One of the biggest issues facing women in comms today is achieving that elusive work-life balance, but what that looks like won't be the same for everyone.
For Laurie Oswald, vice president of sales for North America at CommScope Inc. , it doesn't mean spending an equal amount of time at work as you do at home. Rather, it's being comfortable in the choices you make and accepting that you cannot do everything at once.
Oswald runs enterprise sales for all of North America for the technology infrastructure vendor, which means she's trying to balance the demands of her home life against not only those of her employer, but also the entire ecosystem of customers she works with. Thanks to technology -- which many cite as the great enabler of a more "flexible" workday -- she also grapples with being expected to be available all the time. Technology has been a double-edged sword, she says.
Oswald will also tell you she's benefited from having a supportive husband who is a full-time parent, so that she can focus on her full-time career. That's still a unique situation for women in today's workforce, but one that shows that work-life balance means something different to everyone.
"Regardless of if it's coming from the husband or wife -- the work at home is at least as important as any work we do outside of the home and equally as challenging," she says. "The time I spent on leave was the longest, hardest three months of my career."
Oswald caught up with Women in Comms to share more of her thoughts on achieving a balance that works for your life, as well as to offer advice and perspective on being a leader in the comms world -- at any level of your career.
Women in Comms: Tell us a bit about your personal story and how you got to where you are today.
Laurie Oswald: I grew up in the Midwest in Toledo, Ohio. I went to Ohio University and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology. Looking back at my early career, I always knew I'd be in sales, but never knew I'd be in technology. I started my professional career in Chicago, working for a rep firm in the electrical mechanical HVAC space then landed in the data comms space 17 years ago and have been with CommScope now almost 13 years. I live in Dallas, having relocated for my role about five years ago.
I am happily married with three children, aged 13 to 21. Moving to Dallas was a whole new experience. My husband is an engineer, and we made the decision that when I took this role, he'd quit his job of 16 years to become a full-time parent and part-time real estate investor. It's been a huge help for my career in that he's been able to take on a huge part of the household responsibilities. I consider myself lucky to have one parent at home. It has allowed me to really focus on my career. When I took this role, we both worked full time, and it was very difficult. When I was asked to take the sales role for North America and Canada, it was a huge promotion but required relocation. So we decided he would stay at home, and I'd focus on my career. It's been great for me both personally and professionally. It's been difficult to achieve that balance. I've missed family things. Sometimes I feel guilty missing some of the events, but we're doing the best we can.
WiC: Work-life balance is something that comes up all the time as a top priority for women in comms, and one that is hard to accomplish. Do you think a 50/50 split is achievable, or how do you go about accomplishing a balance that works for you?
LO: I think balance is a unique word. We all use it but it's sort of finding a spot where you are comfortable in the choices you make, because in many times the balance means not being able to do everything all of the time. Companies can help individuals, especially women who become mothers by understanding and appreciating the challenges and struggle of doing both. One of the biggest challenges is technology. While it is very convenient, it's essentially lengthened our workday. Customers and even employers expect us to be around 24/7 virtually. I think for women that creates a lot of additional pressure, because I think they're more concerned with being perceived as less committed to their careers versus fathers or husbands when they deal with things happening in the home.
Technology is a double-edged sword. It allows people to work from home. It lets people make appointments or leave early for soccer matches, but what happens is the compensation for that is going back to work after the kids go to bed or after dinner. There is a growing expectation by some companies that you do that, either on the weekends or at night.
I would say it's not just within the company, but also the expectation from customers and vendors and relationships outside the company. Even if your company is highly supportive of the roles we have outside of work, it doesn't necessarily mean our ecosystem recognizes the boundaries.
WiC: As the head of sales, you must come up against these challenges a lot. Tell us more about your leadership style.
LO: I manage a team of 130 people. I have five vice presidents who report to me, leading regional sales as well as specialized sales in the enterprise. As a leader, it's important to create an environment where people want to do their best. Each person feels his or her contribution is essential. It's important to communicate an inspiring and really compelling vision to create a strategy that is owned by everyone. I firmly believe that shared ownership and accountability is critical. When you reach your goals, sharing in the credit and celebration is essential. I try to be approachable and engaged, and I believe it's important to listen and solicit input when making tough decisions. When conflict arises as it always does, especially in times of change, I try to encourage constructive debate, which I believe can lead to improvement. At the end of the day, I'm not afraid to make a decision, but I want it to be informed with input from my team.
Hire the best people. Build collaboration and demand communication. Many companies operate in a matrix. CommScope operates in a matrix environment. Failure is guaranteed to those who work independently. Communication and collaboration is essential.
WiC: As a leader, is gender something you actively consider in how you recruit, promote and communicate with your employees?
LO: I think in years past there's been a hesitancy to talk about gender in the workplace. Not within HR; they are always looking at equality and the demographics of the CommScope landscape. Internally for women, to talk about gender equality isn't something we've actively done, but I would tell you I have mentors within CommScope who firmly believe that promoting and hiring women is critical. CommScope is trying to do things to encourage equality along those fronts. Do I take it into account? I would like to say I do, however, if you look at the demographics of my team, you'd say I need to practice what I preach. Demographics don't necessarily support that, but it's something we're actively working on.
We have a male-dominate population across our broader organization, but within sales and technical sales, it's dramatically reduced. You have a higher proportion of women in customer service and marketing, but in sales and technical sales, very much still in the minority.
WiC: How important is mentoring, and do you think that should occur informally or on a formal basis?
LO: Both. I've had both formal mentor programs and informal ones throughout my career. I think it's essential -- finding a mentor, whether it's a man or woman. I think a lot of women think they need a woman mentor, but I don't believe that. Find someone who will give you feedback on your performance but also share how you are perceived within the organization. Your performance and the perception of your performance can be two different things. Perceptions are critical. It can influence your career and opportunities. I think it's important if you're looking for a mentor, to consider an internal or external one. If you do choose an internal mentor, finding one you can relate to or admire, but also finding one that understands the organization and helps you navigate it internally can be helpful. Helping you avoid political missteps and bounce ideas off each other can really help.
It can be anyone. Having a mentor in an adjacent division or different role can help. The formal mentor that I had most recently was our COO, who led operations. Understanding the operations side of our business, which is a different side of our business, gave me insight into their critical performance indicators, which helped me to do my job better and understand challenges.
WiC: What advice do you have for women in our industry?
LO: The biggest thing is staying on top of technology. As you move ahead in your career, you can get away from the technology. The higher you go in leadership, the less technical you may need to be. It's important to understand where technology is going because the pace of change is so rapid. Technology is changing so quickly. Stay on top of that. It will help you be an informed and respected leader in the tech industry.
The second thing is -- and this is more for someone who is just starting their career in a learning area or lower level, looking to advance -- remember anyone can lead whether in technology sector or any other industry, no matter what your position or what industry your company is in, lead from your position early. Anyone can lead and create change in their environment. Just understanding that you have the ability to influence others no matter what your position is in your organization I think is important.
Lastly, be essential at everything you do. Contribute in a positive way continually and be viewed as being essential to the organization and even to your extended ecosystem, whether it's your customer partner, vendors, industry groups, etc.
— Sarah Thomas, , Director, Women in Comms