When I changed my college majors to three social science degrees, I should have guessed that I would be working for my mother. I took everyone’s advice to get a marketable degree with a grain of salt, and spent my days writing poetry and studying the workings of the world with hopes of proving them wrong. I imagined that post-university life would be composed of a day job and nights full of writing and art. It sounded glamorous.
But it isn’t.
Currently, I work Monday thru Friday at 7am for my mother, who is CEO of a transportation brokerage firm. While it’s been one of the most painful experiences of my twenties (a desk job full of data entry, coffee runs, and filing is not how I envisioned 23-hood), I am learning just what maneuvers are required to get what you want as a woman in the business world.
KINDNESS GOES FARTHEST
My mother is the CEO of a business in perhaps the most stressful of trades—transportation. When I explain what she does for work, I say, “Imagine: Walmart really needs toilet paper. The shelves are empty and people are hurtin’. She is the person who is responsible for finding the toilet paper, tracking down a truck driver willing to transport the toilet paper, and letting Walmart know when and where the driver will drop the precious paper off. Countless things can go wrong: flat tire, famished driver, roadkill, rush hour, good-looking hitchhikers (kidding) etc… Receiving the toilet paper two hours late can mean a very, very angry customer, wet pants in Walmart, and a very, very stressed out Ma.
Urgency and stress lend themselves to mean people. Sitting at a desk for ten hours a day makes people antsy and even angrier. And believe it or not, people can be cruel via phone lines. My mother has been called every name in the book. My first reaction to this over-the-phone pettiness is to throw it right back (and harder). I yearn to curse the skies with their names and vow to make their desk lives a living hell. But my mother has taught me differently. She apologizes if necessary, listens carefully, and does her best to be empathetic. She doesn’t raise her voice.
At first, I thought she was being a doormat, but you should see how people respond to her. You know that saying, “you attract more bees with honey?” She attracts success with kindness. People love her. Even when they are furious with her, they appreciate her sincerity, her hard work and her honesty. When I ask where she learned this, she says, “Bry, business is about relationships. If you work hard for other people, they will work hard for you.”
YOU ARE NEVER TOO GOOD TO DO THE DIRTY WORK
My girl Ellie Goulding says it best: Anything can happen. In 2008, when the economy was in shambles, transportation came to a screeching halt. My mother went from having multiple employees to running her business solo. All of a sudden, she had to do all the busy work that her employees had helped her with, plus continue to carry her boss load. She had to start from scratch.
As head honcho, you must be willing to do the grunt work. You are never too good to file 1500 packets in numerical order. You are never too good to enter data for hours upon hours upon hours. You have to be willing to apologize, better yourself, and move on. You have to be willing to make hard decisions. You have to be willing to sometimes take an ass-chewing for an employee’s mistakes. And if you want to be successful, you also have to…
STOP COMPLAINING ABOUT IT
Since I can remember, my mother has been in her office every day at 4:30am … at the latest. She works weekends. She is on call every minute of every day, even when she can steal away for a rare vacation. There are no breaks for the CEO. There are no breaks for a full-time mother.
But ask me if I have ever heard her complain about it and my answer is no. She is happy to be working. She is happy to have busy kids. She takes a nap when she finds time, and doesn’t bitch. She gets it done with a smile on her face.
YOU DON’T NEED TO WEAR NYLONS AND HEELS (OR A WONDERBRA) TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY
To be frank, my mom is hot. People notice. Grocery store cashiers often say, “Wait… you two aren’t sisters?” [Insert Mom’s flushed-faced laugh here]. My friends notice too, asking, “Wow, how old is your mom? She’s got style.”
But at work, jeans and a t-shirt (and her new bifocals) are the norm. When I was a little girl, I imagined lugging my briefcase to work every morning, sliding by people in my nylons and pencil skirt—demanding respect from everyone who crossed my path.
My mother demands respect with her demeanor. She could wear footie pajamas and slippers and convince the most powerful man in the room to listen. She is open to suggestions, intelligent, and respectful. And she expects the same from her employees and customers. You don’t need expensive Armani suits to command a room (I know plenty of people in Armani who are widely disrespected), but instead a fearless approach to the business world.
Your outfit is not why people are taking you seriously—your personality is responsible for that.
This all being said, you have to realize that…
YOU WILL BE CALLED A SECRETARY.
My stepfather works for my mother. Yes, you read that right: Dad works for Mom. I love saying that out loud (It’s a girl power thing). Sometimes though, over-the-phoners can’t swallow the unusual hierarchy, and when speaking to the boss (woman), they ask to speak to the real boss, please (man). They refer to the boss (woman) as the secretary, and could you please transfer me to someone who knows what they are doing (man)?
I beg my mother, in all of my feminist fury, to scream at them and set them straight. “You are the boss!” I moan, “It’s 2014! Don’t they know anything?” She shrugs her shoulders and laughs. “Have a sense of humor, Bry. This is not the first or the last time I will be called a secretary. But I know the truth, so why should I be offended?”
She is genuinely unaffected by the insult, and continues her CEO-ly duties. Business ladies, just know: you won’t always be taken seriously, but you will also be writing your own (fat) paycheck. You win. Laugh it off.
MOTHERHOOD AND WORK ARE NOT OPPOSITE OCCUPATIONS
As cliché as it sounds, my mother is superwoman. She does it all. She has always said to me, “Women belong exactly where they want to belong.” For her, it is part-time at the office, part-time at home. Regardless of all of the scrutiny in society surrounding working mothers, for me she is proof (and encouragement) that women can simultaneously be:
1. A successful professional and
2. a gentle, attentive, loving mother
1. My mother as CEO is the most persuasive woman you will ever meet. She does not take “no” for an answer. She is an outstanding saleswoman. She is an understanding, empathetic boss. Her employees love her. At a business meeting, she commands the room. She is a professional networker. Men and women (in suits and pajamas alike) have the utmost respect for her.
2. But she also makes a mean meatloaf. She gives the best advice of any mom I know (this is only partly biased; my friends have come to her for advice for as long as I can remember). She never missed a debate tournament or a swim meet. She is on call for all of her kids every minute of every day. My mother taught me to walk, to talk (eloquently and kindly) and now she is teaching me what it means to be a full-blown business woman.
She is all mother, all CEO. She is all woman. You can be, too.
Bryanna Larrea is a writer, a waitress (go figure), an avid traveler and an obsessive journaler. When not furiously wishing that teleportation and calorie-free chocolate tortes were real things, you can find her ghostwriting horoscopes for a world renowned astrologer. She recently graduated from University of Idaho and is planning to attend grad school (location undecided) in the fall of 2015.