanded more control, I had spent most of my 20s and 30s in the office for 12-14 hour days, 6-7 days a week -- never having the time to date, much less get married and have kids. Now that I figured it out, it's too late. I'm not alone in this amongst women of my age. I'm glad younger women are getting guidance and seem to be pushing back on this. I wish I knew better and took more control and had some guidance in planning a personal AND professional life. Oddly, at that time, the few women in positions of power never shared or even seemed interested in sharing their own experiences. I can't reclaim those lost years and I hope that younger women, through classes like yours, can figure it out sooner rather than later.

Kathy Korman Frey: Your story is incredibly powerful. The way you describe yourself is the real, less-humorous version of that postcard "Oops, I forgot to have children." (Here is an interesting blog post I found on this topic for you

A few years ago I sat around a table with some very powerful women. I just had my first child, and felt so overwhelmed. There was a very successful woman who had many grown children and headed a large company who essentially told from across the table "Suck it up" - but, in a nicer way. Someone else at the table told me that having children was a "choice" people made (sort of like, "Hey, you asked for it."). So, here is the point:

That attitude stinks (not yours, but, the snarky people sitting around the table that day). We need to support each other. Work at home, work for a big company, stay at home mom - we're all just trying to be happy. So, look at the person to the right and left of you and say, 'How can I support this person?' Role models and mentors lead to greater self confidence/self efficacy. So, do that for someone today - even if in a small way. This is not about holding hands and singing "Kumbaya," it's about doing the right thing and being a leader.


Woodbridge: I really don't understand the inability of some women to say "no."

I went to college for 10 years part time, while working full time as well. I now appreciate the value of down time and, while I'd like a graduate degree, I'm just not in the mood to put myself through that constant running around all over again.

Kathy Korman Frey: I hear you on that. I literally had to give myself peptalks to go to graduate school. Is that horrible to say as an educator? Probably. But, I am not one of those "natural students." I felt cut out for the working world. I really had to work hard in school, so, it was important to me that it was 100% clear what I would do with that degree. When it became clear to me, I went back to school. This focus and understanding the definition of success relates to an earlier answer about "balance" and how to do it.


Bethesda, Md.: What's your take on the "mommy wars"? The vitrol and viciousness of the debate between working moms and stay-at-home moms has become pretty intense in the world of online anonymity in the last decade or so. I tend to think the drama of the mommy wars is seriously detrimental to women's efforts to press for change in the way corporate America deals with families; a friend thinks it's all just noise and doesn't mean much.

Kathy Korman Frey: I have a strong opinion on this. I DO NOT JUDGE OTHER WOMEN AND THEIR LIFE CHOICES. It is pointless. So, I don't buy into Mommy Wars, although I do find the book a fascinating sociological study. Everyone knows moms could run a small country. So - let's have a shout out to all the moms out there! If you work for someone, great. If you work for yourself, great. If you are postponing your goals while you take care of your family, great. If you don't have any goals, I envy you and would like to hang out with you. My goals drive me crazy.

Everyone should read Michelle's case at case libray. She is a stay at home mom who really inspired others to write their case. She told me, "Hey - I matter!" after she wrote her case. There is also a hilarious video tutorial she did with me. If you don't laugh, you'll cry.


Takoma Park, Md.: I am currently feeding puree to a 7 month old and pasta to an almost 3 year old, still thinking about your article that I read yesterday. I heard Madeline Albright say once that "you can have it all, just not all at the same time." I guess that is my mantra in these early child rearing years. I work for a large, well-regarded management consulting firm, took 6 months maternity leave two years in a row (for an adopted child followed quickly by a pregnancy) and am now working 3 days/week. Am I on the fast track to partner? No. Can I get back on later, I believe I can. Will I get choice assignments at work? Not now. But I get 2 days a week with my little ones, who will not be so little for long. HMG

Kathy Korman Frey: So, you are nominated for sainthood. You have a LOT going on. So - first of all, yay for you. Okay, now - I love Madeline A. That is a great quote. I have actually CHANGED my definition of success so that, frankly, it is everything I want right now. It is a tricky thing requiring many years of brainwashing, but, I think I've got myself there. Now, what the quote refers to is a having it "all" at the same time. This is probably your "pre-kid" version of what you thought you wanted. You know, when there were rainbows and unicorns and whatnot. The question for me is: Do you integrate reality into your view of success or not. If you do not, you'll live life regretting and what iffing. Me, personally, and many of the women I know do the BEST with what they've got. I go by the law of superlatives. Could I write 100 cases myself like another colleague? No. Could I create a software that allows others to become curriculum developers and write their own cases? Yes. So, that is what I did. I worked smart with the time I had. Now, the Hot Mommas Project is the larges free case database in the world. So, I actually accomlished MORE than what I thought "all" was. Because, well, I was forced. So, never underestimate what your brain can accomplish. The puzzle pieces are just a little different than the rainbows and unicorns phase of our lives.


