This Fall is different. Back to school shopping, anticipation about teachers and classmates, reliable childcare, the bittersweet relief parents often feel regarding end-of-summer sadness coupled with excitement about getting kids back into a routine – all of it is now elusive. 

Most parents are navigating some version of becoming teachers, learning sherpas, or at minimum, jugglers managing a household where everyone is working, learning, living and getting their needs met all in the same place and at the same time. 

A recently-released study by Yale researchers quantifies the increased crunch women experience working from home with kids (spoiler alert: women, you are not crazy!).  A poll by Morning Consult for The New York Times released in May found that home schooling necessitated by coronavirus lockdowns was being handled disproportionately by women.

Pre-pandemic, the “Struggle with the Juggle” was the second biggest challenge women leaders faced, becoming only more acute now. In the same study above, mothers spend more time during the workday with children, 54 mins vs. 21 mins for men (I personally think those numbers are higher for both! My clients are spending more time each day than what the research is showing juggling the needs of children and work!) and, while women increased housework to almost one extra hour per day they work from home, those numbers were not seen for men. 

The cost? Mothers working from home during April and May reported feeling anxious, depressed, and lonely at significantly higher rates than fathers, who actually experienced less anxiety when working from home. Although all leaders have unquestionably been affected, research is showing a disproportionate effect is taking place with women. 

In order to manage the chaos, there are three tangible things leaders need to create stability, structure and sanity: Awareness, Baseline and a realistic Calendar.

Step 1 Awareness (Admit & Allow)

Most leaders want to move to action, solve, fix. While there are actions you can take, the first step is to allow yourself to feel – and admit – the multitude of emotions you have permission to feel. What I have heard and can personally relate to is everything from overwhelm, resentment, disappointment, grief, sadness, irritation, frustration, anger, WTF!, as well as enjoyment, appreciation and gratitude. 

These emotions crash upon us like waves – some stay longer than others, some are bigger, some come together, all ebb and flow. When we do not allow ourselves to be aware of and admit how we feel, they often get bigger. When we experience one of the challenging emotions for too long, we can feel stuck and paralyzed.  

We often avoid allowing ourselves to feel emotions because it can feel like too much. 

A colleague told me about his almost 30 year old daughter who is almost always calm, composed, resilient, flexible, etc. In a recent routine wellness checkup the doctor asked her how she was doing and she burst into tears. He listened, handing her tissues (what a doctor!) while she talked about the uncertainty, stress, and overall difficulty. When she admitted surprise at her own reaction, he told her “you are the fifth person TODAY with a similar response – you are not alone.”

Unconsciously bottling up how we are feeling is resulting in high levels of fear, irritability and unhappiness. 

I witnessed twenty minutes of tense drama that almost resulted in a fist fight between two men (one a grandfather with his family, both in pink shirts) at an ice cream store last week. People are on the edge. See this last article “How am I really feeling”? on what leaders are really feeling so you can remind yourself you are not alone if you are feeling fear, irritability, stress or unhappiness. 

Step 2: Baseline (Beliefs & Boundaries)

The next step is to create a baseline about mindset. The biggest help or hindrance to doing this is rooted in your beliefs about yourself, others, and what is possible. 

“Don’t believe everything you think”

You may recall how the brain reacts with negative emotion in Finding Calm Amidst Uncertainty.  We are wired to assume the worst, think small and shut down when we get what brain scientists called “hijacked” and the threat response is triggered. You literally stop being able to think about the situation, what you need, what others can do to help, and cannot fathom what requests are possible. When you notice yourself feeling stuck here, you can either self-coach (almost impossible) or, ask someone for help to challenge your beliefs on what is possible from a colleague, coach or friend.  

Mindset is the toughest nut to crack 

In a coaching conversation this month a client said “I can’t believe we are having this conversation AGAIN!” I reminded her that this is not a “one-and-done” conversation, it is as ongoing as pulling weeds in a garden. You clean them up and they always grow back. 

Managing your awareness, beliefs and calendar is a process not an event

Once you unlock how you are viewing the situation and where your biggest challenges are, you can start to create boundaries, which comes from bounder or limits and is defined as: 

Boundary = a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something 

The only person who can identify your limits is YOU. You can get coaching or help identifying what they are, though setting them is up to you. A coach friend of mine is is constantly reminding clients:

You Permit What You Promote

In other words, what you allow is what you create, or even train people around you to expect. A woman in a live event – with hundreds of women mentioning they could relate to her – got coaching in a session last week: 

Client: My manager always calls me on my PTO time to attend meetings and work on deliverables.

