Fortune asks me for the best career advice I ever received
Posted on April 30, 2008 at 7:54 pm
Nell Minow, co-founder of The Corporate Library, says sticking to an unconventional schedule made her successful.
NEW YORK (Fortune) — The single best piece of advice I ever got about my job was to work part-time.
It was 1983 and I was pregnant with my first child and getting ready to go on maternity leave from my job at the Office of Management and Budget, where I was a lawyer. I was talking with one of my law school classmates, Deborah Baughman, about going back to work and I was thinking maybe I could work mornings. She said, “No, don’t do that because the baby will be sleeping in the afternoons and people will be saying, ‘Can’t you just stay one more hour?'”
She said, ‘You’ll never get out of there. You’ll be much better off working Monday, Wednesday, Friday. That’s very doable, and you’ll never be away from either one for more than a day at a time.” And she was absolutely right.
It turned out to be a perfect arrangement for me and for the way that I work. Not only was it great for my family and for me because I could spend so much time with my children, but I could alternate right brain/left brain days. I had to be very productive because I could never say “I’ll do it tomorrow.” I had to get it done before I left on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And then I really had a day to think out of another part of my brain and come back with a different perspective.
I’m fortunate that I have a husband who works full time at a big DC law firm, where he specializes in intellectual property law. That made it possible not just for me to work part time, it made it possible for me to be an entrepreneur. You have to have some kind of safety net if you¹re going to do that.
I assumed that I would be in career escrow for a while at what Gloria Steinem referred to as a “jobette,” something to keep my career on simmer until I was ready to go back to work full time. But the point I want to make is that I became much more successful in every possible way you can think about career success – in terms of visibility, getting a chance to write books, having an impact on the world, and even financially – because I was working three days a week. I am just not good at working five days a week. Whether it’s because I have ADD or something, I’m hugely more productive three days a week than I am five days a week.
My colleague, Bob Monks, and I have been in three businesses together. First there was ISS, where I was the fourth person hired and is now a multinational global behemoth. Then we spun off Lens Investment Management, a money management firm. We sold that in 2000, at the height of the market, which was great. And we spun off what had been our in-house research office in 2000, which became The Corporate Library.
The tough part is the internal adjustment. It’s up to you to be disciplined. It’s like the sirens in “The Odyssey.” The sirens are always going to be out there on the shores, saying, “Please come crash your boat against our rocks.” And it’s always going to be very, very seductive. I lost a client once because of the three days a week thing. I could tell at the time it was bad. I was competing against someone who was going to stay as long as it took. And I was very mindful that that was the tradeoff I was making.
Also, I ultimately became the president of Institutional Shareholder Services. And you can be the president of an unsuccessful company three days a week. But you can’t be the president of a successful company three days a week. And as ISS became more successful I knew I was either going to have to work five days a week or I was going to have to leave. And I did.
Fortunately I would always rather be on the early stages of an entrepreneurial venture. I get bored with it when it gets successful because then you’re an administrator, not a visionary anymore. So it was fine for me to leave. I like start-ups because they give you more flexibility.
I should mention that now that my children are grown up, I’m still working only three days a week at The Corporate Library. But I like working part-time so much that I have taken a second part-time job as a movie critic. I like writing a lot and I really like going to movies, so it was either be a movie critic or be an usher. You can read my reviews on Beliefnet.com under “Movie Mom.”
The number one qualification for being a movie critic is you have to have an endless tolerance for bad movies because most of them are terrible. Fortunately it doesn’t bother me. I go to a lot of bad movies. I’ve been to five Pokemon movies and more buddy cop movies than anyone should have to see.
More seriously, I will say that there’s a through line in my jobs. I’m really, really interested in why things don’t work. And that just endlessly fascinates me. If I’m seeing a bad movie I want to figure out why it’s bad. Or if I see a corporation that falls apart, I want to know why it fell apart. You could sort of say it’s systems analysis. — Interviewed by David Stires