Rockville, MD: Are there other women entrepreneurs, like you, who are willing to share what they've learned and can give advice/encouragement to those of us just starting our entrepreneurial efforts? Maybe a mentor-type relationship?

Kathy Korman Frey: A couple of people have asked about mentoring. There is a podcast I did for Kimberly Wilson of Hip Tranquil Chick re: finding mentors and starting goals groups. Find the link here

Also, as far as mentors - the Hot Mommas Project coaches executive women. Anyone can call or email me about that. But, the podcast mentioned above really lays out how you can form your own network, as well.

1. Meet with someone and they are your coffee buddy (peer mentor).

2. Seek out someone at a networking event. The person should be doing what you want to do. Try to get on their calendar. See if you click and take it from there.

3. Join a group like Women President's Organization, Entrepreneur's Organization or Vistage. Entrepreneur's Org now is testing a model of peer mentors for smaller companies. This is called "Accelerator." These are more elite groups that require a lot of participation.

4. Look for other groups, a la Heels Connect, Success in the City, events hosted at universities, etc. Shout out to Pink Heels in Michigan - if we could only have you here in DC.


Washington, D.C.: Can you talk a little bit more about the kinds of things you teach in your class? I'd be interested to hear more about it. Will it happen again next semester? Is it open to non-GWU students?

Kathy Korman Frey: Here is a link to all the curriculum covered in the Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership class:

It is a little messy, but, you'll get the general idea. Lots and lots of content.

We teach in this class:

1. How to create and develop a venture

2. Skill building (ranging from negotiating, communication, financial literacty, balancing, and others)

3. Mentoring (students act as peer mentors to one another, in addition to seeking out mentors for a class project). Mentoring and role modeling is KEY TO SUCCESS.

These are the main course "modules."

It is taught at the George Washington University School of Business each Spring. I have it on the blog, now, so people can follow virtually. I recommend all interested folks join the facebook group (listed on the blog) so that if there are any additional developments (e.g. offered as an online course or working woman weekend seminars) I can update you.


But it IS a choice:: I don't necessarily agree with the person in your anecdote who said to suck it up, and I do agree that we should support each other, but having children IS a choice, not a necessity or an inevitability or a universal circumstance beyond our control. Wouldn't we benefit more if we women were to acknowledge that choice, and take control that way? The fact that it's a choice doesn't make it a bad idea, but it does support the notion that we need contingency plans, and we need to think ahead.

Kathy Korman Frey: Yes, contingency plans and thinking ahead = good. Snarky attitudes = bad. (Again, not that yours is snarky, just that day around that table in the story I told). My point is really that while her point may be valid, it was the kind of venom of it that was completely pointless. Like you suggested, contingency planning, thinking ahead, using your brain - this is what we need to do. However, it is VERY hard to imagine circumstances that don't exist which is why I begin to introduce concepts in the WEL class at GW, and there is the Hot Mommas Project case database for more in-depth reading.


The Economy:: In this climate, when many companies are just trying to stay afloat, can benefits like leave and flextime still be requested? How can you respond to people who say you should be lucky to have a job at all?

Kathy Korman Frey: This is a tough time, and I think people are in duck and cover mode right now to be honest. Although, I do think people are focusing now more on the proverbial "what really matters." So, we have that going for us. Frankly (hint hint Washington Post) a great story would be on companies that are still going stong with these benefits despite the economic environment.


Washington, D.C.: I will be the one to put it out there- I am all for balancing work and family. I have nannied for two career families and know the difficulties first hand of doing both. However, now that I am a full time worker bee, I see the unfairness that parents are treated as golden in the workplace. They get bigger salary increases (they have someone to support!), they come in late and cut out early for doctor's appointments, parent-teacher conferences, Johnny's school play, they bring their kids to work as a daycare substitute and they spend a lot of time on the phone with their kids and/or caregivers when they are actually in the building. I realize many parents do a great job and I commend them. However, it is assumed that I as a single woman can work all hours, weekends, holidays, etc since I "have no obligations." Do parents suddenly forget what life was like pre-child? I work hard not to force other people to pick up my slack. Parents should do the same.

