Deborah W. Brooks
I walked out of that meeting more determined than ever to earn my right to stay.
In 2006, I was six years into my job as CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation—a job that had been more like a crusade since day one. I’d transitioned to the nonprofit sector after nine years at Goldman and launched the Foundation with Michael late in 2000. Working with him and a talented staff to build our fledgling start-up into the largest private funder of Parkinson’s research was arguably the most challenging and gratifying work I’d ever done. The entire field seemed to be awakening from a long slumber, and I was eager to keep doing the work.
I was also determined to find balance. My husband Jeff is not a city guy, but when I originally threw my hat in the ring and landed my CEO role, Jeff instantly understood the importance of making NYC work. Now, five years later, we were making the decision to adopt twins from China. Our plan was to relocate to Jeff’s home state of Delaware to raise our girls out of the urban fray.
It was an inflection point. I had no interest in pulling back from the Foundation, which was hitting its stride and growing by leaps and bounds. But, I also felt the tug to be present three states away, contributing to my family life. I realized I didn’t want to give up the power to make important decisions at work or at home.
It was with all this in mind that I hatched a possible, albeit unconventional solution. I’d leave the city and the CEO role — which required a daily, steady presence in New York — but stay on full-time as a senior adviser on programmatic and strategic direction. Telecommuting would give me the personal latitude I needed to be a good mom. And I’d still be able to get to the office regularly and on short notice.
I pitched Michael on the idea, fully aware that I might be pitching myself out of a job. The Foundation was still so young, and given our exceptionally cost-conscious culture, I remember pointing out to him that the Board would need to be shown the case for keeping me on in this altered role. At the same time, I did have a confidence that came from knowing I was valued—that my contribution as a leader at MJFF was part of its ability to move the dial. Traditional corporate infrastructure would have made this difficult—but if there was a chance to make this work, I was going to get that chance.
As it turned out, Michael had no worries we would make it work. I walked out of that meeting more determined than ever to earn my right to stay. I was also grateful for good partnerships with people who knew and trusted me — as Michael had that day, and Jeff had years earlier when I’d first taken the job — since major life decisions realistically aren’t made in a vacuum.
Today I oversee our Foundation’s fundraising, marketing/communications and digital strategy teams, and we’re continuing to make research inroads. In the end Michael’s response was my cue, as it often had been before and has been since, that the unconventional path was nevertheless the right one for me and for our shared goals.
I do have my days when, in retrospect, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. Like all working moms, I’ve had to improvise on countless occasions to meet my obligations and keep all the balls in the air. But if I’m honest, I know I’m happiest when my life is a complex juggling act.
Sometimes you have to think outside the box to find a creative solution that works for you. Every job and family, and their demands, are different; there’s no blueprint or “one size fits all” solution. I know for me, both personally and professionally, I have always relied on trying something new, looking for solutions, and acting on instincts — my own and those of the people I trust.