Phyllis Stewart Pires, Senior Director of WorkLife Strategy, is responsible for designing and managing programs and services that support the Stanford community in navigating the competing demands of work, study, personal and family lives.
You can listen to the conversation on iTunes, Acast and other podcasting apps. What follows here are excerpts from our conversation with Phyllis, edited for length and clarity.
Agnes Uhereczky: Would you mind telling listeners a little bit about yourself? How did you get into this role? What gets you up in the morning?
Phyllis Stewart Pires: Thank you for your very nice introduction Agnes, I am thrilled to be here today. My career has not taken a very direct path, as you have mentioned. I have served in a variety of roles and worked for a number of different types of organisations, but I would say that there are really certain passions that are reflected throughout my career. Firstly, it is really my belief that all children deserve a quality life-changing experience during their first 5 years of life. And I believe that that can happen in high-quality early education and childcare settings. The second one is that I really believe that supporting families will lift up all communities. And lift those communities up in a way that allows greater independence for the families as well as better outcomes for the children supported by those families.
I am also very passionate about increasing the representation of women in leadership positions. I believe that is ultimately what will change the world once we have gender balance in our decision making roles whether that’s in governments, private institutions. And, finally, I am really passionate in my belief that diversity on teams and within teams leads to greater creativity, more positive impact and gives people the opportunity to be heard but also learn how to listen to others. Again, if I put all of those passions together, they are what lead me on this journey of working now for an educational institution and supporting their worklife and family services, and having woven together some of my work in the area of gender diversity, the broader diversity topic, family services and culture change.
I would add to your question about what gets me up in the morning: I am a change maker. I believe that there is a distance to go on all of those goals that I have just outlined. And I’d like to be part of laying the tracks for more progress. This is what gets me up in the morning and keeps me going.
Agnes Uhereczky: What is really interesting in your case is putting these different objectives, change aspirations together under the work-life umbrella. We tend to see a more siloed discourse about gender equality or women advancing to leadership positions. What really fascinates me is how all of these come together in your role.
Phyllis Stewart Pires: I absolutely think that that is one of the challenges that we face in moving this work forward. One of the ways I think about that is that unfortunately all of these things exist in a sort of culture of scarcity and so they are all of the topics that struggle somewhat to get the visibility, attention and the resources that they need. I think that can sometimes cause each of us to be very focused on retaining what progress and resources we have been able to obtain and just rightly causes some of the challenges that we see in terms of people not being able to create some of the collaborative energy that might come from us being able to tackle these things together.
Agnes Uhereczky: Where do you still see the structural and cultural barriers for employers to really advance on work-life issues, recognise the caring roles of employees, or recognise the need for different supports or services?
Phyllis Stewart Pires: I think what’s really important is that we have to recognise the primary business function of an employer. Whether that is to meet their bottom line, build a better product, catch the next innovation curve or have the brightest and best employees. We have to start from a recognition of what that primary goal and function is. And then we have to position what we are working to drive, which is essentially culture change that might come in the form of a more flexible environment, might come in the form of different benefits and supports and services, or might come in the form of advocating for greater support for caregivers, or increased diversity. We have to think about how to position what we are advocating for in the context of the business.
There is this idea that often we have to be patient and wait for opportunities, but we should be actively preparing ourselves for when those opportunities come along, so that we are ready. We are ready to seize them, we are ready to jump in.
We have to recognize that there are times when the organisation is going to detect a conflict between what we are advocating for and what they see is their bottom line. So, for example, I have seen examples where an organisation will imagine: 'Wait a minute, you are peddling what I perceive as an even slower hiring process than what I have. You are asking me to embrace a more complicated process to administer benefits than what I currently have. You are asking me to embrace a new way of working that I inherently mistrust." I think rather than just continue to repeat our same pitch, which I think it is something that we have done, we have to deeply listen and respond to the challenges to our way of thinking that the businesses are pushing back to us.
We have to find small examples internally of the culture that we are seeking to embed because they do exist. Adding to that I wish to highlight that at many organisations there are managers who understand the value of these kinds of supports and services and are usually doing these things on a daily basis with their teams that they support. So I think if we look carefully, we can find those examples. I think that we have to speak the language of the business, and we have to make sure that we are taking business-friendly steps when we can. Also, I think that we have to find unlikely advocates at all levels of the organisation.
I am also a big advocate for not waiting to be invited to the discussion but find - what I refer to - as those wedge opportunities. So if you see an interest in an organisation around wellness or around shorter meetings or whatever those links and topics are, they can often be an entry point to the conversation that we are looking to have. And then you have to be opportunistic in this work and I refer to something that I call having active patience. This is the idea that often we have to be patient and wait for opportunities, but we should be actively preparing ourselves for when those opportunities come along. We are ready to seize them, we are ready to jump in.
