I’ll never forget the time my dad had a business trip scheduled during my school play, so he went to great lengths to make sure he could at least see a dress rehearsal. It wasn’t as if it was my Broadway debut, but both my parents certainly treated it as the special event that it was for me at the time. I’ll always remember it as a great example of how they often went out of their way to be involved in my life.
When I was a kid, few people were really talking about things like work/life balance, workplace stress, or parental leave. Nevertheless, my dad, with my mom’s encouragement, always found ways to prioritize time with my sister and me, even while he ran a national cleaning company. Since then, our society has come a long way when it comes to workplace flexibility, whether it’s state laws requiring paid parental leave or major companies shifting to policies that emphasize goals accomplished rather than hours in the office. My parents, in other words, were pretty ahead of their time.
Now that I’m a mother of two, and running the same national cleaning company my dad did, I often think about his approach to balancing work and family. And in many ways, I have it easy. When I was a kid, if I wanted to talk to my dad while he was out of town, I had to plan to be home at a specific time so I wouldn’t miss his call. (For the benefit of any Millennial readers, I’ll explain that once upon a time, voicemail didn’t exist. Also we called it an “answering machine,” but never mind that now.) The point is, whether it’s phone, text, video chat or email, I have countless ways to be present in my kids’ lives when I’m traveling or just working late.
In the two decades that I’ve worked at Jelmar, I’ve learned a few key lessons on how to excel at work while also prioritizing the people you love:
- Find alternative ways to be involved. We all experience feelings of guilt if we can’t attend every sports game, dance recital, and play. But you can always find an alternative way to participate in your child’s activities, like my dad did with my dress rehearsal. While being physically present is important, making arrangements to have the event documented on video—then watching with your child later—is a great way to stay involved in their life. In my experience, making that extra effort to show how much you want to be there for your kids can be just as memorable.
- Seek out caregivers with shared values. When we look for nannies, babysitters and other caregivers, we check references and conduct background checks to make sure we’re hiring someone we can trust. But it’s also important to look for a less obvious type of trustworthiness: can you rely on this person to parent your kids in the same way you would? Will this caregiver teach life skills and instill values that you agree with? Once you find that special caregiver who fits in well with your family, it’s important to treat him or her like family. (A well-paid and well-treated caregiver is much more likely to stick around long-term!)
- Help promote workplace flexibility. As the president of Jelmar, I think a lot about my employees’ happiness and wellbeing, and I want to do everything I can to provide them the same flexibility I want for myself and my family. I have a dedicated, hardworking team, and I find ways to reward them, such as a regular 4:30 closings and half days on Fridays. Many of my employees have jobs that can be performed remotely and/or outside normal business hours, and I empower them to use their judgment to determine if and when that’s required. I find that my staff repays this trust with their loyalty and a desire to help the business succeed.
It’s true that when we’re overwhelmed and stressed out at work, setting aside quality time for family can seem like an extra burden. So we sometimes let it fall by the wayside, skipping family dinners, school events, and other opportunities to show our kids how much we care about them. Most parents will never be able to make it to every single event, and that’s OK. In my experience, it’s the times you went the extra mile to be there for your kids—despite the inconvenience—that they’ll remember decades later.
This might sound strange coming from the president of a company that makes green cleaning products, but I have some mixed feelings about Earth Day. I mean, I’m as big a fan of the environment as any other thoughtful and conscientious person. But to me, sometimes Earth Day feels a little like a combination of New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day.
I admit that metaphor wasn’t exactly self-explanatory, but stay with me here. As I mentioned earlier this year, I’ve never been crazy about making New Year’s resolutions—because trying to force your life to go exactly right just doesn’t work in the long run. And the whole idea of Valentine’s Day has never seemed quite right to me; after all, shouldn’t we be showing our loved ones how much we care about them every day of the year?
So I guess what I’m saying that if we decide to recycle, conserve water, or ride a bike instead of drive on Earth Day, that’s great. But if we don’t keep making those same green choices repeatedly, Earth Day means pretty much nothing—just like Valentine’s Day flowers or a New Year’s pledge to lose weight mean nothing if your good intentions don’t translate into consistent action.
Of course, there’s one big problem: environmentalism is really ridiculously difficult. Seriously. Case in point: recently I wanted to replace my shower head with a more efficient model that would conserve water. Seems simple enough. So I set up a stepladder in my shower—which may sound strange if you don’t know I’m 4’10”—and climbed on top of it. Of course, there wasn’t quite enough space in the shower to open the stepladder all the way, but I figured that wouldn’t be a problem, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. Who knew the price of environmentalism would be a face-first collision with a tile floor?
So I’ve been thinking about how to make environmentalism work better for me and my family. Like many “-isms,” it has historically involved deeply entrenched points of view, typically accompanied by equally dramatic actions. You know, picket lines, people chaining themselves to trees—the sorts of public demonstrations that make the news. That type of radical environmentalism is one thing, but what about everyday environmentalism, the type that works for people who are super busy, a little bit lazy, or even just too short to reach a shower head?
