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Author Jennifer Folsom: How to become the 'ringmaster' of your work/life circus

Folsom wants to bust the thinking that if a worker is able to get some flexibility at work, she’s willing to accept less money to do the job.
Jennifer Folsom, author of "The Ringmaster," a practical guide to modern working motherhood.
Jennifer Folsom, author of "The Ringmaster," a practical guide to modern working motherhood. Mary Gardella Photography

While “work-life balance” is the phrase others might use to describe Jennifer Folsom’s dual roles as vice president of RIVA Solutions Inc. and mom of three teenage boys, Folsom prefers to think of it as a “work-life triangle.”

“There is this fictional balance that we're all chasing. That's just silly. We shouldn’t do it,” Folsom told “Morning Joe” co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski on Tuesday.

Folsom, a Know Your Value contributor, packaged her best advice into a guide called “The Ringmaster: Work, Life, and Keeping it All Together,” which came out this week. While it’s geared toward working mothers, it’s also chock-full of tips for anyone who is considering re-entering the workforce.

“The more you chase a balance point that we can never achieve, the more disappointed we are in ourselves that we're not getting promoted fast enough, that we're serving chicken nuggets for dinner one more time,” she said.

The key to Folsom’s “work/life triangle” is being able to focus on different parts of your life at the times they need the most attention.

“You know what fair compensation is, and you want to leave at four o'clock every day, but life is going to throw you a curveball,” Folsom said. “You're going to get a new boss who doesn't support that. You're going to have a sick parent or a child who needs some afterschool support, and you're going to have to adjust that triangle every day, month to month, sometimes hour to hour.”

One of the workplace myths Folsom wants to bust is the thinking that if a worker is able to get some flexibility at work, she’s willing to accept less money to do the job.

Jennifer Folsom's book "The Ringmaster" comes out Jan. 7 2020.
Jennifer Folsom's book "The Ringmaster" comes out Jan. 7 2020.

“That may have been the case 10 years ago, even five years ago, but I think you know — and thank you, millennials for pushing this— flexibility is a requirement for most professional jobs where the talent is hard sought,” Folsom said. And so I think that the really big shift here is ,go in expecting that you're not taking any discounted or compensation for the flexibility that you want and that you deserve. Go out and kill it in that job. Over-deliver. Add value. Know your value, and you're going to be just fine and get the flexibility you want.”

The issue is especially crucial for women, who take on family caretaking roles at disproportionate rates to men. According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of mothers have taken time off work or cut back their hours to care for a child or other family member, while that was true of only 28 percent of fathers. The research showed that mothers are nearly three times as likely to quit their jobs as fathers are. The trend affects more than an individual family: taking time out of the workforce contributes to the gender wage gap and the lower number of women in executive roles across industries.

That’s why Folsom says women have to be strategic about what they’re doing while they’re taking time off from work, from freelancing, to networking, to strategically volunteering.

“I mean, you're going to volunteer in your kids preschool, right?,” Folsom said. “But do something that's related to your job, if you're going to go work in development for a nonprofit, then run a Red Cross chapter, fundraising effort, not just the preschool fair.”

She suggested using titles like “volunteer”, “freelancer” or “associate” to describe the work you’re doing to keep current in your field, and to make sure your resume doesn’t show a gap. “Show that you were being very intentional about your time out of the workforce,” Folsom advised. And “don’t put any cutesy titles like don't say ‘domestic CEO’… that's a no-no.”

And if you’re re-entering the workforce, Folsom suggested crafting a three-sentence elevator pitch, including “who you are, what you do, and what’s the hook.” While what you say is important, Folsom argued that how you say it leaves an even greater impression, so it’s crucial to practice sounding clear and confident.

Above all else, being the “ringmaster” of life’s circus means controlling the chaos and choosing where to spend your energy. Folsom pointed to a time in her life when she was a new mom and a newly-minted MBA at a big management consulting firm. Folsom was eager to show her dedication to her job — even when it overtaxed her sanity and her budget.

“When I first went back to work after my twins were born, I was trying really hard to not be ‘the mom’ on the team,” she remembered. “I was trying to go to every single engagement party and promotion, lunch and happy hour for this and happy hour for that. And, you know, frankly, I was paying my nanny overtime, time and a half, which was already blowing my budget, just todo that.”

She got her priorities back in order by focusing on the relationships that mattered to her most. “You cannot go to every single social event, right? So your boss, your assistant, maybe that person in your work stream that holds the keys to the kingdom, go to her happy hour, go to that birthday lunch, but you can't do them all and it's okay,” Folsom said. “You don't have to be the most popular. It's a job. It's not high school.”

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of client delivery at Washington, D.C.-based management consulting firm RIVA Solutions Inc. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.