Ellen Exum, Vice President Total Rewards/Executive, Corporate & Ecommerce at Walmart sits down with Jobs.mom to share her own experiences, insights and career advice for working mothers. We asked Ellen questions about how working mothers could successfully re-enter the workplace after a gap, how managers should lead a team with mothers on it, and how a company could foster a culture of true inclusivity.
- You have an incredible job, an incredible career. Tell me a little about how you got to where you are, what you do, and why you love it so much.
I was very fortunate to know early on that I wanted to be of service and have a role that would have an impact on the world. My first exposure to the corporate world was an internship as part of my college program where I majored in business economics. I learn from different corporate internships that my sweet spot was to both work with numbers and people. This ultimately led me to the specialty of compensation and benefits in human resources. I now do this for the Fortune 1 company. I love what I do because, I not only have a seat at the board table, but I feel like I have a seat at the “dinner table” for millions around the world because my role affects several of the social systems that influence the lives of people. Ultimately, pay, benefits, and work titles determine when people can afford to live, access to education, access to healthcare and the titles that identify what they are skilled at and do to earn a living.
- You’re a mom. And a special needs mom at that. So much respect to you for all that you do and juggle. How do you do it?
I start with trying to focus on the joy in every day. There is a lot to do and a lot to juggle. I try to appreciate the little things, like a simple smile from our special needs son who does not talk yet. All of our children’s accomplishments are so special. When things get super tough, I pray and know that I am never alone and things always get better. Simply put, I rely on my faith in myself, in people and especially in God.
- What have been some of the biggest challenges you faced as a working mom, or being pregnant while working/ coming back after maternity leave? How did you overcome them?
Some of the biggest challenges I face, as a working mom, is dealing with what I call the “mom guilt” and worry that I will not be in the right place at the right time for the right people. As I shared, I really enjoy my work. It is more than just doing something to support my family. I feel like I am having an impact on the world. It fills me. Frankly, for me, work is easier than being the best I can be as a mom, wife and friend. There isn’t a rule book to be a mom. There is not an annual performance evaluation based on a specific criteria where you are calibrated amongst others as “top performer” or “meets expectations”. Love is love. It seems every child and every situation requires a unique response, solution, attention, etc.
Being pregnant and returning from maternity leave was very different the first time around than the third and final time. My first time, I was trying to be as great or better at work as I was when I was not pregnant. I tried to take the least amount of time off for my leave of absence. I had lots of concerns that my career was going to suffer. I tried to do it all. My third time around, I prioritized my pregnancy and took the full leave available and accepted all help that was offered and even asked for help that was not offered.
- What were some really great things you experienced from your career in terms of employers being supportive?
Some of the great things I experience from my employers was in circumstances where my manager and team really wanted to “see me” and bring my whole self to work. They hired you for a reason and only get the best when you feel like your uniqueness is special and offers the company something, they would not have without you. I have learned that people are more creative, innovative and productive when they feel supported and do not feel fear or unwelcomed.
- You’re in HR – what advice would you give to moms seeking employment after taking time off? What should they be aware of and how can they stand out?
I think mom’s considering employment after taking time off should stay true to what they want and be confident they can have what is most important to them. I advise moms to strive for work life success and not work life balance.
Work life success is doing things that you need to do and enjoy doing…not doing everything all the time. You do not need to be at every work social event, meeting and know that all swim practices/fill in the blank are not created equal. I do not need to be at everywhere, all the time for everyone. I need to be at the places and with the ones that matter. Then on average I try to be great. I do not try to be great ALL the time.
6. What are some of the biggest mistakes employers make when it comes to mothers in their workforce? What advice would you give these companies?
I think the biggest mistakes employers make when it comes to mothers in the workforce is to deny flexibility to getting the work done. Employers should look for people to stand out rather than trying to make everyone fit into something that is predefined. People are resilient and if you give them the chance, they will figure it out. If you restrict them and are rigid on how to get things done, you will likely get in the way of greatness.
- What advice would you give to managers with moms on their teams to help support their team members while also pushing for productivity and performance?
I advise managers of moms on their team to get and give feedback on the “how” to get work done as much as the “what” is delivered. Like with most relationships, communication is key. It is so important to understand that each mom is unique so do not start with preconceived notions or expectations. Treat each mom as an individual and meet them where they are to motivate them to deliver their greatness.
- If there was one key thing you’d share with all the moms reading this what would it be?
I would tell you to love, learn and grow in your journey. Leave the guilt behind and find the joy in everyday.