Work

Work-Life Balance: Capturing an Elusive Myth

Michelle Hickox found a way to build a powerful career as a CFO—and take summers off and still get promoted. Here’s how she did it.

Collage of a working mom and her daughter surrounded by summery items, like popsicles, flowers, and beach hats.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The following is a lightly edited excerpt from the latest episode of the Better Life Lab podcast. Listen to the full episode using the audio player below, or get the show via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play:

Some surveys show that people think work-life balance for top leaders is impossible—that it’s a myth. But Michelle Hickox shows that that’s not true.

Today, Hickox is vice president and chief financial officer of Independent Bank. It’s a $5.5 billion bank serving North Texas, Houston, and Austin. She’s found a way to build a powerful career, and protect the time she needed for her family. And she did it when few of her co-workers even dared to speak about things like flexible schedules or working reduced hours. Her path was often challenging, but for anyone who struggles with the mix of work and life, Hickox’s tale is also pretty inspirational.

“My husband and I had kids very quickly after we got married, and both of us were in public accounting at the time,” she says. “At the time when we started in public accounting, there were no flex schedules or telecommuting or anything like that. I can tell you the day that I started my job, in our first meeting they basically said, ‘Do not plan anything on weekends, because you’re gonna be required to work. So just don’t plan anything so we don’t feel bad.’ ”

Hickox’s husband wound up going into a different line of work that had “much more employee-friendly” policies, she says, noting that he was able to access flexible working hours, something that came in handy when the couple became parents. But his schedule didn’t offer a permanent solution to their child care needs.

“When my oldest daughter finished kindergarten, we had an issue that came up with the day care that we were using, which decided that once that school year was over, they wanted those kids to graduate and be gone, and so it left us with a hole related to child care for that summer,” she says. “The other thing that I’d really been thinking about was my parents were teachers, and so even though they both worked full time, they were off when I was off. Summers were great—we spent our summers at the lake when we took our vacations.”

Hickox didn’t want her kids to spend their summers in day care. So she reached out to her superiors at work.

“I started thinking about an approach with the two partners that I worked with to see if they would be willing to let me take that summer off, basically so that I could be home with my girls before my oldest daughter started first grade,” she says. “Really, my intention at that time was for it to be a one-time thing, and with the way my schedule worked, it worked out well for them and for me. I took a reduction in pay—actually, I think I didn’t take my bonus that year—that’s how I worked it out with them. And I was not as busy during the summer anyway, so it was kind of a win-win for both sides.”

Hickox wanted to extend the agreement for the following summer, but her firm was sold to a different company. She says had to renegotiate the arrangement with her new boss.

“I had to work out a deal with the managing partner of the office, and he was really anti anybody working anything different than what would normally be expected in public accounting, which is 50 to 60 hours a week,” she says. “Really his thought was, ‘If we let one person do that, then everyone is going to want to do that.’ What I’ve learned over my career, [that] is not true.”

But Hickox was able to iron out an agreement. In exchange for working fewer hours, she took a 20 percent cut in pay, which she says was “worth it.”

“I really wanted the flexibility and the ability to spend time with my girls,” she says. “I did still have the support of the two partners that I had originally worked for, and they approached [my new manager] and basically talked him into letting me try it.”

In addition to taking summers off, Hickox worked out a deal to leave early during the school year—at 4 p.m. But the deal came with caveats that troubled her.

“The agreement at the time was that I would be able to do it, but he didn’t want me to tell anyone that I was doing it. And I will say that that caused issues, and I actually almost gave up on it and decided to look for another job,” she says. “I’d be getting on the elevator to leave [work] and these people would just be going, ‘Wow, Michelle, you’re taking off early today. It must be nice to leave this early.’ Well, that was because no one knew what my arrangement was.”

She continues: “It made me feel like everyone thought I was not committed to my job, or I was not working as hard as everyone else. And they didn’t know that I had an arrangement, and I also had taken a reduction in pay to be able to have that arrangement. So after that first year, I was like, ‘I’m not really sure if this is working.’ ”

Things did wind up working out after a new managing partner came on board who was more amenable to flexible schedules, which demonstrates how important it is to have leaders who are willing to try something different.

It’s something Jessica DeGroot knows well. She’s the president of ThirdPath Institute, a nonprofit out of Philadelphia that’s worked closely with business leaders and others for 16 years—and a group that Hickox is part of. ThirdPath’s mission is not only to help families better share work and home responsibilities but to help make the American workplace better. DeGroot has seen some big shifts, good and bad, since ThirdPath started.

“We still are at the early adaptive stage, so as much as this future world is possible, right now, today, it’s hard to do this alone,” she says.

When it comes to Hickox, DeGroot says her success was not just about flexible leaders.

“I think it still took a lot of courage on Michelle’s part to really be the one to kind of step up and say, ‘This is something I’d like,’ ” she says. “So yes, absolutely the leaders had to kind of match her in her courageousness and try something out with her. But what we can also hear is that she had to keep on pushing. It wasn’t easy to begin with. And there was some criteria to keep it under the radar, and she says, ‘Nope, gotta make this more transparent.’ ”

Hickox’s schedule didn’t prevent her from rising up the corporate ladder—she was able to become a partner at her firm and maintain her flex schedule for a decade. In addition to flexible leaders, she credits her supportive husband and a team of open-minded colleagues who backed her unique schedule.

“I was able to delegate to my team,” she says. “I had a couple people that worked for me over the years that, and because of that delegation, and getting them in front of the clients and making sure that if the clients knew that I was not there that they were available, really helped them to grow, and get promoted from manager to senior manager. So it benefited them as well as me, because they were able to grow more in their responsibilities.”

Over the years, Hickox has learned a number of lessons from her push to find work-life balance.

“The advice I would give is that you can’t just try it and then give up on it really quickly,” she says. “If one thing doesn’t work, you have to try, try again, and be willing to be flexible and to see if you can do a couple of things to try to make it work. Because I think had I given up that first year—I really could’ve given up easily.”

Now that she’s in a leadership position, Hickox is working to institute work-life balance policies for her own employees.

“Two of the women that report to me have young children,” she says. “I’ve worked really hard to bring the skills I’ve learned, not just for me but for the people that work under me, because I feel like you can attract and retain really great people if you’re willing to provide benefits like that.”

She continues: “My financial reporting manager, she has an 8-month-old and an almost 3-year-old, and so I’ve worked with her to get her technology. She can work from home if she needs to. We actually have a branch that’s about five minutes from her house, so we’ve set her up in an office there.”

Hickox was also able to roll out a parental leave program at the firm she works at now. She says speaking up, and asking for things that some may be too afraid to ask for, can help us all work differently, something that DeGroot agrees with.

“Clearly Michelle’s [career] trajectory proves that,” she says. “But not only did Michelle have success at work, she modeled something. Not just herself, but her husband modeled something to their children, and their children watched them every single day, and they learned something different. They learned they don’t have to have a life where work requires all of you. But, instead, they saw the value of living a life where work is something that you do, and you do excellently, but you also have time to invest in your family and your relationship with your partner.

“I’m not talking crazy ideas here—this is what’s possible for everybody. We can do this,” she adds.