Power Figures, Relationships

CEO Karyn Schoenbart on Having it All, Just Not All at Once


It’s 2018, the era of the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement, yet no woman has ever been elected U.S. president, 20 percent of Congress is female and 6 percent of Fortune 500 companies are lady-led.

So when an experienced executive literally writes the book on thriving in the corporate world while keeping the plates of her personal life spinning, you listen.

Karyn Schoenbart, CEO of market research firm The NPD Group, wrote Mom.B.A.: Essential Business Advice from One Generation to the Next, which came out this past fall. She’s also a wife and a mother of two. Recognized with award after award as one of the most influential women in business, Karyn is perfectly positioned to pay it forward. After all, what Millennial wants to hear she can’t have her cake and eat it, too?

In this exclusive interview with Bare Necessities, find out some of Karyn’s most liberating, hard-won insights and advice. Here’s to all of us leading the charge this year.

Q: How did you get to where you are now?
A: My career success was actually a bit of a surprise to me. I never imagined myself as a CEO. I basically worked hard and got promoted, and I volunteered a lot so that I could get broader exposure. I was fortunate to have others who believed in me along the way. There were times when I got promoted in a linear path, but there was another time in particular where I moved laterally. Interestingly, the lateral move provided the most growth opportunity for me in the long run.

Q: What does a typical day look like? What drives you?
A: The great thing about my job is that it has a lot of diversity to it. I balance my time between long term and short term and internal and external activities. While I work very hard, I also have a life. I’m driven by being with others, and sharing mutual success.

Q: With a demanding job and busy personal life, how did you make Mom.B.A. happen?
A: I spent a lot of time working on the book while on vacations and during weekends, but I didn’t really mind because it was a labor of love. Once I started writing, it pretty much poured out of me, because the lessons and stories all came from my own personal experiences over the past 30-plus years.

“You are able to do and be much more than you probably thought is possible, but it is the truth”

Q: What’s the #1 thing you want to tell women and, more specifically, mothers making their way through the corporate jungle?
A: Believe! You are able to do and be much more than you probably thought is possible, but it is the truth. And don’t worry so much. Kids are way more resilient than we give them credit for, and someday they are likely to turn to you with pride at what you’ve accomplished by being both a mother and a career woman.

Q: It’s been said “People leave managers, not companies.” Talk to us about the chapter “Surviving Your Boss – We All Have to Report to Someone…” What’s the key to being a good leader? How can you thrive under a bad one?
A: One of the benefits of having different bosses, both good and bad, is that you can then craft what kind of boss or leader you want to be in the future. Interestingly, the boss you think is bad now might not be so bad when you look back. If you don’t get along well with your boss, don’t badmouth him or her. Instead, put your energy into doing a really good job and trying to expand your reach by volunteering to get involved outside of your day-to-day job. For example, join a task force, start a business book club or offer to be a buddy to a new hire outside of your area. The more you do this, the more other managers may see you as one to watch, and other opportunities may arise.

Q: What’s the most common mistake you see women on the rise make in the working world?
A: Lacking in self-confidence. Many women can’t imagine themselves in a top role, or are too embarrassed or modest to push for opportunities. You can push without being pushy. Make sure you are doing a great job, and don’t be afraid to ask for that promotion or raise, especially if you have put in the work and have demonstrated that you’re ready.

“You generally gain more from the things that didn’t go as planned than from the things that went well”

Q: How did you learn to get comfortable with failure and risk-taking?
A: By putting the failures in context. You generally gain more from the things that didn’t go as planned than from the things that went well, so I try to focus on the learnings. In today’s fast-paced environment, speed is a necessity, and with speed sometimes comes mistakes. One of my mottos in our company is “go, learn, iterate.” This helps make the failures more acceptable, especially if you can identify them quickly and then learn from them.

Q: How is being a manager like being a mother? Who is your mentor?
A: My mother was my first mentor, and I learned a great deal from her, particularly in terms of how to treat people. She loves me unconditionally, so any feedback on how I might improve is given from a caring place. As a manager, if my intent is to help people be the best that they can be, and if my objective is our mutual success, then I can give feedback from that same kind of caring place.

Q: You write, honestly and commendably, that no one can have it all, so how do you prioritize?
A: Oprah Winfrey once said, “You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once.” The concept of “having it all” is a very personal one, and the first thing to do is to decide what that means for you. I always knew I wanted to get married and have children. My career success was a bit of a surprise to me, but when the time came, I wasn’t going to compromise any of those three. That’s not to say there weren’t other sacrifices, but those were paramount to me.

To make it work, I try to compartmentalize as much as possible. When I’m at work, my head is into work; when I’m home, I’m at home. Be present in your present. In terms of setting boundaries, you have to start with proving your value. Avoid coming across as entitled. If you make yourself valuable and show that you can be counted on to produce excellence at your job, then it’s easier to ask for some extra time off when needed or set some limits because you’ve earned the right.

Q: It’s also very brave to talk openly about “Divide, Conquer & Outsource” because the myth of women being able to effortlessly manage it all without systemic support persists. Can you share how you did this in your own life?
A: My husband and I are a team. We decided that we were both going to have careers, so that meant dividing up the work. Sometimes this was along stereotypical gender roles, and other times it was just based on who hated the chore less. If you have the option of living near family, that really helps, too. Finally, I suggest that you outsource as much as you can afford so that you have more time to spend doing things you love with the people you love.

“Guilt is rarely a welcome visitor in my world—I just don’t have time for it”

Q: How do you cope with guilt, something moms are especially well acquainted with?
A: Guilt is rarely a welcome visitor in my world—I just don’t have time for it. I focus on the time I’m with my family, and not the time that I’m away from them. I’ve even made up my own rules. For example, if one of my kids took their first step when I wasn’t home, it simply didn’t count.

I used to suffer from fear of missing out. Over the years, I found that getting to sleep early actually made me a happier person. By letting go of the need to be everywhere and do everything, I have more energy for all the things that really matter.

Greatest indulgence: Sitting on a beach, reading a novel.
Dream job as a kid: I wanted to be a second grade teacher.
Hidden talent: I can perform the song “Cabaret” in sign language.
Passionate about: People.
Best way to de-stress: Going on the elliptical while watching fun TV.
Favorite vacation destination: Any place with a beach, warm weather, tennis and a spa.
Wardrobe staple: Little black skirt and black Spanx tights.
Comfort food: Too many to name!
Best advice: Step up.
Greatest strength: Good communication skills.
Biggest regret: Regret is a waste of time and energy.
Secret to living a great life: Do what you love, and love what you do.
In a word: Upbeat.

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Brooke is the editor of this here blog. In a previous life, she was an editor at Good Housekeeping and O, The Oprah Magazine. Brooke has written for Glamour, Travel+Leisure, New York Magazine and more. She’s into concerts, travel and her exceptionally adorable daughter and husband.
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