Hilani Kerr is the head of global foreign exchange product sales at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. During her two-decade career, she has worked in Europe, Asia, Australia, and, for the past three years, in New York. In addition to her busy work schedule, she and her husband are raising two daughters—an 11-year old and an eight-year old. I recently spoke to Kerr about how she balances her home life with her work life. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.
VAULT: What does a typical day for you look like? And how do you make time for your family given your work schedule?
KERR: I’d love to say there’s a typical day, but there’s not. Since I’m responsible for product sales focusing on transactions in foreign exchange within our global treasury services, my day starts very early and sometime ends very late. Equal attention has to be paid to my team and clients based in Asia, and having lived and worked in Asia, I know how difficult constant late night phone calls with the U.S. can be. As a result, I try to alternate calls first thing in the morning and late at night.
So what I do is I wake up at 4 a.m.—when there are absolutely no interruptions—and start the day doing something I love: running and working out. I’m able to get back home in time to see my children, and I usually have breakfast with them before they’re off to school. Since they don’t start school until 8:30, and I begin work earlier, I don’t have the privilege of taking them to school—my husband takes them. But I do have the privilege of making their lunches, which I do the night before.
During the day, there are certain things I might not be able to do—there’s never a perfect recipe for work/life balance. For example, I don’t have the flexibility of stay-at-home parents to chaperone field trips, and very rarely am I able to attend weekday sporting events. But there are opportunities for me to structure my day so that I’m able to attend my children’s most important events. Maybe I’ll leave at 4:30 p.m. so I can attend an event at 6.
In the evenings, although I don’t have a set time I leave work, I do make it a point to see my children before they go to bed. Now that they’re older, their bedtime routines are somewhat extended, which often enables me to have dinner with them and spend time with them in the evenings. Also, when I’m traveling, I always make sure that a phone call goes home every day that I’m away.
VAULT: Has having children influenced your work at all? Has it made you more empathetic, for example?
KERR: It’s purely my personal experience, but having been through two rounds of maternity leave, I’ve been very conscious of how women have felt around me when they’ve taken leave. How I’ve been treated throughout my career—I never once felt that taking a small break would be detrimental to my career, and I’ve returned from two leaves and gone on to take larger roles—has certainly enabled me to have a deep appreciation of what others might be going through on leave.
For example, one woman, a top officer who just had her first baby, was very nervous about giving up her role to someone else while she was out. I was able to say to her that that’s a natural feeling, and to assure her that she’d have a role to come back to. Just this morning she sent me a note thanking me, and saying that she loved her time off and was looking forward to coming back to work soon.
And when I was based in Hong Kong, managing the regional sales team, there was one woman, another top performer, who was British-educated and grew up in a traditional family. And after she had her second baby, she came into my office and asked, in a very nervous manner, if there was any possible way she could work from home on Fridays for a while. It was almost said in a very apologetic way. For me, it was an absolute yes. Later, she told me that she’d actually come into my office to resign, that her friends and family said that I’d never go for it. In the end, her output increased 100 percent on the Fridays she worked from home.
VAULT: Do you have any advice for women who are thinking of having children and who want to continue building their careers?
KERR: Having a child is a natural part of life, it’s one of the happiest moments of your life, and I don’t think anyone should apologize for wanting to care for their children—for however short or long they plan to be on leave. And it’s incumbent on us as leaders and managers to understand that the amount of time one takes is an individual’s choice, and to understand that it’s a tough time for new parents—for women and for men. I mention men because I think men should feel empowered to take time off to care for their children, too. I also think individuals considering taking leave should have a very transparent conversation with their manager and leverage their support networks. I’ve always made it very easy for people to talk to me and tell me what they want to do.
VAULT: What kinds of formal and informal programs does Bank of America offer to help working mothers?
KERR: I’m very fortunate to have had leaders throughout the firm who’ve been very supportive of my desires to build a career and be a mother. In my experience, there is little micromanaging here, and most people have outside work commitments. It also helps that we have a very strong HR department and are constantly refining how we define work/life balance. We promote health and wellness in our corporate culture, and there’s a huge initiative around health screenings. Our maternity and paternity leave policies are very transparent. And we have an adoption reimbursement program, family care services, as well as programs that can help with flexible work arrangements, depending on your role.
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