Can you have it all? Career, family and life?

Can you have it all? Career, family and life?

I am sure you all heard the famous jokes, made mostly by men, about the perfect woman. I can’t stop thinking that there is a self-inflicted pain a woman experiences when aiming to become the ideal woman. It all starts in the teenage years when you discover you like a particular boy and suddenly everything that boy appreciates (or doesn’t) becomes the centre of the universe. ‘Ah… the first love. How romantic!’ most people would say. Years pass and, after being disappointed by several boys and men from your youth, you are less likely to be as naïve as in your teenage time but you still fall for the same type of men.

There still seems to be something biologically coded in all heterosexual women that makes them define success through the ability to find a father for their future children. I don’t even understand why we women follow the man we love into the riskiest and most adventurous career and life changes but, when it comes to our dreams, become cautious and risk-averse.

The ‘Work – Life – You’ balance

When you are a working mother with two small children and no additional household help, you know that the idea of work-life balance is a myth or a catchy title the human resources department in corporations tend to use. You have your good days when things are relatively in control and you can still play with the kids in the evening but you also have the chaotic days when one of your children gets sick while at school or nursery. The fragile balance is immediately broken and you have to get back into crisis planning mode.

Some are lucky and manage to navigate the choppy waters of the mid to late thirties but still for many working mothers the personal sacrifices required to keep that well-paid job that covers the expensive nursery costs stops making sense when the health of one of your children is at risk.

Being raised in a spartan Eastern European regime by a mother who kept her full-time employment despite receiving no help with the house chores from my father, I guess I am somehow naturally wired towards being a working mother. One of my core beliefs is that educated women should not abandon their professional jobs for which they trained for years, to become overqualified housewives and class mothers at school.

However, in the past years, I became more understanding and less judgmental towards the women who do just that. There is always a story behind that decision. The added bonus of writing the book Mothers as leaders was that I got to hear the life story of some amazing women and I could gain insight into their decision process.

The life-story that made me humble and respectful towards the courage it takes to give up a hard-built career and completely change your lifestyle so that you can be there for your family is the story of Katja, a thirty-eight years old Dutch woman and mother of two who took a career break of two years by resigning from a prestigious Marketing Director job. She did that so that she can focus on her family and on her health. The stressful life-style of combining a high-profile role and two children below 3 years old at home was significantly damaging her health.

On the other side of the spectrum, it was the life-story of Catherine, a mother and now a grand-mother who had a working life of 42 years. She became the first woman in Europe to become partner at a prestigious consulting firm. She raised two boys into successful young men and, not to be underestimated, she managed to keep her first marriage. She did decide early on to use most of her salary for outsourcing the household work and the school duties. She valued her work identity so much, that after she retired at 65, she went back to a reduced working week and she is still doing executive coaching.

I could relate to the story of both women, but at the same time I knew that I am not a Katja or a Catherine, I guess I am a hybrid, or simply Steliana:)

I worked for twenty-years in a competitive environment while guided by clear career goals, but as I saw that I could easily reach goals, success stopped being motivating.

Going back to the: ‘Can you have it all?’ in my title, I must confess that this was question that tormented in the early thirties in the first years of motherhood, but somehow as I managed to break my own imaginary career glass ceiling, I realized that having it all was quite tiring. It created a sort of pressure for being successful that ended up sabotaging your own inner peace and happiness.

On my 40th birthday while I was driving to a whole day team development event, it occurred me that although I felt I was getting old I had 27 years before pension and that there are so many things I could do in all those years.

‘Career is only one part of ones beautiful life’

I decided to change my profession and my life-styles so that I can prioritize time for my family, while doing something that it is in line with my values and purpose in life. It might take a while before I can reach, if ever, the same income I was earning when I was on the corporate career scheme, but I know that this is not my key motivator.

There is no silver bullet to solving the ‘work-life-you’ dilemma. The choices women make to stay employed after having children are rooted back in their beliefs about the idea of family, the role of parents and their working identity. Personality traits such as perfectionism and the inner drive to please others, can negatively impact the ability of some women to manage the work-life-you balance.

What is the story behind your choice?

What does that ‘All’ mean to you?

The power of language for breaking barriers

The power of language for breaking barriers

‘In good times, but especially in bad times we discover over and over again how powerful language can be. Words can heal or they can hurt, they can unite or they can divide nations.’ 

No matter where you are in the world, you have probably been watching daily briefings from the leaders of your country as they try to navigate us through the current pandemic. You may have also noticed the reports / headlines / social media posts highlighting the success of women leaders during this time.


