What Works for Me: Five Lessons I’ve Learned about Sustainability

by Monique Ayotte-Hoeltzel, The Management Center

(At the time of this writing, Monique was Vice President, Alumni Affairs at Teach For America.)


1. Sustainability is not an end-state; it’s a moving target

Probably the first big lesson I learned about my sustainability – or, as we call it at Teach For America, “personal and professional alignment” – is that it isn’t an end-state to be “achieved” one day. As my personal and professional goals have changed over time, I’ve needed to rethink what constitutes “alignment” with them. The prerequisite to having a job that feels sustainable for me has been to define and articulate my personal and professional goals on an ongoing basis. No one else can do this for me and it is the make-or-break to my feeling any sense of alignment between my personal and professional sides.

2. If the shoe doesn’t fit…do something about it

To feel more aligned, I’ve learned it’s my responsibility to determine my fit with a role, based on a deep understanding of the role’s requirements and my personal and professional goals at any given time. It’s best when this is fairly well determined on the front-end (when taking a job) but given the changing nature of personal and professional goals (see above) I need to reassess this at least once per year. When I’ve found fit issues, my first task has been to discuss it with my manager. Sometimes I’ve found that there is more flexibility in a role than I’d assumed; other times it’s been good to determine together that another role would be better.

3. “Sustainability” is not the same thing as balance

When I first accepted the role as head of admissions for Teach For America, I knew I had a very steep learning curve to climb. I had never managed employees or a budget and the role had a much bigger scope of impact than any previous roles I’d held. But I was thrilled about the opportunity to make such a huge impact on a mission I cared so deeply about and also about the chance to develop professionally. My personal life was fine: my family was healthy, my friends and boyfriend were great, and I did not have children. In this context, I felt “aligned” by focusing a ton of energy on work. It was not a “balance” because my professional goals were more demanding and important to me than any personal goals at that time and so the way I spent my time reflected this. I worked evenings and weekends and many holidays. But I was having an impact, I was learning a ton, and I really liked the people I got to work hard with – thus, I felt pretty aligned.

Later in my tenure, as both my parents became ill and my siblings and I became responsible for their care, my priorities took a massive shift and the time I had available for professional priorities dropped. In order to feel aligned with my changing priorities, the hours I spent on work needed to change. To address this, I revisited my fit with my role, talked to my manager about the accommodations I would need to stay in it, and began a process of much more brutally prioritizing, which is now a hallmark of my working style (see below).

4. We’re not likely to close the achievement gap during my son’s bath time

It took me a while to see that there is a big difference between working toward a mission with “urgency” and treating everything as urgent. Everything is not urgent or even important. Many things can wait. Some things can get cut altogether because they’re not actually impactful. It’s a bad idea to procrastinate, but it’s a great idea to prioritize and to be sure that you can do this work over the long haul as a result. This means gaining some perspective, even when others around you have lost theirs. It means getting comfortable asking colleagues, “How urgent is this?” and “Can you explain more about the significance of the deadline?” There is often a lot more flexibility than might first appear and I’ve found I actually do have a lot of agency in making sure I get to experience my personal life fully, including spending most evenings with my son, even while working towards an incredibly urgent mission.

5. If it’s not in my calendar, it will take over my life

The people with whom I work closely know that I’m pretty brutal about scheduling my work. This means that I book time every week for “personal work time,” which is a way of making sure there is some time scheduled for unanticipated stuff. In addition to this, I have no qualms about canceling meetings when they no longer seem necessary, and I request that any document feedback requests from my team members make it into my calendar as appointments.

To summarize, reaching any feeling of alignment for me has meant:

  • Knowing myself, defining my personal and professional goals clearly, and embracing them as moving targets
  • Taking personal responsibility, and specific concrete actions, to make sure that the professional role I choose, and the way I structure my time within it, allow me to pursue my (changing) personal priorities fully