Powerful women: How they do it all

Everyone wants to know how high-achieving women balance work and family. Three top executives share their stories.

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50 Most Powerful Women
In 1998 when the Most Powerful Women in Business list premiered, just two of our honorees ran Fortune 500 companies. This year 13 do.

(Fortune Magazine) -- We asked Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Carol Bartz of Yahoo, and Jeanne Jackson of Nike to share their strategies for keeping their careers on track while coping with everything from cancer to kids. Here is what they had to say.

'Don't leave before you leave'

By Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

Last week at work I offered one of the most promising people on my team the opportunity to lead a new project. She seemed flattered to be asked but quickly became hesitant. She told me she wasn't sure she should take on more right now. Just before she got up to leave, I looked at her and asked, "Are you worried about taking this on because you are considering getting pregnant sometime soon?"

A few years ago I would have been afraid to ask such a direct and personal question. But after watching talented woman after talented woman pass up opportunities, I've realized that too many women make the mistake of leaving before they leave.

Here is what happens: An ambitious, successful woman starts considering having children. She thinks hard about how busy she is and realizes that finding time for a child means something will have to give. As soon as that thinking process starts, she is already looking for ways to scale back.

The problem is that even if she gets pregnant immediately, she still has nine months of pregnancy, months of maternity leave, and another lengthy period after returning to work to catch her breath. And since women usually start the thinking process before trying to conceive, often several years actually pass. By not finding ways to stretch herself during the years before she has children, she has fallen behind.

What's worse, once she's back she's likely to be in a job that no longer challenges or rewards her enough to hold her attention. I don't know any women -- or men -- who don't have days when they wonder whether leaving their children in someone else's care for their careers is the right thing to do. I know I do.

I joined Facebook as COO when I had just returned to work from having my second child. At the time I wasn't looking for a new job but rather trying to get through each day. But both my husband and I recognized that if I waited until the time was exactly right, the opportunity would be gone.

So I jumped in. I can't say it was easy; the first six months were a struggle both at work and at home. But now I'm settled in. Looking back, if I hadn't taken on something new, I might easily have left the workforce by now.

A few months ago we were interviewing a fantastic woman to join our business development team. After we extended an offer, she came in to ask some follow-up questions. She didn't mention lifestyle or hours. But I had a hunch.

"Priti," I said, "Just in case you are thinking that you might want to have a child and need room to slow down, I'd love a chance to tell you why that makes it even more important that you change jobs now."

Priti accepted our offer. A few weeks later, she found out she was pregnant. Her timing could not have been better.

'Just deal with it'

By Carol Bartz, CEO, Yahoo

I have a lousy track record of starting a new job and then having major surgery. It's certainly not planned, but people around me have made a lot about me returning to work quickly, which I find fascinating.

I've been at Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) since January, and a few months back I had my knee replaced. I scheduled the surgery sooner rather than later, once my doctor identified the need. Why should I wait to feel good? I want to feel good now.

I did the same thing with breast cancer surgery, which took place weeks after I became CEO of Autodesk in 1992. I was back in the office soon after that.

It's not because I wanted to be a martyr. It's because I had a job to do, and my family knew I'd be much happier if I was back in the saddle. I love to work. I love to run companies. I love to help people I work with. And I don't let anything get in the way of doing what I love.

Does my childhood have anything to do with this "just deal with it" approach? Possibly. There is something about growing up on a Midwest farm that encourages hard work. The farm won't wait for a better mood. And neither did my grandmother who raised me.

Coming to Silicon Valley was a blessing for me. I realized soon after arriving here that most people didn't take a lot of time to ponder, or analyze a decision to death. There just isn't time.

This fit my nature of "doing" very well. I like change. Frankly, it's hard for me to understand why more people don't embrace it. I'm impatient with people and teams who don't move forward.

"Fail fast-forward" is a favorite motto of mine. It's about not being afraid to fail; and if you do, identify it quickly and move ahead fast so no momentum is lost. I've never been interested in agonizing over what could have or should have happened. Just get going again.

'It's okay to take a break'

By Jeanne Jackson, president, Direct to Consumer, Nike

I made my most meaningful move seven years ago.

I had spent my career at big brands -- Walt Disney (DIS, Fortune 500), Victoria's Secret, Gap (GPS, Fortune 500) -- and had taken a job building walmart.com. I was traveling from California to Bentonville, Ark., every Monday. My team and I were working until 3 a.m. many mornings. I didn't see my kids, then 11 and 15. So I took a break.

I went to my kids' games and dance recitals. I worked on my tennis and golf. I started a private equity firm in Newport Beach, Calif. I served on the boards of Nike, Nordstrom, and McDonald's (MCD, Fortune 500) -- where I'm still a director. The boards kept me connected with great brands. Investing kept me current.

Re-engaging full-time (my plan once my youngest went to college) would, I had figured, mean running a startup or turnaround that I'd invested in. My mental movie might have materialized, but Nike (NKE, Fortune 500) CEO Mark Parker kept dropping lines like "If we had someone to run that ..."

In April, I joined Nike to help expand its retail and digital operations globally. Which proves you can just do it -- differently. To top of page

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