Plenty of countries with male leaders have also done well. But when you consider the fact that women make up only 7% of heads of state, we can safely say women have disproportionately passed this test with flying colours. But why?

Traditionally, women leaders have been criticised as being over emotional, too empathetic, not focused enough on the business side of things…. These women leaders have shown they are committed to the business of saving lives and saving their country’s economy. They are literally making life and death decisions that require the support of millions of people to be effective and they are gaining that support because they are emotional and empathetic. So can we once and for all agree that these traits are not a weakness?

The 39 year-old Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden has been praised for her leadership style. She spoke to the country about Covid-19 with empathy, respect, clarity and responsibility. These are the key communication ingredients required in a period of uncertainty and stress as COVID19.  Whilst she has addressed the big issues of job security and quarantine measures, she’s also addressed the logistical issues the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy may face. Similarly Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen and Norway’s prime minster Erna Solberg have both taken the unusual step of directly addressing the country’s children. These women are demonstrating their awareness that they are responsible for leading everyone in their country and they are able to adapt their communication styles appropriately.

As mothers we are also faced with the need to adapt our communication style depending on the age of our children for example. Whilst these examples highlight the maternal nurturing instincts of these leaders, which again are often seen as weaknesses in women leaders, these women are successful because they have an arsenal of weapons in their communication toolbox. Not everyone is born a skilled communicator.  You can learn through communication and media training how to improve the clarity of your message but you can’t learn empathy in a course, it comes with life experience.

What I picked up while listening to Jacinda is that she is not preaching to me, but she stands next to me as she is talking. Her tone is calm and reassuring and I almost felt that she cared about me personally, and I am not even from New Zealand! When I compare this speech with the one of a variety of male leaders what I find striking is their choice of language. Even Mark Rutte, the prime minister of The Netherlands, who is seen as a charismatic communicator falls in the trap of preaching when he wants to show care and empathy.

Seven years ago I  was invited to join a structural dynamics certification training delivered by David Kantor institute and since than I used David Kantor’s model and assessment tool to help many teams and leaders with improving their interpersonal communication.  Let me give you a short snippet of how we can use this approach to communicate in a way that touches people and to use a language that resonates with most.

David Kantor  is an American sociologist who developed a model for interpersonal communication called Structural dynamics, This model was developed through an empirical study of family communication over 35 years ago and has evolved and expanded over time an application to families, couples, teams and whole organizations.

Kantor discovered that next to the stances or positions people take in a dialogue, to move or oppose an idea, there is another ingredient that makes the difference for impact interpersonal communication and this is the Language or the Communication domain. When I use the word language, I  don’t mean English or French. Kantor talks about 3 key languages people understand and use: the language of Power (Action), the language of Meaning (Rational thinking) and the language of Affect (Feelings).

We are all born with a preference and fluency in one of the languages but we are all able to learn the other languages too. People who are fluent in the language of power use words as ‘decide, steps, plan of attack’ etc. A good example of this is the prime minister of Sint Maarten, Silveria Jacobs address: “Simply. Stop. Moving,” she said. “If you don’t have the bread you like in your house, eat crackers. Eat cereal. Eat oats. Eat … sardines.” An action based approach for a country with a population of 41,500 people and 2 ICU beds.

Those who are fluent in the language of meaning they will use words like ‘ thinking, reasoning, concept, relevance, etc’. In Germany, Angela Merkel has been hailed for direct but uncharacteristically personal public interventions, warning that up to 70% of people would contract the virus – With a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Merkel’s clear, calm expositions – a clip of her explaining the scientific basis behind the government’s lockdown exit strategy was shared thousands of times online – have also helped propel public approval of the fourth-term chancellor’s handling of the crisis above 70%.

Finally people and leaders who are strong in the language of affect will tend to use word such as ‘passion, caring, feeling, attention, etc. Whilst Arden’s speeches are primarily constructed through the language of affect, she is also using the language of power and action to bring clarity and a call to action.

In short these women leaders are successful because they are building trust and respect rather than fear and control.

I know as a parent to young children there are times when I feel the need to control, currently this is focused on washing hands and understanding the concept of social distancing!

If we are to hold a mirror to our own power/meaning/affect language combination at home or at work, what would we observe? What is effective and what is not? What can we learn from these women leaders to help us communicate more effectively at home?   On that note we’d like to leave you with the following quote and invite you to continue this conversation with us during our next zoom call. On that note we’d like to leave you with the following quote and invite you to continue this conversation with us during our next zoom call.  Enroll for free here: Linkedin event

When: May 14th 2020 Time: 20:00-21:00 Central European Time Via: Zoom Meeting ID: 795 803 0752 Password: 1234

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” ( Lao Tzu)

Authors: Steliana van de Rijt-Economu(leadership executive coach) and Donna de Haan (Associate Professor of Applied Sciences). If we captured your interest join the conversation in our LinkedIn group: Mothers as Leaders learning across borders. 

