The MPW Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career? is by Carolyn Slaski, Americas vice chair of talent at EY.
In 1991, the working world was a much different place. Gender stereotyping kept career-focused women comparing themselves to their male counterparts. Work life and home life seemed to be an either-or decision, particularly for women. And the vast pay gap between men and women meant that whichever parent earned less – usually the mother – gave up her career to stay at home and raise children.
This was the working world where I found myself at 29 years old, newly-married, newly-promoted to manager — and newly-pregnant. My husband and I were beyond thrilled to be starting a family. But, as I have come to realize, life-changes like this can stir up uncertainty. As excited as I was to become a mom, I wanted to still be able to wear all of my hats: wife, businesswoman, and mother. But once my son was born, I had to come face-to-face with my own limits. The standard of perfection I was aiming for was not a possibility.
My husband and I had many late-night conversations, looking at our situation from all angles. He was growing a career himself, and we lived in an expensive metropolitan area. Even if one of us had wanted to give up our careers, we couldn’t afford to be a one-income family. On the other side of the coin, as a two-income family, we had rigid work hours that didn’t align with day care hours. We felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. I finally had to stop and ask myself a question: What if there was a better way?
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EY didn’t have flexible work arrangements in 1991. So when I approached my coordinating partner to talk about rearranging my work schedule to better manage my personal and professional obligations, I knew my request would come across as unusual at best, and ridiculous at worst. Times of uncertainty require great courage; but they always have a great payoff.
The most important lesson I have learned in my career, looking back, is that having the courage to ask for what I know I need is always the right choice. After talking it over with my husband, I collected my thoughts and thought long and hard about the outcome I was hoping for. And then I went for it. Not only was my coordinating partner – and my whole team – supportive of the flexible schedule I proposed, it truly allowed me to find a balance that worked for my family, my career, and for myself. In fact, my flexible work arrangement was such a great solution that I maintained a flexible schedule until after my third son was born, eight years later.
I know that my request was successful for three key reasons: I had an honest desire to find a better way forward, I was confident of my priorities, and I had buy-in from everyone else involved. We all wanted the best possible solution. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, courage is really the only way out. Having the courage to ask for what you need gives you permission to stop looking at the solutions you think other people want for you, and start looking at what you know you need to be successful.