THE BLOG
06/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Want Balance? Be the Boss

(Part 6 in the Core Competency Moms series)

Theresa Daytner was having one of those Mondays that make moms with young kids and jobs cringe. Her assistant was home taking care of a sick child. Daytner understood - she has six kids herself. She'd just come back to Mt. Airy, Maryland from the eldest's graduation from Purdue University in Indiana. But she couldn't really stay too late to take care of the extra workload that had piled up over the weekend and in her assistant's absence, because some of her own younger kids had a half-day at school.

Fortunately, Daytner didn't have to make apologies to her boss again. She even made time for a workout. That's because she is the boss of Daytner Construction Group, a construction management company which represents building owners on projects ranging from $10-$100 million.

The daughter of an entrepreneur father who also worked in non-traditional gender businesses (he was a hair dresser), Daytner figured out long ago that she "did not so much enjoy working for other people." As a young mom in her early 20's, she started a roofing business because she saw that complete screw-ups were making money as contractors. She later became a CPA and started her own accounting firm. Sometimes she would finish people's taxes between 2 and 4am, because that's when she had time. Then in 2003, when she and her second husband, Allen, had four children under age 10 (including 1-and-a-half year old twins), she decided to go back into the construction business. Times were rough at first, but Daytner Construction Group now has 7-figure revenue and employs 10-12 people at any given time. Its owner wants it to grow much bigger.

Working for herself, Daytner knows, has been key to having it all. During her brief stints as an employee, "I was always juggling someone else's priorities with what I thought were my own priorities," she says. Now, not everything happens between 9am and 5pm. But Daytner Construction Group's customers - churches, government agencies, schools - know she will deliver. "I knew I could get the work done," she says, "but I had to do it on my own time."

She's not the only mom to discover this secret. The story of a woman running a business because she finds entrepreneurship more family-friendly than the corporate grind is so common it's nearly a cliché. Cookie magazine runs a "Mother of Invention" (or father) feature every month. Martha Stewart's empire is dangling a $10,000 prize for the winner of the "Dreamers into Doers" competition - a woman who has turned a favorite hobby into a business or non-profit.

The reason it's a cliché, though, is that the lure is so overwhelming. Here's a pull factor: A recent American Express and Count Me In survey of Make Mine a Million members (50,000 women business owners who want to grow to the $1 million revenue level) found that 82% of entrepreneur moms of preschool aged kids thought they had achieved good work-life balance. Even moms with over 10 employees said they had relatively low stress levels (about 5 on a 1 to 10 point scale) about incorporating family and a career. And the push factor? While it's great that women want to develop all sides of their personhood by working for pay, even when their kids are young, the truth of the matter is, a lot of conventional jobs suck. And even if they're somewhat pleasant, few jobs allow mothers complete control over their most valuable asset: time.

Consequently, many women like Theresa Daytner who truly want to focus on the core competencies I've been blogging about here on The Huffington Post lately - nurturing their families, and making the most of their careers - realize that they're better off going it alone. As they do, they're changing the way the career world works, and teaching some lessons many male entrepreneurs and corporate types could stand to learn, too.

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Americans give very mixed answers to surveys about how we feel about our jobs. Some surveys find that most people are at least modestly happy with their jobs, though a 2007 Conference Board survey found that less than half of American workers say they are "satisfied" with their jobs, down from 61% twenty years ago. A 2005 Maritz poll found that only 20 percent of workers feel that their work gives them a strong sense of personal accomplishment. Only 10 percent strongly agreed that they look forward to going to work everyday.

I suspect this is a key reason wives of high-earning men find it very tempting to opt out of the workforce upon having children. Christine Whelan commissioned a Harris Interactive survey of high-achieving young men and women for her 2006 book, Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women. She found that 63% of women said they would want to stay home with their kids if money were no object. That's probably not surprising. What is surprising is that 60% of men said the same thing. In other words, members of both sexes, upon surveying the world of work, decide that it's not ideal. But children provide women with a socially acceptable reason for telling their bosses to shove off.

