Designing the Workplace I Always Wanted for Myself

Balancing work and life at Burns Group

I started my career at Grey Advertising but left at the height of my growth, six years in. Although I couldn't fully articulate it at the time, because the lexicon didn't exist, looking back it's clear I was craving role models who balanced work and life, and there were few in sight. 

There was no one I really wanted to be like when I grew up. For the most part, senior women were those who adhered to a man's way of working, struggled to gain power, and had to compromise on one or many aspects of their lives in order to move up. I knew I wanted something different—and had to find a way to create it. 

Throughout my career, I made many decisions that people would deem career limiting in order to create the life I wanted: to have a career and a family, and to devote time to things that mattered to me. 

I started to break the rules (or rather, rewrite the rules) when I became a working mother and struggled to do my job and be a parent. I left in the middle of the day to attend classroom events, negotiated to leave work at 3 p.m. every day to pick my kids up from school, and was transparent with clients that if they wanted to reach me late in the day, they would hear my kids in the background. 

I left my job and partnership at work to follow my husband's career to Europe for four years with our children. I ran a not-for-profit project in Rwanda for the past 15 years, leaving work and family for two weeks at a time. I never stopped working, always made myself indispensable to my work and my colleagues, but never put leadership in my sights. It seemed impossible with all the other choices I was making to balance my career with my personal life. 

When I returned from Europe, I joined Burns Group in its infancy and built strategy from nothing into a thriving brand consultancy, innovation engine and leader in consumer co-creation (while still leaving at 3 p.m. every day to be home after school). I hired amazing people who helped me learn and grow, and who were empowered to own their work, so that we all could find time to have a life too. 

Three years ago, I launched BGIN, our startup accelerator, and started to really drive new ways of working and thinking into the agency. This past January, I developed our new vision, which showed how the work we were simultaneously doing for startups and large legacy brands was creating an amazing new way of working that was powerful in today's disruptive era for brands. That vision, and my years of contributions to the agency, earned me the role of CEO in March 2018.

What I had deemed impossible to do, I did—and did by forging my own path and never compromising my own personal values and dreams. As a new CEO, my aim is to ensure that others don't have to go it alone when trying to find balance. I want them to see role models at every level, and I'm dedicated to designing the workplace that I fought so hard to create for myself.

This means changing it up at every level and in many different ways. At Burns Group, one of the core values we've built our culture around is a growth mind-set—and this requires that we do everything we can to help our employees grow by supporting their personal development and allowing their passions to inspire and evolve their day jobs. We've encouraged our employees to continue their education, learn supplementary skills and pursue their lives outside the office. We're paying for outside education, giving people "two hats" so they can accelerate their knowledge, giving paid time off for charitable work, and putting young people on the front lines of designing their own careers and their own lives. 

This focus is driving change. We now have younger employees who have switched departments (from strategy to design, from account management to UX design) after they have gained experience in two areas of interest. We have new parents creating personalized and flexible ways of returning to work. We've supported outside passion projects by unleashing our creative services pro-bono, for an employee-founded non-profit. It's exciting to see work/life unfolding in ways that look so different from the norms of my early career.

We're not there yet, but we're working on creating the kind of workplace that values people, their life choices and their ambitions from all aspects of their lives. I want our company to offer all that I was craving throughout my career. 

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Joanne McKinney
Joanne McKinney is CEO of Burns Group.