Mothers as leaders learning across borders – Families as Teams

motherhuggingearth-1We spent the last two weeks homeworking, homeschooling, feeding our families and meanwhile trying to keep fit with our workouts.  We are almost all turning into the Wonder women, but wait…how sustainable is this situation on long term?
How can we replenish our reservoirs of energy?  Were can we create a place for our own  development and motivation through these tough times? 
We made it through the first two weeks but what if this new situation drags through the entire 2020. The changes happening now will be having lasting impact on the inner family dynamics and the roles we each play in it.We can treat this situation as diligent mum managers, who are trying to work harder and faster every day, or we can step back and look at the challenges as true leaders of our family. A lot to ask from one human being. 
Inspired by the examples of so many people around me who leverage technology for global solidarity, I felt the need to put my professional knowledge and the resources of the Mothers as Leaders practice  in the service of others.  I called Donna de Haan (a fellow mum and an Associate Professor at The Hague University) and we decided that now more than ever, it is the time for mothers to step up.  We decided to  create a LinkedIn Group  and to do a series of  webinars for women to get inspired, learn, laugh and build motivation throughout this difficult corona time. The topics of the first two webinars will be: Families as teams and Empowered Mums.  Donna and will  play the host role and curate the topics but as the community grows we will open invitations for members to present and do peer coaching and mentoring.
Do you want to join us?   Please register on the Linkedin Group: Mothers as Leaders – Learning across borders
Upon registration you will receive more information about the first zoom webinar, Families as Teams is  on Thursday, 2nd April, 20.00 pm CET incl. the dial in details.  We will continue posting our next webinars on the group to avoid communication overload. 
We look forward to meeting you up virtually. Feel free to share it on your social media. 
Thanks,  Steliana & Donna
Steliana van de Rijt-Economu – Leadership Coach & author of the internationally awarded book ‘Mothers as Leaders’
Donna de Haan –  Associate Professor at The Hague University of Applied Sciences,  Adviser on Gender equality for UEFA

Some anxiety is normal but how can we avoid becoming victims of group panic

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How do we protect our brain and our heart from group panic? I view myself as a relatively calm person, but even I struggled to sleep well the last few nights.

Considering that the number of Corona related deaths in Europe is increasing significantly, it is not surprising that we, especially parents, worry. Like most people, I already had my own personal issues to deal with before the home isolation.  I was still reeling with sadness. My father passed away one month ago in a ICU hospital unit in Romania. It wasn’t Corona but a very aggressive form of a neurological disease. The memory of the two weeks  spent with my 73 year old father in ICU makes the statistic on death rate for elderly very real for me. When you lose a parent you lose a part of you, at least that’s how I feel now.

Through this weird situation of having the whole family being at home all the time, I somehow find it easier to deal with the constant heavy heart. As a  working mum who needs to juggle home-schooling, cooking and 1-2 video calls a day I don’t have time to check the news during the day. However in the evening, after watching the news, the bad thoughts are coming in. Sometimes they continue through the night.

It is tempting to fall into a state of self-pity but instead I decided to stay active by spending enough time outside with the kids. Treasure hunts are a nice distraction. To deal with my inner worries I started to read articles and tips from the ICF executive coaching  community.

Here are four tips  I found useful to help me avoid anxiety and panic.

1. Be aware of the anxiety influencers around you

When anxiety fosters prevention it is a good thing, but when the threat is uncertain, as in the case of the current corona virus, our mind can easily underestimate our body’s ability to cope. People with pre-existing anxiety conditions are particularly vulnerable.

I know by now exactly who are the people that will send me panicky whatsapp messages or would give me that weird feeling after a phone call. I deliberately choose how to react to them.

While a healthy dose of anxiety will help us cope, extreme and prolonged anxiety can become panic. When we are in a panic state, we suffer, we stress out our children and we create new problems through our reactions, such as buying toilet paper and masks.

2. Limit media exposure and stick with reliable sources

I used to check news throughout the day and I now keep to one official update through the  the Dutch news (‘NOS Journaal’). I received a lot of fake news via social media. After being burned once or twice I started to ignore that. Thoughts and predictions, especially the examples given on social media, can fuel panicky feelings.

I am not saying we should ignore the problem. It is important to be informed about the safety precautions and how to be supportive to others, helping them think more calmly. I was inspired to see my neighborhood has a volunteer group that offers to help people with grocery shopping.

