Achieving work-life balance as a mother: Interview with Karolina Sustrova

Written by
Femme Palette
Published on
October 4, 2022

This blog post was created in partnership with Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield.

Figuring out how to balance motherhood and career is a question which so many women around the world ask, and, at the same time, a problem to which we still haven’t found a simple solution. We can however look for inspiration to other women who are combining these roles and find out how they do it. That’s exactly what we talked about in this interview with Karolina Sustrova, Head of Operations and Regional CSR Lead at Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield. Find out what led her to return to part-time work after maternity leave, what are her practical tips for work-life balance, her perspective on mom guilt, and much more!

Please start by briefly telling us about yourself and your career path.

I was born and raised in Prague, and if there are two things worth mentioning that shaped me as a person during my younger years, it is my history as a professional tennis player and my CEMS (Master´s of International Management) studies. Both gave me a portion of resilience, determination, new perspectives, and a lot of great friends. 

As for my career, I started quite early during my studies, seeking practical experience and working for several larger but also very small companies, getting a taste of FMCG, event production, and marketing. 

And now, it has been 10 years for me in URW. I joined the company (UR at that time) in 2012 via a year-long international graduate programme. I instantly found passion for the commercial real estate business, its dynamic nature and complexity given by a very wide range of key stakeholders. I had an opportunity to experience both very operational positions as Shopping Centre Manager and more analytical roles in Operating Management. Over time, I gained the trust of my managers who supported me in my career growth, which led me to my role today – I am heading the Operations for Czech Republic and Slovakia, I’m a member of the Country Top Management Team, and covering the Sustainability agenda for the region.     

Last year, you came back to work after maternity leave to resume work on a part-time basis. What led you to this decision?

Even though it was difficult for me to imagine upfront how motherhood would look like, a rather swift return to work was certainly in my head. I wanted to stay in touch with my team the entire time, and I am really grateful for having this possibility. After a few months of rather light involvement only in long-term work topics, I felt ready to commit to 50%, and a bit later to 70% part-time while gradually assuming most of my previous responsibilities. The reason was clear: I was missing my professional life, the team, the challenges, the office vibe and so on. The financial side was not unimportant but, at this moment, not my primary motivation.    

At the same time, I wanted to keep some time in the week for me and my daughter, to go swimming or to meet with other mums and their kids. That´s why I have asked at work for a bit more time before I restart on full-time basis.  

So far, how are you finding combining your roles as a mother and as a leader?

There are and will be challenging days, for sure. Still, I believe I have managed to combine the roles rather well. I should more say “we have managed” as it is absolutely key to mention that I have been fully supported by my husband and it would just not be possible to take back my managing role without him helping me across the board and even securing certain flexibility in his job, too. 

Honestly, even though this might be not very encouraging for some mothers, I am convinced that one of the main reasons for my successful return to a highly responsible job is how my girl has been handling it, and in general how “good” she has been. I would not be able to give all the energy to my team and projects without such a nicely sleeping and smiley baby at home.  

Looking backwards, I definitely don't regret the decision to come back to work, as time has confirmed that I am really the kind of person who needs a balance between professional and baby topics in order to be happy in life, and at the end of the day, this is how I manage to fully enjoy the time with my little girl.

Do you have any practical tips for better work-life balance for mothers?

Even though I am not very good at this either, I believe it is key for us as mothers to stop putting excessive pressure on ourselves and try to be the best employee, the best wife in the universe and the mother of the year, all at the same time. With a bit of a step back, maybe we might realize that a home-made dinner every day is not something that makes our husbands ultimately happy, or maybe our little angel doesn´t need his trousers ironed. These are just my examples, but the idea is to try to find things that help us simplify the daily routine a bit when the baby is still small and requires a lot of attention.  

Another thing that has worked for me is a rather strict sleeping regime for the baby. It might sound basic, but it requires quite a lot of discipline to ensure that the baby sleeps every day during the same time slot. It helped me a lot to plan my time, be efficient and be able to plan meetings while not having somebody around to look after my girl.

Finally, I am happy to have decided to return a bit earlier to work on a part-time basis and keep it at non-full-time for a bit longer. This setup, in my opinion, better reflects the actual needs of a baby and mother-baby relationship. It was easy for me to be back in business without a long break and at the time when my daughter was still less active and sleeping more during the day. Then, between the age of 1 and 2, I could still enjoy some extra time with her during her very active days full of learning and discovering the world. Of course, I realize that I was quite lucky here as many mothers cannot choose the pace of the return so flexibly. 

Has motherhood given you any skills or knowledge which you’ve been able to apply in your career?

For sure! I consider myself quite organized and efficient, however, the new motherhood-related duties as well as the natural desire to be with the kid have brought my approach towards prioritization to another level. I am covering nearly 100% of my previous agenda within 70-80% of time and I am confident to say that with minimal compromise on my added value.

Also, the new role has changed my approach to people and my managerial style a bit. It is partly linked to the time constraints topic, as I have been certainly delegating more since my return, but it is mainly about me just caring more about my team members’ wellbeing, deploying a more human perspective in management, being more trustful and empathic. 

Finally, I would say that motherhood has taught me to be more flexible and take the unexpected changes in plans as an opportunity rather than something that makes me anxious.        

On the other hand, what has been your biggest challenge as a working mother?

Probably the biggest challenge were my own doubts and feelings of not being good enough in any of my roles, this caused me quite a few sleepless nights. 

Another one would be time flexibility. In my role and in a multinational corporation, I always had to be quite flexible in my schedule to be available for any urgent topic or request, and I could not expect all the other very busy colleagues to adjust to my agenda. This has been a bit stressful for me as especially at the beginning, it's been difficult for me to admit that I can no longer just stay at work till late and that there actually are moments when I am simply not available. 

Finally, anytime my baby girl was sick was a highly challenging situation as the need to hold the baby in my hands has always been an absolute priority for me despite the agenda full of meetings.

Working mothers often mention experiencing guilt in both their roles - feeling like they’re not there enough for their children, but also that they’re not giving their job the most they can. Have you ever experienced guilt while balancing the two roles? If so, how do you deal with it?

Yes. It is difficult not to compare ourselves to others or to our past selves, or imaginary theoretical selves. Many times, I felt down as I could not be fully available for my team or my boss, fearing that it would impact how dedicated they see me. On the other hand, I have certainly felt certain social pressure and not mean but touchy judgements from different sides regarding my decision to return early to work, leave my baby with a nanny, put her to a daycare centre before the age of 2 etc.

Anyway, my way of dealing with it is always to recall that this is my choice and choice of my family and it is only up to us to manage in a way that makes us happy. Most of the guilt, at least in my case, doesn´t come from my own regrets but rather from comparison with others. I believe it's important to respect our own decisions and also respect the decisions of others. I can only admire mothers that feel accomplished and happy when spending all days with their kids, however it would not work for me and therefore not for my baby.

At work, I really try to avoid this comparison of who is more available or spending more time in the office. This leads to nothing and at the end of the day, what matters are the results and value I bring to the company and team.

What would you advise a woman who would like to start a family, but is afraid she will

have to sacrifice her career?

Just be confident and believe in your capacity to manage both roles, it is going to turn out well for you. Most of the doubts are just in your head. Trust the people around you, they know your value and this will not change if you have to go home early sometimes to be with your sick kid. Also, follow your heart and don´t be afraid to communicate your wishes. And these wishes can be about working less hours, starting later after the maternity leave, but also about taking back more responsibility or jumping into new challenges.  

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