Women, Play the Long Game

Why working mothers need to think like chess masters

In recent years, there has been much discussion about the outrageous cost of child care and the role it plays in mothers’ decisions to leave their full-time jobs. (Yes, we know it isn’t always mothers, but let’s face it: In the vast majority of cases, fathers keep working while mothers take time off).

When a mother compares the cost of child care to her monthly pay after taxes, very often the numbers don’t make sense. Faced with earning relatively little and being separated from precious offspring for several hours a day, many make the choice to take a career break.

We advise women in this situation to take care. Making what appear to be financially smart short-term moves can prove damaging both financially and career-wise in the long run. Instead, imagine your future — both personal and professional — as one very important game of chess.

Why chess? We were hugely inspired by Disney’s film Queen of Katwe, which tells the true story of a girl from a Ugandan slum who became an international grand master. One quote says it all: “Chess helps us solve our problems…it teaches us to make a plan.”

It’s such a beautiful and apt analogy that we have used chess as a springboard to offer five points of advice to working mothers.

1. Think like a chess master.

A chess master doesn’t resign from the game simply because she is in a tricky situation. She thinks strategically, planning three or four moves ahead. She has an eye on the end game.

Your decision to give up a full-time job might makes sense today, not just financially but emotionally too. But will that decision enable you to play the role you want, living a life you love, in the long term?

Having young children is a temporary condition. As one working mother put it: “Seeing my daughter start senior school made me really think about what I was going to do with the next twenty years of my working life, something I had given zero thought to when she was 6 and I resigned from a great job.”

Your children will not be young forever. Have a long-term plan

2. Adapt your tactics as the game progresses.

Chess, much like your career, is a long game with a beginning, middle and end.

The first phase of chess is busy. There are lots of pieces on the board and you need to get moving to position yourself tactically for the future. It’s the same when you start work. Along with your peers, you dig in and work long hours, establish yourself, build your network.

As the game progresses, things change. Children come along who need and deserve attention. It is during this middle phase that a grand chess master stands out from the crowd because of her ability to devise cunning strategies; to take risks and to be creative.

Mothers who need flexibility have to be able to negotiate it without their careers paying a heavy price. Too often, “part time” becomes synonymous with “unambitious” and precludes women from taking on more responsibility. Be creative about defining your role and contribution, take risks, be prepared to be measured on output and not hours worked. The benefits to your long-term career will be immense.

Your goal from the beginning? Plan, adapt, position. Stay in the game. Play to win.

3. Be prepared to sacrifice some pieces, but always plan a few moves ahead.

As the grand master of your own life it is inevitable that you will need to make sacrifices. Think carefully about what pieces you are willing and able to put aside along the way to manoeuvre yourself into a winning end-game position.

That might mean taking a different role or perhaps going part-time. It could entail a sacrifice - passing up a promotion maybe. If so, make sure you are not written off for promotions and choice assignments over the long term. Seek out a mentor or a sponsor who will look out for you in the future. Position yourself to make your next big move a winning one by maintaining and growing your networks.
Be prepared to lose some battles if you want to win the war.

4. Remember, the queen is not the only piece on the board.

Yes, she’s important. Powerful. A great multi-tasker. But there is probably a king as well. On the same side of the board as you. Wearing the same colours. You need to have a shared view of what “winning” looks like. And you need to work together.

5. Be a player.

Keep an eye on the long term and have a plan to win. Rather than take a series of reactive moves, make sure that your next step is part of a five year journey.

At the Reignite Academy we are helping women lawyers return to City careers. We encourage our members to think about making moves and taking on roles that will help them get their long term careers back on track. Taking positions that will enable them to “reignite”. For someone who has ambitions to return to private practice, taking on an in-house role, for example, is a much better platform from which to reignite a career than, say, working as a teaching assistant.

There’s a bigger game to be played than work-life balance. It’s the game of creating your life, one move at a time, designed to set up all the people and organizations in your life – your partner, children, clients, employers, and network – to give you the opportunities, support, and guidance that you need to succeed each step of the way.

This article originally appeared in PwC’s Strategy & Business magazine.

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