Work-Life Balance Tips From SIPA's 2017 Volunteer of the Year

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Elizabeth Petersen, chief people and strategy officer of Simplify Compliance, was named the winner last week of SIPA's 2017 Volunteer of the Year Award. (That's Petersen on the right, being handed the award by Cindy Carter, president and CEO of FDAnews.) She is a very deserving recipient.

"I find myself frequently talking about work-life balance," Petersen told us a couple weeks ago, "especially with women." So we decided to ask her some questions on the topic. Her answers, as the headline suggests, resonate beyond any one audience. 

Work-life balance is something everyone strives for. But as a woman with a young family, it must be even tougher. How do you balance the stresses of the two sides, work and family?
PETERSEN: I work for a really special company that places emphasis on work-life balance. And I'd be completely lost without the unconditional support of family. But, I've also allowed myself to redefine what "having it all" means. Some days, I define success as a promotion at work. Others, I give myself a pat on the back when both my son and I head out of the house with matching shoes on. 

As a director in your organization, you often must travel. That has to be really tough with kids. How do you handle that?
PETERSEN: I do travel frequently, and the "mom guilt"—coupled with good old-fashioned homesickness—used to take an emotional toll. I've learned to set pretty strict boundaries on my time. When possible, I limit my time away to a single night. I'm also, at heart, a massive introvert, and away-from-home social situations like group meetings and conferences can drain me. So, I've become quick to refuse dinner invitations, even when I adore the company I'm with. I need the time to recharge. I'm starting to accept that I can't be all things to all people. 

Do you set boundaries on your work time? I believe France now prohibits employers from sending emails to employees after business hours. I don't think we'll get to that point, but how do you respond to after-hour requests and demands?
PETERSEN: It's taken me a while, but I've finally learned how to boundary-set on my own terms. For instance, I'm entirely comfortable responding to emails and working on off hours or even vacation because it means I can spend a little more time away from the office and with my family. But, I absolutely do not expect this of my team. There's no one-size-fits-all solution to work-life balance. 

Are there any secrets or shortcuts you can share with our audience that help you handle this balance?
PETERSEN: Define your own version of success. Life will surprise you. I always envisioned myself as a stay-at-home mom. But, I learned that as much as I love being a mother, I derive a tremendous amount of satisfaction from my professional life. And while I wildly respect Sheryl Sandberg, "leaning in" doesn't work for me. Every woman has her own professional voice, and there truly is no single path to workplace success. I certainly don't embody an executive "type." I've worn jeans with sequin knee patches to work, and my hair has been almost every color in the rainbow, but I'm unabashedly confident in my abilities and comfortable with my leadership style and business abilities.

Is there any advice you would give young women today just starting their careers that maybe you wish someone had given you?
PETERSEN: I realize now that every single mistake, trip-up and failure has led me to the beautiful life I lead now. If I could reach back in time to provide advice to my younger self, I'd say the following: Be kind to yourself and other people, and be confident. And finally, don't let cynicism cloud your experiences. Believing that people are inherently good and that every day might bring something new and wonderful is not a bad way to go through life.

Thank you.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…