And then I realized that all it really takes to be a better environmentalist is to find the things that help the planet and make your life easier—and there are more than you think:
- If you’ve got young kids, their school teachers are sure to find a way to reuse those old plastic bottles, paper cups, and toilet paper rolls for arts and crafts. So collect them and donate them to your kids’ classrooms, even if you haven’t been asked (in which case you may want to quickly leave the items and run away … for the good of the planet, of course).
- There are light bulbs that are energy-efficient and last 20 years! This is big news for short people who can’t reach overhead light fixtures. By the time I need to change the bulb again, my kids will be tall enough to do it for me.
- There’s nothing easier than reusing unwanted items around the house. Old, ugly, out-of-fashion men’s ties make for great Easter decorations if you use your imagination! Plus, that saves you the extra step of walking to the trash can and throwing them away. This is environmentalism based on not doing something—it doesn’t get any easier.
- Eating over the sink is a classic, time-honored technique for reducing the water and energy involved in washing dishes—plus, it’s equally well-suited for the busy or the lazy. Enough said.
These tips may sound slightly silly, but I believe they’re great examples of how caring for the environment can involve small, everyday steps that don’t disrupt your life. In fact, that’s the philosophy behind Jelmar’s entire “greenvenient” CLR® product line, which we reformulated to meet EPA standards for environmentally friendly products (instead of creating a separate green line). We wanted people to be able to continue using the products they’ve always loved, with the added peace of mind that they could help the planet with the simple action of cleaning—which, to me, is what everyday environmentalism is all about.
There are lots of reasons that a company might decide to rebrand its products after many years. It might want to ensure that its product line maintains its appeal for a new generation of consumers. It might aim to reinforce the quality and usability of its products with new, high-end packaging that speaks to those attributes. Or it might seek to unify a broad range of products with a cohesive visual language.
Jelmar’s recent rebranding was driven by all those motivations. But there was an additional benefit to the rebranding process that we didn’t foresee: we got to know our customers a lot better.
A company with a small staff wouldn’t necessarily choose to invest in consumer research prior to a rebranding, and we debated whether it was truly required. After all, it’s expensive and time consuming to gather opinions from broad samples of consumers—and given our large, engaged social media following, we have lots of opportunities to receive customer feedback about our products.
And yet, a formal research process has served Jelmar well in the past. When I first stepped into my father’s role as president, I decided to survey consumers to determine what mattered to them most in a cleaning product. That research led to the “greenvenient” reformulation of our products that has contributed to their continued popularity, even while environmentally friendly cleaning product lines from other major brands haven’t fared so well.
So we decided to learn more about how our customers feel about our current branding, especially our packaging. And I’m glad we did, because while many of our customers’ opinions confirmed what we already knew, a number of them surprised us.
For example, while we might have expected that some segments of our audience would consider it important to include a prominent EPA symbol on our packaging, we wouldn’t have predicted that the vast majority of our customers strongly believe the American flag image should appear on the front of our packaging. And while it wasn’t surprising that consumers as a whole favored a cleaner-looking packaging design with less text, we didn’t expect that they’d prefer subtle updates over a complete design overhaul.
Those insights helped start us down a new path—one that recognized that small changes could make a big impact on consumer favorability. For example, when we tested a particular product bottle in a focus group, consumers found its yellow color dull and unappealing. Then we gave that same bottle a slight metallic sheen, and suddenly consumers loved it. Their shift in perception reminded us of something important: we make premium products, and to sell them in less-than-premium packaging is to sell ourselves short.
And in my opinion, there’s an even broader lesson to be gleaned from our rebranding experience. CLR® occupies a category of rare products that consumers have depended on for generations. Our customers know our problem/solution TV ads, and they’ve shared our YouTube videos with friends on social media. We’ve become part of the broader culture, and we’ve been around long enough that multiple generations have developed a nostalgic connection to our brand.
That’s wonderfully flattering, and it’s also a huge responsibility.
A company’s leaders always run the risk of failing to see the forest for the trees, as the saying goes. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day details of running a company and lose sight of the big picture. But by connecting with our customers, we got ourselves to think not just about what our company makes, but also about what our company means. And meaning, ultimately, is what makes a great brand.
Here’s the more surprising part: many of the experiences I’ve had outside of Jelmar have been equally valuable to my career and the company.
Let me explain what I mean. A few years after I started at Jelmar, I decided to go to grad school. I had my doubts about the decision at first, in part because I wasn’t sure if more formal education would be the best use of my time when I had the opportunity to be getting practical, on-the-job experience.
But I decided to take that chance, and let’s just say it really paid off. As I’d hoped, I gained access to new knowledge that I never would’ve been exposed to otherwise—knowledge I could use to become more effective in my career.
