Margit Farkas has been a partner at EY for four years, splitting her time between an internal function as EMEIA Tax Talent Leader, covering 90 countries, and her outward-facing client work in People Advisory Services. We talk to her about integrating work and life - and the keys to managing multiple roles successfully as a professional and a mother.
How do you manage to meet the challenges of all the roles you inhabit every day?
The challenge is how to manage conflicting priorities, travel schedules and in the meantime be a responsible mother of a three-year-old. I wish I could say there is a single, easy way to do it! Probably the key for me is just that I’m passionate about each of my work roles and my son is my biggest joy. I have little so-called “me time” but everything I do I enjoy, and therefore I don’t need much time to recharge my batteries.
The other trick when you wear multiple hats is a simple one - transparent, honest and timely communication to all your stakeholders and the ability to raise the flag when you have to, to say, “No, I am sorry that is not feasible now. Let’s negotiate to make it work – if I have to be in three different countries in one week, which one can we give up?”
Do women in business have trouble setting boundaries when it comes to managing multiple roles successfully?
Yes, I think they can do – and I can’t say that I have always managed to do that in the past either. If you’re in a partnership and it’s just the two of you, you are accepting and flexing with each other’s schedules. But with a child, you don’t flex. It’s not the same.
There was an interesting “breaking point” for me when my son was born. I went back to work after six months because I had committed to do that, and I thought at the time, “how am I going to explain to work that…work is not number one any more?”
I had a lot of self-inflicted bias that it would just not be good enough if I said no to anything and it was a real struggle until I realised that I set my own priorities and it’s important for me that I am present in my family as well as my work.
I think you have to get to a point where you dare to ask for what you actually need - but then I’ve found that most organisations actually respond positively.
What would you say to someone who feels concerned about asking for what they need?
Be bold and don’t wait for the “right person” to ask and the “right time”– when you feel you need to ask, then ask. In the first week of September, I took my son to his new kindergarten to settle in. I could have asked my mum to do this, but I wanted to get it right so I told everyone that in that period I would only be partially reachable during the day because I was going to nursery with my son.
It was much better than sugar coating it by saying “oh that’s a very busy week” - and I have never had someone say, “oh that’s unacceptable” when I have communicated honestly and directly about something like this.
How far has the dial moved toward work-life balance being the norm, and is there further to go?
Many companies have come around to the idea of flexible, balanced work and life and have begun to make conscious efforts to build that into their cultures. This is something that is not just about women in the workplace though, it's about general agility, flexibility and better balance between today’s priorities and the future focus for everyone.
We hear about the new generation and we can see how the workforce is transforming - I think ultimately companies who stick to the old ways of 8-5pm without flexibility built in will fall behind.
At EY, we recognised these challenges a number of years ago and have made conscious efforts to address them. Flexibility is not “I work every day from home”. It could be occasional or for a period of time. But the fact you can ask for it whenever you need it is the mindset, and that is what EY is building.
Then change can not just depend on the policies you build – but can come from people simply feeling they are in a position to talk to their line manager and say that they need slightly different working hours or a sabbatical etc. - and that these things aren’t taboo.
What keeps you pushing forward in your career?
For a long time, it was about learning something new and I still do enjoy that - but now it’s shifting more to feeling like I am making an impact; that I am helping an organisation or person’s life change for the better.
I like to see development in the people I coach and as I am in an HR advisory role, anything in the organisation around HR process should be improving the culture, whether that’s implementing new learning programmes or reviewing its reward and recognition strategy – all of that will hopefully have a positive impact on people’s lives.
Is the biggest barrier to female leadership internal or external?
In my opinion, it’s more internal, and of course, there are external factors but partially it is about this self-inflicted bias we have. Women don’t tend to talk about the challenges they face and try to be superwomen – mothers, partners, wives, professionals – often all at the same time.
When you get overwhelmed then it is easy to lose clarity because you are trying to meet all these different demands, without really asking, “which one can I challenge and what is really important for me?”
What will be the big challenge for the next generation of women coming up?
There is a certainly a challenge coming up which I am struggling with as well, as I deal with D&I in my role – and that is that I am starting to feel some adverse effects of the global movement around women in the workplace.
Some of our women say, “I don’t need differentiated attention. This initiative is not helping me – because I will never be clear whether I made it because I am a woman or because of my skills and leadership”. At EY we have had women who were invited into the leadership programmes who said they didn’t want to participate because they felt they didn’t need anything that was differentiated from men.
The challenge in the future will be how we explain the difference between preferential and differential. And how we can build campaigns that talk about the differences between men and women and the strengths they bring to the table instead of just saying, “we need more women”.