Agnes Uhereczky: I want to jump in on the importance of the culture bit of this concept, as one of the biggest reasons for failure in running such programmes tends to be embedded in the culture of organisations. You mentioned trust, for example. What is your take on this?
Phyllis Stewart Pires: I worked with many managers who want to be able to successfully enable their teams to embrace all that was available to them. And, they were going to be doing that by going sort of out on the frontline in terms of making something available that was not necessarily fully embraced by the larger organisation. I think that as work-life advocates we have to be right there next to them and preparing them for some of these conversations. For example, if they are in a manager meeting and facing questions from their fellow managers such as "I would never feel comfortable with my team working in that way" they would need to be ready with their response. If we equip them as good advocates for the cultural changes that we are trying to drive, they will have answers for those questions.
I think oftentimes we forget that our best advocates and greatest critiques, and our most worried people are all part of these institutions and organisations that we are trying to change. We are all interacting with each other on a regular basis. Although, we won't be involved in 90% of the conversation that are going to happen about this topic. So we need to be really active in giving these people what they need to be able to advocate on a regular basis.
Agnes Uhereczky: I would like to ask you about your role as President of the Board of CUWFA. What would you say was the reason behind that particular sector (higher education institutions) recognising the need for a dedicated work-life professional and department?
Phyllis Stewart Pires: There are 3 reasons. One revolves back to what I said about what the bottom line of a business is. Our business is educating the next generation and nurturing the diversity of thought and solving big world problems. It makes educational institutions the perfect incubator for some of this work. I would also say that universities have the advantage of a vocal and empowered student population, that often serve as a front line advocacy body for some of these topics.
And I think the best mix is when you have strong administrative leadership to help support that advocacy energy and help align it to the institutional goals and leverage that creativity. I have seen some of our best and most innovative programmes and services come out of that opportunity to harness that strong and passionate advocacy.
Finally, universities have been very active in delivering childcare as one of their benefits, from the late 1960s and early 1970s. They recognized the need to have someone internally to oversee that work. We have some very visible programmes like childcare and then the need to have this advocacy supported and that I think has led to the creation of these work-life offices. And the reason that we all come together is that we still do find it challenging to keep the focus of the institution on some of the culture change work that needs to come alongside these wonderful programmes and services. And that’s tough work and requires from our perspective a lot of sharing experiences, making sure that we are all aware of the research when it is coming out, and how to leverage that research. In addition, it is important to have honest conversations with one another about what is working and what isn't.
Agnes Uhereczky: Besides childcare what would be some of the typical programmes or services that these work-life managers or departments offer to the communities of these higher education institutions?
Phyllis Stewart Pires: I prefer to give you a laundry list, but not all institutions have all of these programs. Typically, in alignment with childcare centres, they might be offering backup emergency care programmes. A lot of the institution help people find childcare. Sometimes this is referred to as a resource and referral service, where they will be given recommendations for where to go and find openings, how to look for childcare, and how to make childcare decision. Usually, there is an alignment with the moment when people are returning from leave. That might look like training that would give you insight into all of your leave benefits and how to plan for your return. That is usually aligned to support services to women who want to continue to breastfeed when they come back, for example where to find lactation rooms on campus. We are usually supporting people who are caring for ageing adults in their life as well, this would be on the other end of the life spectrum. There might be some coaching for how to think about having and managing difficult conversations that need to happen. Many of our organisations have workshops that support these different ages and stages. Sometimes people have done innovative support to peers so that’s maybe bringing together networks of people that are in similar ages and stages, there may be original content developed to help people think through work-life conflict. Usually, people in these organisations also help the larger institution in thinking about culture change. That might be through an employee engagement lens, or awareness lens. And often the work-life person is at the table supporting those efforts and bringing the work-life topic forward.
Agnes Uhereczky: If I could ask you Phyllis to give one advice to senior leaders in organisations around embracing work-life integration, and work-life management, what would be your advice?
Phyllis Stewart Pires: I am going to take this from the direction of those people who are trying to do the culture change, related to this topic. My advice is to cultivate your core. Both literally and figuratively this is hard work. Sometimes I feel as a sea captain trying to steer my ship, as the chop of the sea sort of tosses us all around. My recommendation is to plant your feet firmly, drop anchor and ride out the storm, which is sometimes the best thing to do. Change course as needed. Ride the turbulence and keep your eyes on the horizon. This is work that takes a very long time. I’d like to recall the term active patience, I had to cultivate much more patience over my career than when I started out with, but I have tried to never lose my desire for and willingness to also push for progress. Those two things in combination can give you what you need to keep at it and continue to keep pushing these topics forward and to not lose that vision of what brought you to this work in the first place and why you believe it is important.