But what I didn’t expect was what I’d learn about my company: we weren’t perfect. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of things we were doing right—things we exceled at, even. But the fact is that a decades-old business will stagnate if its employees don’t regularly take steps to introduce new ideas and knowledge, and by definition those things need to come from outside your internal team. Going to grad school not only helped me understand how to be a better leader, but it also gave me a wealth of ideas about what the business needed to do in order to continue growing and thriving.
In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Of course, that’s the truth whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a small family business. It’s just that when you’re in the latter category, you might have to try a little harder to gain exposure to new best practices and new thinking.
Even though I used grad school as an example, that new thinking doesn’t need to come from traditional channels. In fact, I regularly derive huge amounts of inspiration and motivation from the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), a peer advisory group for women leaders of successful companies. This group of amazing women regularly engages in discussions on a variety of topics and issues, some directly related to business and some not.
For example, we’re currently discussing the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The book argues that anyone can lead a happier, more meaningful existence if we make certain agreements with ourselves—“be impeccable with your word” and “don’t take anything personally,” for example. It certainly isn’t a business book by any means, and yet, I have no doubt it will make me a better leader.
The point is that valuable knowledge can—and should—come from a range of both expected and unexpected sources. You have time to acquire new knowledge, even if you don’t think you do. It’s as simple as participating in a peer advisory group over email, watching an interesting TED talk, or reading a blog on a relevant topic. There are so many learning opportunities around us that you don’t even need to leave your office to take advantage of them.
If you’re a business leader, it’s a great idea to encourage your employees to seek out a variety of learning opportunities as well. You can plan training seminars and other learning events, allocate funds for employee education, and make online courses available. It’s also important to talk with your team about the importance of ongoing education, for the good of the company and their individual careers.
And don’t forget to set an example by taking advantage of learning opportunities yourself—and letting your team know. Admitting to your employees that you don’t know everything might feel a little uncomfortable, but I know from experience that it’s one of the best ways to foster a culture of learning. And believe me, the benefits of that can’t be understated.
In other words, be perfect (or pretty ridiculously close to it).
But where’s the fun in that?
Sure, few people actually enjoy working out, getting up early, or cleaning. That’s the point of a New Year’s resolution after all—to get a fresh start and a second chance to be better at the things you know you should do, but just don’t want to. And I should know, because despite having the world’s best cleaning products at my disposal, I’d rather stand outside for an hour in this freezing Chicago weather than clean my bathroom!
The reason I’m not crazy about New Year’s resolutions isn’t just because they’re the way we try to make ourselves to do things we don’t like. It’s also because when we try to force everything in our lives to go exactly right, we’re bound to miss out on some amazing experiences we never would’ve expected.
Here’s an example. One December a few years ago, I was so busy I forgot to send out holiday cards. I was horrified to have neglected something that seemed so important to all my family and friends, and I wondered what they must have thought of me for forgetting them.
Then I discovered some wonderful news: New Year’s cards are a thing! So I sent out my holiday cards in January, and guess what—not only did people not think I was a terrible friend and family member, but they thought I’d come up with a really clever, unique, memorable idea.
OK, maybe that’s a slightly silly example, but you see my point. Life isn’t always perfect, and we all make mistakes. But when we try to look at these unwanted changes of plans as opportunities instead of misfortunes, life often rewards us in wonderful ways.
In fact, my two decades at Jelmar started off as an unexpected turn of events. Unlike most of my family members, I’d never worked at Jelmar during the summers while I was growing up. By the time I reached my mid-20s, I assumed I’d never have a career there. But one morning while I was having breakfast with my dad, he suddenly asked me if I’d come work for him.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have mixed feelings about working for the family business at the time. As much as I loved my family, I’d always been extremely independent and had chosen to gain work experience elsewhere. Plus, my dad didn’t have a job description or a desk for me, and he made it clear that I’d need to work hard and prove myself before he’d be willing to promote me.
But as you can probably guess, I decided to accept my dad’s offer. At the time I wondered whether it was a big mistake, but it’s turned out to be the greatest opportunity I could have asked for. Of course, it hasn’t always been perfect. Case in point: I’ve been fired more times—yes, fired by my own father—than anyone else at the company! But because I decided to accept a little bit of uncertainty, I’ve experienced the joys of working with an amazing group of colleagues and family members to create products that help people. I can’t imaging having any other life.
So if you’re like me and you hate New Year’s resolutions, let me propose the anti-resolution: embrace the messiness of life. Because life doesn’t have to be perfect to be, well, perfect.
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- It’s time for everyday environmentalism that works for everyone
- My advice for any rebranding project: listen to your customers
- Why the best business knowledge can come from the most unexpected sources
- The benefits of embracing the messiness of life
- Think bigger: my thoughts on thankfulness this holiday season
- Why an imperfect holiday dinner can be totally perfect
- Why a clean hotel room is even more important than you think
- Why customers love Jelmar … and why we love those customers
- The unexpected emotional benefits of cleaning
- Why working with family is the worst … and the best
- The Question that Says a Lot About Gender Bias in Business