Interview and written by: Allanah Paragas

Many Filipino professionals experienced a significant shift in their lives when companies resorted to a sudden transition to remote working. The pandemic has created a lasting effect in which each of us needs to adjust to.

Parents had to make drastic adjustments in bringing work at home, creating tension between professional and personal boundaries. Career moms received great impact transitioning to the new normal. From juggling jobs and childcare, career moms are working intensively than ever before just to provide the best of both worlds.

Some may have shifted to the new environment, while some are finding ways how to gradually transition during this period. How can career moms effectively undergo challenges, especially during these times? According to CEMEX HR Vice-President Irma Aure, being purpose-driven inspires you to give your best and propels you to persevere even in the toughest of times.

Throughout her years in the field of human resources, Irma Aure was able to withstand different challenges especially on striking a balance between being a leader and a mom. With the effects of the pandemic, she was able to use her grit and passion to adapt to challenges making her one of the most successful people in the business.

Interview Transcript

At the onset of the pandemic, companies resorted to a sudden transition to remote working. Parents had to make drastic adjustments in bringing work at home, creating tension between professional and personal boundaries. As an HR executive with demanding business needs, and a mother with an even more demanding role to the family –how do you strike a balance and deal with the challenges?

Working from home is not new to me because I was part of a global company that embraced remote work earlier on. Since 2002, I have been working virtually with teams at least once a week, and for a time, I worked remotely twice a week when I was doing a regional role. My kids practically grew up seeing me work at home. They understand and respect the boundaries when I am at my workstation. That said, I have always assured them that they are my first priority whether I’m at the office or at home. Regardless of what I’m doing or who I’m meeting with, I would pick up their call. Sometimes, the little things that seem trivial to us parents is a big deal to our kids.

The work-from-home setup is new to many, and given the pandemic, we are all adjusting to the situation. Being able to have a grasp in working remotely, here are some tips I can share that worked well for me:

1. Embrace work-life integration.

I keep just one calendar for work and personal. Time is a limited resource, so you have to be intentional in how you plan your day. My calendar is usually packed with meetings, but since we are mostly at home, I block off lunch and dinner time so I can have meals with the family. As a leader, I also respect the lunch and dinner times of my people. I also try to keep the kids productive and check in on them from time-to-time during the day.

2. Dedicate a specific room or a quiet spot at home for work.

While I say this, sometimes I also try to have my meetings in different areas of the house just to break the monotony of staying in the same place the whole day. Also, don’t forget to take regular stretch breaks.

3. Manage the expectations of your loved ones.

When I have fewer meetings on my calendar, I get to spend more time with the family. However, on busier days or weeks, I tell my kids, ahead of time, “Mom will be a little bit busier at work, but next week will be better.” During the times we are with our family—be there full-on, and not just physically. Despite the busy schedules, I see to it that I have special undivided time with each of them. Having Friday date nights with hubby, ice cream dates with my daughter, Anya, and Netflix dates with my son, Joaquin. During this lockdown, we still try to do these to bring some sense of normalcy into our lives.

4. Establish your support system.

One should recognize that you cannot do it all. My husband and I make a very good team. Although my husband is also busy leading in an organization, he is very supportive and would step in to mind and attend to our kids’ needs when I’m busy. I also delegate some errands to our household help like paying bills, buying groceries, etc.

5. Create hard stops for the day.

Be focused and disciplined while working at home, but learn when to stop. If you are not mindful enough, you’ll easily get sucked into working unlimited hours and consequently lead to burnout.

What do you think are the super powers of women who make great leaders in times of crisis?

Women are generally empathic leaders. In this time of crisis, leading with empathy is very important. We should understand that not everyone are in the same situation. Our employees are at various stages in their emotional journey. Some have adjusted and are relatively doing okay; while some are still grappling with changes and uncertainty. As empathic leaders, we need to listen to them—their fears and concerns. From having an open door policy to an open ear policy, assure them that “we are in this unprecedented situation together.” It is important that our employees are listened to and supported by their leaders during this time of crisis. By simply checking on them and asking how they are, we are helping our employees and their well-being.

We also need to encourage them by providing meaning & hope in this time of crisis. As leaders, reminding our teams of their importance towards achieving our organization’s visions, goals and aspirations gives them a sense of purpose. I believe that leaders who inspire confidence in their people, who give them hope and direction, will be successful in leading their teams to rise to the challenge.

Building and maintaining people relationships, and ensuring high performing teams are engaged is critical in your role. How do you ensure and keep up despite the barrier of the WFH setup?

Trust is the foundation. Remote teams have to trust each other. We should believe in people’s positive intent—that they genuinely want to contribute and do a good job. This means you have to trust that your teammates will do their part and get things done. Team meetings will help ensure good coordination between members.

