Marion Ticknor Ruzecki is no stranger to juggling.
As KeyW’s chief people officer and mother to teenagers, Marion understands well the challenges and competing priorities her dual roles create. However, there was a time in her life when balancing the two seemed elusive.
The reality is, it’s very hard to get balance. You’re always leaning hard toward one direction or the other. You’re always teetering—and I don’t like to teeter.
“The reality is, it’s very hard to get balance. You’re always leaning hard toward one direction or the other. You’re always teetering—and I don’t like to teeter,” she said. It wasn’t until life-changing advice from a former boss helped her find an approach that worked.
“He said to me, ‘Marion, maybe it’s not about work/life balance. Maybe it’s work/life integration.’ Well, this was a brand-new concept. I’d always thought of work/life balance as managing the sides of my life so that nothing capsizes—everything floats, even if just barely. My focus was on bailing out just enough so no critical part of my life sank,” said Marion. “The idea of integrating work and life was new … what if I brought more of my personal life to work, and brought more of my work life home? What if I could get those around me to appreciate that we are all human, and if we communicate about those challenges we’re more likely to get understanding in all parts of our lives?”
She took the advice to heart and encouraged her sons, 14-year-old Reid and 15-year-old Nash, to learn more about her job and its importance to her. “This is where the idea of integration really comes in to play for me. My boys understand, in general, what I do at KeyW and have an appreciation for it,” she said. “They understand I’m trying to make sure our employees have a good work environment, and that they’re taken care of so they can focus on what really matters: the critical work they do for our customers. These aren’t just people doing jobs; these are people focused on our nation’s security. So, when I need to work on a Sunday afternoon or jump on a conference call while driving to lacrosse practice, they know I’m working to make sure our employees are ultimately happy. They understand I need to get my work done, but they also know it’s not always like this—it ebbs and flows.”
Acceptance that work and life aren’t mutually exclusive, prioritization and expectation setting make up the foundation of Marion’s work/life integration strategy, representing a shift in awareness about the role work plays in her life. Rather than constantly seeking equal parts work and play, Marion’s approach allows for ongoing interplay between work and non-work activities. Instead of looking at this approach as “always working,” Marion calls it “always ready.”
But when you talk about integration, now there’s an active part for me. I can make sure my family understands exactly what I’m doing and why I’m spending a lot of time doing it. They, in turn, understand when I’m with them—I’m all in.
Why does this integration approach work for her? “When you talk about balance, it feels a bit more passive. It’s almost like, here are my scales—which side carries more weight? But when you talk about integration, now there’s an active part for me. I can make sure my family understands exactly what I’m doing and why I’m spending a lot of time doing it. They, in turn, understand when I’m with them—I’m all in,” she said.
Case in point: in Marion’s household, the other side of a long work stretch means time just for family. “My job is definitely not a nine-to-five situation. My work has great priority in my life—but so do my kids,” said Marion. “If there’s a hint of snow, I’m taking off and driving them to the nearest ski slopes. Normally, this might be awkward to do on a Wednesday, but in my case, it’s the agreement we’ve struck. I’m going to be part of their gig, because I expect them to be part of mine,” she explained.
At KeyW, Marion handles her responsibilities with the support of her team who stress integrity, honesty and transparency. “Success, for me, depends on working with leaders that respect you as a colleague and as a person. If you’re working with leaders who don’t get the concept that you have responsibilities to others in order to be a whole person, then you have two choices. You can start looking for another role, or you can make the effort to share why it’s critical that your whole team honors their duties outside of work. Because whole people tend to be happier and more productive at work, and we all want to work with them! Share the ways you integrate your life into a whole and see if the team responds. If not, find a team that respects all that you offer—take your gifts elsewhere.” Marion feels her career has been peppered with great leaders, and gratitude for that drives her to encourage those she leads to take care of themselves and their loved ones.
Her advice for others trying to find the right work/life formula? “Prioritize. If your spouse can take half of the workload, fantastic. If you’re 100 percent in charge of the family household duties, come up with a list of things to outsource. Get out the calculator and determine what your hourly pay is, and whether it makes financial sense to spend your time cleaning or grocery shopping.” Jettison any activities failing to contribute to your goals or slowing you down. “Did you know you can order your groceries online and have them delivered? For about ten bucks, you just bought back three hours of your day to spend with your kids.”
Say ‘yes’ to the carpool offer on weekdays and you pick up the slack on the weekends. The more you work, the more you need to choose your priorities.
“And accept help when it’s offered,” Marion advises. “Say ‘yes’ to the carpool offer on weekdays and you pick up the slack on the weekends. The more you work, the more you need to choose your priorities. Right now my two priorities are work and my boys…everything else is secondary.”
Leading by example and teaching her sons to achieve integration in their own lives—or, at least, a better mix of sports, friends, homework, chores, video games and other interests—is an ongoing process. “I’m teaching them to prioritize their activities, get their work done first and then on to the fun stuff,” she said.
Reflecting on the work/life integration approach, Marion is most grateful for the peace of mind and confidence it’s created. “Approaching life in this different way has helped minimize any ‘mom guilt’ attached to feeling successful in my job. Isn’t that the sweet spot we all want to find?”