3. Reduce anxiety by reducing risk and taking care of yourself

No matter your age and your state of health, don’t feel silly or embarrassed about taking the required precautions. If the government tells us to keep 1,5 meter distance, just follow their advice for the safety of everyone.

During this uncertain time, I found it important to keep up my self-care routine. A friend of mine just told me via video call today that she keeps doing her 7.45 a.m daily sporting routine and dresses up nicely as going to the office. Consider what helps you most, such as taking a walk in nature, meditating, exercising, or talking to a friend.

As long as you step back from the flow of news and take time to connect with the people you love and care about, you will feel better.

4. Keep the lines open with your parents. Be a positive influence on their day, they get enough anxiety influencers through the news

I started to call my mum every morning. I know she is alone and the mornings are toughest without my dad. However what is tougher for her is to hear everyone calling her the ‘risk group’.  She is not used to see herself as a victim and by calling her ‘risk group’ we instill more anxiety in her.

The language we use with our elderly parents and friends can either lift their spirits or  place them in a victim mode. It is not about ignoring the danger, but about considering their situation and being empathetic. This morning I had to stop myself from using the same patronizing speech with my mum everyone else does -‘take care, you are at risk, don’t go outside of the house, etc’. How would I feel if someone would tell me this, over and over again?

We can go through this together, but let’s not spread more panic.

Instead, let’s spread hope.

Author: Steliana van de Rijt-Economu, Executive Leadership Coach and author of ‘Mothers as Leaders’.


Equality starts at home

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Tomorrow is the 8th of March, the International Women Day, #eachforequal, but...

What does equality really mean for us?

I grew up in a traditional family where the role of the woman and the man was set many years ago.

My mother was a girl with ambitions and my dad was a boy with ambitions and… as life happens, they both stepped in the traditional role of mum and dad at home.


They did that well for 52 years and, sadly, two weeks ago my father passed away following a painful terminal illness. While I am suffering terribly for his loss, I am also left wondering about ‘who I am’, ‘how I was raised’ and the huge vacuum in leadership my father left in our family.

My mother is left wondering who she really is, or better said who she is outside of the role she played for the past 52 years. She needs to assert a new type of personal leadership.

I started to wonder more and more about the leadership model I give to my children. They are watching every day how I communicate. They are forming a definition of equality through that lens.

One common thread I noticed in all the interviews I held for the ‘Mothers as Leaders’ book is the way both women and men attributed their drive to succeed and the development of their life values to their family context and to their childhood observation of their own mother.

At the funeral of my father last week I was reminded once again about the weight of that insight.

Equality in the opportunities for boys and girls, men and women will not be achieved only through corporate D&I targets,country policies and recruitment targets, the real equality is paved in each of our homes.

The equality is felt through the moments we create between each other and it is created through how we lift each other up through supportive communication and compliments or we bring each other down through self-defense communication.

Some people say that leaders are born, others say they are made. I think we are all born with the possibility of being leaders but also with the desire to follow because the desire to belong to social structures has existed in humans since the hunters and gatherers time.

We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves: an idea, a dream, a purpose. There is a moment in life when you hear a beautiful story, a story that resonates and brings out something that was there, inside of you, all this time. You feel that a woman or man really understands you and has a vision that you believe in. You are inspired; you follow and together you have created…the Leader. Without you, she was just a woman with a dream.

In an ideal world, both boys and girls would have equal opportunities for following their dreams. Of course, achieving them depends on their personal commitment and their hard work, but we as society should not add extra barriers for women. In the year 2020, we still have a long way to go for achieving equality in our world of 7 billion people and 2 billion mothers. With a deadly coronavirus spreading so quickly we become even more conscious of the need for a new type of leadership for our planet, one that transcends borders.

I have made it my life mission to support women to continue dreaming and following their dreams after becoming mothers. This blog is a place to share stories, provide inspiration and learn from each other. Do subscribe and you will receive monthly articles. If you liked the article and you want to reach out, write me on the Contact form and I will be in touch.

If you are based in The Netherlands, you are invited to join the ‘Mothers as Leaders. Dare to dream’ workshop taking place on March 22nd, at the FemaleHub in The Hague.

Happy International Women’s Day! Let’s celebrate our successes and let’s DREAM FOR MORE.

When dreams come true

After few days of anxiety about presenting my book in front of my children, husband, mother- in-law and neighbours, the moment of the truth came on Wednesday, the 29th of January.

That’s when I had my official book launch at the Paagman bookstore in The Hague. It is now available in their stores and online.

I was honored to see that more than 30 people joined, some that I knew of but most were just people interested in the topic of motherhood. I fully savoured the moment knowing that all the nights I spent writing in the past years didn’t go in vain.