Focus on results. Working virtually requires the need to change the focus from work hours to results. By achieving the targets assigned, we can ensure they are productive. Therefore, it is important to have clear expectations on the goals/targets. It requires leadership mindset shift to operate with trust and drive accountability.

Here are my three points in building & maintaining people relationships while working from home:

1. Sustain a sense of community. We maintain the connection by encouraging teams to have time to bond virtually. We find ways to socialize—like having “virtual coffees” or allotting 15 minutes in the team meetings to catch up and just have fun. We continue to energize our people through different employee engagement programs (i.e., weekly virtual games/fun nights, Zoom workout session, online learning, thought leadership for the week, etc.) to ensure they feel connected and energized despite working remotely.

2. Communicate. During these times of crisis and high anxiety, communication is essential. Even though we leaders don’t have all the answers, it’s OK to acknowledge uncertainty. We say what we know, we say what we don’t know and what we are committed to doing. that’s as good as it can get to create confidence in leadership. We need to keep our teams informed regularly on what’s going on with the company.

3. Lastly, continue to drive individual development and recognition in teams. We don’t stop engaging our people on their learning & development. We also continue to appreciate and call out wins, no matter how small. Recognizing wins acts as our progress marker. Everyone continues to need positive feedback.

High performing team cultures don’t have to disappear during this time, we just have to be deliberate on this.

You’ve had a great HR career and counting! What made you decide to make a transition to a new industry, and how did you adapt to the challenges?

Apart from mobility reasons, and having done country & regional HR Roles, I need to continue stretching myself and pursue new sets of challenges. I feel very fulfilled that I have done the organizational transformation that I was set out to do in my previous company. I was also able to prepare a strong talent pipeline and develop next-generation leaders. I’m proud to have grown my local HR talents by assigning them to crucible roles, sending them to international assignments, and providing accelerator experiences that will prepare them to become future leaders. All of these made me confidently pass the baton to my team and move on.

Now, it’s time for me to contribute and make an impact in another company by bringing in what I know to help the organization, and at the same time learn in a new industry. Because there’s no such thing as learning enough.

Grit and passion are key ingredients to a successful career. If you were to add another “ingredient” to the secret sauce of a successful career-family-oriented woman, what would it be?

3P’s: Purpose, Partner, Prayer

Purpose. Anchor on your purpose—your higher sense of value & inspiration. When you are purpose-driven, work has a whole new meaning. Are you working to improve the lives of your family? To give back to society? Or contribute to nation building? Whatever it is, your purpose will help you throughout the challenges; it will make you see beyond yourself because you are focused on a higher value – – and what you do becomes more meaningful. It inspires you to give your best and propels you to persevere even in the toughest of times.

Partner. It has been said a lot of times by many successful people that the most important career decision one will make is who you marry. I absolutely agree. I cannot imagine having reached this point in my career if not for the support of my husband, Jay. Over the years there have been times I was on the verge of giving up my career and my husband has always been there to encourage me. During the times that I doubted myself, he believed in me. The balance between family and career has always worked because of his willingness to share the responsibilities with the children and at home. There have been a lot of opportunities I would have passed up if not for my husband who has always been supportive and patient to provide his insights and guidance when making tough decisions.

Prayer. My faith has been my constant source of inner strength and courage in my career journey. I conquered a lot of my fears and worries because I knew I was not alone. God is very much part of my day… ever present as I go through the day’s highs and lows. The journey has not always been easy but I have experienced God’s faithfulness countless times. I have a simple philosophy: Do my best and offer everything in prayer.

It’s mid-year into 2020, with a tough job market. What advice can you give to aspiring female leaders who are hungry for growth?

This goes not only for female leaders but to all aspiring professionals. This pandemic is unprecedented and many of us would feel anxious about its far-reaching implications. But time and again we hear “focus on the things you can control” and in this situation, indeed this is what we need to do. Keep learning, continue to invest in your capability building. Now is the time to upskill (or even reskill). Sharpening your saw becomes especially critical to be able to compete in a tough job market. Also, continue to raise the bar on your performance. It is dangerous to rest on one’s laurels. Every breakthrough you deliver in the past becomes your new base. Continue to drive value, deliver your best and make an impact. Your results will speak for themselves and make you stand out. I have to say that I consider myself pretty average when I first started my career because I was not your usual high flyer, multi-awarded student. However, what I lacked in accolades, I sure made up with effort. Billionaire Mark Cuban once said that “The one thing in life that you can control is your effort”, and I sure was a living testament to that. I continuously built my capabilities over the years and never stopped learning. I would challenge myself recognizing that there’s always room to improve. I leveraged the knowledge of the brilliant people around me and made sure to learn from them. And that is how I grew and became better at what I do. So the best advice I can give you – cultivate your talent and deliver your best performance. Remember “the grass is greener where you water it”.

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