Fast Company’s leadership section features Graham-Pelton President and CEO Elizabeth Zeigler’s reflections on the intentionality and strategy required throughout her career.
How I became CEO after starting as a flextime employee
After becoming her firm’s first flextime worker 16 years ago, Elizabeth Zeigler was named CEO in January. Here’s how she got there.
Working flexible hours at a company where most employees don’t can carry a stigma. I should know, having done it for years. Studies have found that management and peers subtly penalize employees—both women and men—with family-friendly schedules. Mothers especially are often viewed as less competent and less committed to work—they’re seen as just dabbling around, with one foot in the workplace and one foot out, rather than carrying out a deliberate plan for balancing work and life.
I became the first flextime employee 16 years ago at the consulting firm that appointed me CEO in January. So I know firsthand how hard it can be to beat biases like these. But the trend lines are clear. Research shows that flexible hours top the list of highly sought-after workplace benefits, and flexible work is now expanding in some unexpected fields, from engineering to the public sector. I’m probably less surprised by this than most. Flextimers are among the most productive employees and disciplined time managers I know. I never would have become CEO if that weren’t true. Here’s how I managed to beat the flextime stigma and take my career to the C-suite.
I found a boss who “got it”
The idea of flextime hardly existed in 2001, when I was first looking for ways to work fewer than five days a week. By then I had a decade of successful fundraising experience under my belt, and I was preparing for my daughter’s birth. With the encouragement of management at a major university, I crafted a job-share proposal with a longtime colleague, then slid it under the door of my boss’s darkened office late one evening.
At 9 a.m. the next morning, I was crestfallen to hear that she’d rejected our request. But this was useful intel, and it fortunately didn’t take long to get. It simply emboldened me to seek flextime work elsewhere. When your employer sees a flexible schedule as unworkable and isn’t even willing to consider it, your energy may be better spent looking for an employer that will. Skip the frustration and shop your plan.
I worked extra-hard to get visible—at the highest levels
It’s easy to be overlooked when you’ve got fewer hours to make your presence known around the office. After landing the flextime position at Graham-Pelton, I sensed my colleagues viewed me as a curiosity, and I sometimes felt invisible.
So the next day I approached our company’s founder and CEO, who barely knew me, and asked point-blank whether a woman working part-time could advance at his company. He nodded yes and asked me why I was asking. I explained that I’d chosen the firm’s flextime offer over others because I saw the potential to grow. I understood compensation was limited given my three-day workweek, but I didn’t want my responsibilities to be limited.
Looking back, this conversation was critical. He assured me I had every chance to help grow the company and to keep growing professionally. He knew flexibility and competence weren’t mutually exclusive. Together we knocked down bias barriers, and I advanced to become the first internal appointment to the executive team. Don’t wait to have discussions like these with higher-ups soon after landing a flextime role. Voice your commitment and intention to grow. Sometimes they just need to hear it.
I was careful never to act part-time in spirit.
But they need to see it, too. It might not be fair, but you may have to make an extra effort to build trust and overcome skepticism about your involvement—and to resist the tendency to retreat or get relegated to the margins.
During my flextime years, I made sure my colleagues knew they could rely on me to check email and voicemail at a certain time during off days. I occasionally exchanged days to accommodate clients or corporate needs, and I never missed company meetings or special gatherings. To me, flexibility was a two-way street, and I created solid backup systems that would let me reciprocate. It took a lot of discipline, and there were lots of difficult time-management choices I had to make all on my own. But getting that right was essential. And once I’d hit my stride, I was able to volunteer for stretch assignments and spotted opportunities without waiting for them to be handed to me. As long as you can figure out how to manage your flextime routine, you’ll be able to bring a full-time spirit to the company, no matter how many hours you’re actually putting on the clock.
I now realize my firm was ahead of its time when it hired me, and it’s probably one of the rare few that’s now helmed by somebody who started as a flextime employee. But as CEO, I’m committed to creating an environment where people feel comfortable saying what they need or desire. It doesn’t matter if they’re women or men, what their age or experience might be, or whether they’re seeking flextime, sabbaticals, medical leave, or parental leave. When leaders embrace flextime, everyone wins—I’m living proof.