So many do just that. But devoting all one's mental energy to reading Pat the Bunny and hosing down the high chair has not become any more stimulating than it was when Betty Friedan lamented that most feminine of mystiques. The difference is that these days, small business entrepreneurship is actually a feasible option for a high percentage of women. Technology has driven business start-up costs down near zilch. For the price of a website, you can showcase your products or services to a potential audience of the billion people on this planet who own or can find a computer. Laptops and cell phones mean even corporate employees can in theory work from anywhere. So it's no surprise that many women choose to work in their home offices while hanging out during downtime, and running away from the desk if the babysitter calls that Johnny's about to take his first steps.

Or they come up with their own ways of weaving work and life together. Chris McCurry co-owns Highland Craftsmen, a North Carolina-based environmentally friendly construction company specializing in bark shingles. She's also the mom of a young son. When I first interviewed her a few years ago, she told me that - unlike many construction company higher-ups - she got to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with her little boy. He spent some time during his early years with a babysitter, and some in the office or forest with mom trying to help. "I feel extraordinarily lucky" not to be sitting in a cubicle all the time missing her kid, she told me. Like her, 44% of Make Mine a Million members with preschool-aged children incorporate family time into their workdays.

In social science, it's beastly hard to tease out correlation and causation. But there is some evidence that entrepreneurship - which makes it a little easier to have it all - does correspond with women actually having it all. There was a collective howl about Sylvia Ann Hewlett's finding a few years ago that 42% of high-achieving corporate women (including 49% of those earning over $100,000 a year) were still childless after age 40. But only 22% of high-achieving self-employed women didn't have kids.

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By most measures, self-employment has been growing over the past few decades. As more people have stints of self-employment on their resumes, it's becoming less suspicious to move in and out of traditional jobs. But unfortunately, many mom-entrepreneurs (or "Mompreneurs," to use the trademarked word Ellen Parlepiano and Patricia Cobe coined for their 1996 book of the same name) still struggle to get started. They launch their businesses with credit cards rather than bank loans, because they don't realize that they would qualify for conventional capital. Make Mine a Million reports that just 3% of the 10.4 million women-owned businesses in the US generate more than $1 million in revenue. Women underbid their services. Some have husbands who assume that since their wives now have "flexible" jobs, they will take on all the less-fun aspects of parenting like doctor's visits and scheduling babysitters - even though both parties may be working the same number of hours.

That's too bad, because women like Daytner and McCurry have a lot to teach both male entrepreneurs and workers in general. On the entrepreneurship side, for instance, they tend to start relatively small and grow as their receipts pick up. That makes them less likely to fail. They favor holistic approaches to business - McCurry makes a point of working with other businesses and suppliers who share her environmentally conscious philosophy. Daytner pays 100% of the health insurance premiums for her employees and their families. A solid 75% of women business owners with more than 10 employees offer flexible work hours. And they take themselves less seriously. Writing about entrepreneurs, I laugh whenever a guy who's got a 1-person shop insists on calling himself "CEO." What mom entrepreneurs seem to get most fundamentally is that a career is not just about money and status. It's about being fulfilled. A good career creates space for all your major goals in life. It allows you to focus on your core competencies - that is, what you do best.

It is this philosophy that all workers could stand to learn: your time and attention are valuable resources that can produce great returns when properly leveraged.

About a year into growing her business, Daytner knew she was reaching a turning point. Her kids were still young, but her business needed a lot of attention to grow. So she saved up enough money to hire a live-in nanny/housekeeper for four months. "I had a vision of channeling my energy into the business, and what it would feel like to walk into a home that was clean, with my children being taken care of in a loving, nurturing environment," she says. She would still tend to her children's emotional needs, of course, and watch their schoolwork, but someone else would mop the floor and do the laundry.

It worked great at first. Four months in, she ran out of money. So she took out a home equity loan to continue paying the nanny. "I was really rolling the dice," she says. But it worked. The year she hired the nanny, Daytner Construction Group had receipts of just $100,000. The next year, their contracts totaled $830,000.

As the business grew, that investment also paid off in another way. Daytner was able to hire people to deal with the day to day details, freeing up more time to focus on her core competencies of long-term business planning and nurturing her kids. She told me about a recent Friday, when she was volunteering in her twins' class. The teacher had her coloring and laminating something. She sat there with a big smile on her face, realizing that she was able to hang out with her children while the business was still making money. "I thought, if nothing else happens, I've made it," she says. Crazy schedules or not, she had many reasons to be grateful.

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