06/29/2012 01:29 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

Having It All and a Hot Dog Stand

Anne-Marie Slaughter's article "Why Women Still Can't Have it All" published last week in The Atlantic has struck a collective nerve, breaking readership records on the magazine's website and generating all manner of buzz.

I admire her courage to speak out on the subject, given that she was once director of policy planning at the State Department. And I appreciate her acknowledgement that high-achieving women in places of power in our country have been complicit in contributing to the prevailing sentiment that women who don't have it all must not want it all. She admits,

"I'd been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I'd been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life..."

But, the reason she's hit a collective nerve is because she's tapped into the employee side of the inequitable work-life balance. Readers everywhere identify with her struggle to have it all and are happy that a high-powered woman has admitted it's hard to manage career and family.

It Never Actually Rains

What's missing is the collective gasp from employers. Because I suspect CEOs, CHROs and others in a position to enable work-life effectiveness for their employees will be quick to brush her off as one more woman who couldn't (or chose not to) make it work.

After all, this has happened before. Brenda Barnes made headlines in 1997 when she left Pepsi-Cola to raise her family. Six years later, Lisa Belkin highlighted The Opt-Out Revolution in her New York Times Magazine piece about Princeton alums (among others) who were choosing to be stay-at-home moms instead of climbing the corporate ladder.

It was, in fact, Belkin's piece that prompted me to leave my own corporate career to launch a business focused on helping organizations capitalize on these trends. With all of this pent up need for work-life effectiveness among America's workforce (along with tech advances, an emerging awareness of men's need for work-life balance, and an impending labor shortage after baby boomers started retiring), I thought companies would be anxious to improve workplace flexibility.

Armed with this optimism I reached out to Lotte Bailyn, a family researcher from Harvard, and asked her whether she believed, like I did, that this created a perfect storm that would finally bring about real change. She wasn't terribly optimistic. "I've seen clouds gather before," she told me. "But it never actually rains."

Obviously I misread the tea leaves. I should have listened more closely to Lotte back then. Maybe I would have closed my business and opened a hot dog stand instead. Through 30-plus years of working on these issues, she had seen repeated moments of advancement followed by dead silence. The silence of men and women quietly tending to the work-life needs of their own lives. Innovating in their own ways, one family, one household, one company at a time. None of it had led to the momentum that she expected.

Soon after speaking to Lotte Bailyn, I interviewed Kathie Lingle of the Alliance for Work-Life Progress. She made it a point to tell me that she believed as a society we would only make real progress once individual employees starting speaking up about their own work-life needs.

She did not hold out great hope that organizations would join the work-life chorus in droves until they heard enough work-life issues and needs being raised by their employees.

Employees Will Walk Before They'll Talk

It is from that perspective that Anne-Marie Slaughter, Brenda Barnes, and others approach going public about their own work-life struggles. If they set an example and remove the stigma for other women, the hope is that women (and men) will increasingly express their own work-life struggles and negotiate with their employers to address them.

And yet, that doesn't happen. First, the recession caused the vast majority of American workers (the middle class) to retrench. In the face of job insecurity and declining salaries, employees knew better than to discuss work-life struggles let alone negotiate flex options.

As Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law, has so adeptly pointed out in her work (and Anne-Marie Slaughter acknowledges in her piece) many more American workers are not in a position to ever negotiate their needs (recession or not).

Even coming out of this recession, we are not seeing large numbers of employees negotiating with their bosses. Instead, they're speaking with their feet and leaving their organizations in search of greener work-life pastures.

Talk to any recruiter and they'll tell you stories of how difficult it is to find great talent and about the dramatic increases they're seeing in candidates inquiring about workplace flexibility. In fact, according to research from the Families and Work Institute, more than four in five employees say flexibility is 'very important' when looking for a new job.

As my colleague Teresa Hopke remarked after walking the exhibit hall at the most recent SHRM talent management conference, "The amount of money being invested by companies in recruiting efforts is astounding. If they spent a fraction of that money on retaining employees, they wouldn't have to invest so much in recruiting them."

How To Make It Work

So what is the solution to our collective problem? It's the reason I didn't quit to start a hot dog stand back in 2007. The problem is systemic and the solutions are simple. But as much as each employee needs to muster up the courage to have the conversation, organizations hold the cards on changing the outcome.

For nearly 20 years the work-life field made a mistake in thinking about how to solve this problem. They believed, as I once did, that if they could make the business case for flex, they would convince companies to do what was in their own best interest--implement flexible work programs to improve their bottom-line results while improving the lives of their employees.

And while some organizations did exactly that (check out the Fortune 100 Best and Working Mother for starters), most of corporate America did nothing. Why? Not because they're mean or nasty or don't care about their employees, but because they didn't see how they could make it work for them.

How could flex possibly work in a company, government institution, or non-profit like theirs where face time was critical, where your only path up was achieved through sweat equity and being the company man? How would flex work for employees and companies that required onsite work like manufacturing, hospitality, or health care?

The old guard wasn't convinced, and if it wasn't broke they weren't fixing it.

The numbers weren't enough. And for those organizations who did try, they put a policy in place that most managers didn't know how to apply to their teams, and that most employees were too scared to ask about. Instead of investing in changing the culture of their organizations to reap the benefits of flexible work, they implemented turnkey work-life programs that would convey their commitment to mothers and dads in a different way. Who could turn down in-house massage therapists and yoga classes? Back-up daycare, onsite dry cleaning, free lunches and pool tables? These were all easy to install and market.

But checking the box and winning awards isn't enough. And that's where we are today.

Innovating Culture

Just as this new economy is calling on innovation in education, energy, manufacturing and other areas, organizations must innovate their culture.

Yeah, right. That's easy. Ask any CEO today if they're ready to change their culture and you're not going to get many takers. CEOs have said to me, "We know we need to do something, but we don't know what it is."

What it is -- the secret sauce to innovating company culture -- is actually easy. It's a step-by-step process that takes time. It's not another program or million dollar investment in the latest fill-in-the-blank.

It's about honest conversation. That's the key. It requires people in leadership to model the conversation, to ask questions, to declare that they don't have all the answers, and to open themselves up to listening.

To ensure that women (and men) CAN have it all, organizations have to:

  1. Innovate your work culture, the way you do your products, processes and technology. You'll reap big gains in employee engagement, productivity and profitability. You'll be able to hire the best talent and outperform your competitors. For many, it's easy to see how to get these returns from investing in product innovation, but innovations in workforce strategies have been proven to drive bottom-line results.
  2. Challenge the rules about how, where and when work can get done. Redesign your work processes, collaboration tools, and systems to enable anytime, anywhere work. Engage employees to rethink these processes, even in jobs that require onsite presence.
  3. Manage by performance not face time. Measure contributions by results achieved, not time spent. Invest in productivity, not through overworking employees but by unleashing their creativity and drive by enabling them to work when, where and how they are most productive.
  4. Take a team-based approach to goal setting. Too many organizations cascade company goals to individual goals which encourages an "every man for himself" mentality. When you make the team accountable to each other, every member of the team can work together to determine what is in the best interest of the team.
  5. Build trust and transparency into every system in your organization. Share financial results, engage cross-functional teams in anticipating threats and opportunities. Require authentic conversation and build it into your workplace strategies, from goal setting to team building, employee relations to management and communication strategies.

It may seem counterintuitive, but when we can be real people in real organizations where transparency and individual truths are encouraged, that's when we'll all succeed.

Only then will the gathering storm clouds and the voices of courageous and powerful leaders like Anne-Marie Slaughter lead to a rainstorm that fertilizes the soil of American economic growth (and stability) for generations to come.