Me: How do you respond?

Client: I show up and deliver them; I never say no.

Me: Do you get how you have trained him to keep doing that?

Client: Absolutely.

Me: What options do you want to create going forward?

Client: I want to renegotiate how he engages with me on PTO and create a system where we can determine critical needs.

Me: Well done (and then we discussed how to recontract…”).

There are three main areas of boundaries to clarify for yourself and then with others: 

  • PERSONAL boundaries about how you can maintain your energy and operate as your best self which you can read about in How Managers are Boosting Their Own Energy.
  • WORK boundaries about what you say yes and no to, and where you are driven by Should’s. Many leaders are saying yes to everything because they are fearful their jobs are on the line, and they are doing nothing well, reducing rather than building trust. BOLD leaders dare to say no, contract effectively and hold themselves (reasonably) accountable so they can reliably deliver commitments. 
  • FAMILY boundaries to establish and maintain. Most leaders talk about having no lines between work and home, not ever “leaving” the office: it stays open at all hours, on all days. Leaders are reporting high levels of distraction, unfocus, guilt and not being present. The only person who can identify and create the boundaries between work and home is you.

Step 3: Calendar (Clarify & Contract) 

In Executive Coaching, before we focus on managing the Outside In (leading high performance teams, building trusting relationships with stakeholders, increasing influence, etc.) we always start with the Inside Out. This includes some of the areas listed above in Steps 1 and 2 and often involves – even at the most senior levels – a Calendar Overhaul. 

If you hear yourself saying things like “I don’t have enough time to think, I am focused on operational details and need to act strategically, I am reactive versus proactive, I’m responding when I need to be leading, I’m working non-stop” then it’s a sign to focus on creating boundaries by starting with your calendar. 

The calendar overhaul process encompasses 3 main steps:

1.  IDENTIFY what needs you have. When do you think best? When do you need to be focused on family? How can you create blocks for thinking, planning, catching up, meeting, creating? Start with your needs, first.

2.  ANALYZE your current state. For some this is a painful realization that helps them realistically admit what hasn’t been working. Spending 12 hours non-stop with no breaks on video, no bathroom breaks, email at all hours because of no time in the workday, too much problem-solving versus leveraging time with directs to coach and hold them accountable, etc. Get clear about what is happening today, which will inform a plan of the key areas you need to focus to shift.

3.  CREATE blocks of what you need. Do you need to start Mondays with planning for the week, ending Fridays with a review and plan for next week? Do you need to create blocks for lunch with family, targeted time with directs, identify a block for what some clients call “Walk and Talks” so they are outside walking to break up the day (I had a client walk 4.2 miles on a one hour call with me!?!)

Once you clarify your needs, the key is to clarify them with others around you, and “contract” with them. The best people to start with are your assistant, who can guard your calendar; your family, so you clarify when you are and are not available; and your team. (It can be powerful to lead your team members through this process as well).  

For leaders with young children, it is critical to identify what help you actually need, and then contract with those who will help you as well as colleagues around you. I have a VP family member with young children who adjusts her schedule to work from 5am-8am, schools her kids until noon, and then is back online in the afternoon when her husband takes over. 

Another client realized she can’t do it all (hallelujah!) and focused her efforts on what her calendar boundaries need to include, what help she needs to make it happen, and what she needs to shift in how she’s leading her team and collaborating with peers to realistically operate as her best self, create a workable structure, and stay productive and high performing. 

Ask Yourself: 

    • How am I really feeling?
    • What boundaries – or limits – are critical for me to establish and maintain? 
    • What can I do to tangibly create the calendar that will allow me to optimally operate?

Please feel free to reach out to Gisele Garcia Shelley if you’d like to connect about your ABC’s for navigating your own back to school plan, to help members on your team navigate their plans, or to discuss the biggest current challenge you are facing today.

Wishing you good mental, physical, emotional and social health. 

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours in practice,



If you are interested in exploring whether we are a good fit to help you and your organization, contact us for a complimentary discovery conversation.

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