Kathy Korman Frey: This is a point mentioned a lot in our survey, and by a couple of other readers (e.g., "Hey, I don't have kids, why do I have to work harder?"). In the absence of clear definitions and roles, the pattern you discuss can definitely happen. Earlier, I talked about a results-based culture. This is essential for dealing with the lopsided work allocation you observe in your workplace. Many employers I encounter find it easier to hire someone, "own them" and then just "have them around" for whatever tasks surface. My friends and peers know I do not like this pattern. I call it "desk shopping" (e.g., someone is leaving or the CEO is heading out and looking at all the open doors down the corridor as to who will be the lucky recipient of this task). However, childless people have to set boundaries. You don't get to say "yes" and complain. Well, you do, but - you should figure out a way to set up some acceptable boundaries and diplomatically enforce them. I one time told a client to put stuff on her calendar that didn't exist. It was the only way she had the discipline to enforce time boundaries.


Austin, Texas: Do you think work/life balance initiatives should be company-wide policies and/or required by law? Or do you think each person should work with his or her employer to make customized arrangements? Which approach do you believe will be more successful?

Kathy Korman Frey: In the short term, customized arrangements are going to be more successful. This is my opinion. The Netherlands is always held out there as a "wouldn't it be great" example for work-life balance and policy. However, we are not the Netherlands. As I mentioned earlier, and there is other research to support this, there are many successful cases of people negotiating individual arrangements. It all starts with ASKING. And, see earlier point about "Corporate Empathy" - this is key to success with a request.


Washington, D.C.: You mention in the article that men don't feel guilty about overscheduling, while women "tear their hair out." Why do you think that is? Are we genetically programmed that way? Is it societal pressure? How do we stop feeling guilty for not being superhuman?

Kathy Korman Frey: The short answer on this is "yes." There are always exceptions but there is a prioritzation that happens a bit more naturally for men sometimes because of - you guessed it - the "hunter" instinct. However, even in this area we'll devolve into a "nature vs. nurture" argument. I could support almost any answer to this question. But - here is a good book on the topic.

There is a great book on the female brain


McLean: It appears that more women than men take advantage of work-life balance benefits. Many more women either work from home part of the week and/or take a lot of leave to have children or care for sick children. Because of this, do we really need more evidence as to why employers tend to pay men more than women for the same job?

Kathy Korman Frey: Women do take advantage of more flex benefits than men. I think you are saying, "So, doesn't that make sense that they get paid less?" The fear is that - no, that is not the only reason. and Barbara Kasoff's group (Women in Public Policy) and others work tirelessly on this issue. The bottom line I teach my students in the negotation class is "you don't ask, you don't get." See for the class curriculum - one of the sessions has a "skill building" on negotation. We have to be entrepreneurs and our own advocates until things are as we would like.


Tarpon Springs, Florida: Kathy,

Just a comment. The is an incredible opportunity for women to share their triumphs in life as a role model for all of our daughters.

As a mom of four girls, this Case Studies are very important to help inspire, motivate and empower all of our daughters to be the best that they can be.

Thanks so much for your commitment to such a awesome project. You are clearly a Hot Momma we should all role model after!

Kathy Korman Frey: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.


Anonymous: Any tips for us young working women? I often find myself trying to stand up for myself in terms of work life balance only to hear "you're young, you have no responsibilities." How do I change the perception that just because I don't have a family to run home to, doesn't mean I should be the only one stuck working past 9 p.m?

Kathy Korman Frey: Definitely see earlier answer on results-based cultures. It is key. Our survey showed folks without kids and such actually DO NOT have the greatest balance for exactly the reasons you mention.


Kathy Korman Frey: I am told by the powers-that-be it is time to wrap up. There are so many great questions I didn't address. Please find me on Twitter -- -- and let's keep the conversation going!

Thank you so much everyone for your thoughtful questions and support of what what we are trying to do: Inserting some of these life/family issues right along side work/professional issues as legitimate, necessary learning points.

Please see our curriculum at and the case library at I would love your comments.



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