To give you a flavour of the event here is a 50 seconds video of my speech.

I was reminded of P. Coehlo quote in The Alchemist-

‘When you want something the whole universe conspires for you to achieve it’

What makes someone a leader?

KaraleadingSome people say that leaders are born, others say they are made. I think we are all born with the possibility of being leaders but we are also all born with the desire to follow because the desire to belong to social structures has existed in humans since the ‘hunter and gatherers’ time. We want to be part of something bigger than ourselves: an idea, a dream, a purpose.

There is a moment in life when you hear a beautiful story, a story that resonates and brings out something that was there, inside of you, all this time.  You feel that a man or woman really understands you and has a vision that you believe in. You are inspired; you follow and, suddenly see other people following as well. Together you have created … The Leader. Without you, she was just a woman with a dream.

When I was as a child, I liked stories with brave kings and princesses and I thought leading was supposed to happen from the front. I had a romantic view of leadership, one that was supposed to be inspirational and uplifting for the people. The first crack in that romantic image of leadership happened on December 22nd, 1989.

On that day, I was playing in the courtyard of our village farmhouse while my mother was doing the laundry. The radio was on playing some classical music. Suddenly, the music stopped and I heard some loud voices saying: ‘The Dictator left, we are free at last, ‘Ceausescu is gone’. In the first ten years of my life I was raised to believe that the ‘Dictator’ was the Father of the country, looking after all the children, like me. I simply could not understand why these people called him a dictator. He was kind and generous and was giving children the opportunity to be brave, learn and to become heroes of our country. He was even giving us presents and sweets at the end of the year, just like Santa Klaus did in the western world.

A year before,  at the age of nine I finally earned the honour to be the ‘pioneer captain’ of my class, a special award in the communist political ranking of school kids.  On that December day, when the music on the radio suddenly switched into shouts of the revolutionary people, I knew that I would lose my pioneer captain title. Hearing the hard truth about our ‘father leader’, who kept people in poverty and crushed the freedom of speech woke me up from my romantic leader ideal.

On that day I learned that leaders who are created through the stories they spread or control can vanish in a flash. I also learned not to trust power, because power can corrupt anyone if held in one man’s or woman’s hand. After 1989 my idea of leadership changed completely. I looked around me for role models and, fortunately, I didn’t have to look far. My grandmother inspired in me generosity for the poor; my grandpa taught me the joy of commitment and duty; my father instilled in me the power of self-confidence and self-belief; and my mother gave me the power of perseverance and discipline.

This childhood experience instilled in me a certain rebel attitude towards people who see a leadership role as a position of power, but it also influenced my deep belief that mothers are leaders, despite the perceived lack of power.

 Nature hasn’t created a single relationship as powerful and naturally strong as the one between a mother and her child. From giving life,  nurturing and raising children and up to they eventually fly the nest, mothers are often the leaders who guide and keep families and communities together.

So, if mothers are indeed leaders, how can we let the whole world see it and admit it?

Anyone who is a parent knows that the best school to develop emotional intelligence is the practice of good parenting because parenthood in itself is leadership.

Daniel Goleman, the man who brought the topic of emotional intelligence into the spotlight in the ’90s, wrote in the HBR article   ‘What Makes a Leader’ about the critical importance of being aware of oneself and of other’s emotions. He also wrote that leaders who want to be successful in today’s world need to develop five crucial skills of emotional intelligence. Adapting Goleman’s’ concepts to women and drawing on my own experience as a mother, I developed a beautiful basket of gifts, including exercises and tips that will help mothers show the world their inherent leadership skills:

  1. Awareness & Empathy: the art of recognising and deciphering your own emotions and the art of being in tune with other people’s feelings.
  2. Social Awareness: the ability to appreciate the diverse perspectives about you and to flex your approach to a situation while staying true to your core.
  3. Self-Management: the strength to recognize and regulate your disruptive impulses and moods.
  4. Social Skills: the intuition required to find common ground and build rapport with other people, balanced with the discipline for managing and harvesting relationships and networks.
  5. Ambition and Drive: to work for something bigger than money and short-term gains.

However the most important gift for any woman who becomes a mother is the inner self-belief that if you had the power to create life you have the power to do anything you set your mind on.

‘Good enough mothers can become incredible effective leaders’. Helen Murlis

What do you think makes someone leaders?


About the Author:

Steliana van de Rijt-Economu is a mother of two and a leadership consultant and coachShe believes that the world would be a better place when more women and mothers  ‘lean in’ to take formal leadership positions in society. In 2019 she published the book Mothers as Leaders.