Sophie V. Vandebroek  Sophie V. Vandebroek photo       

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Chief Operating Officer, IBM Research
Cambridge Lab, MA and T. J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, NY

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Professional Associations

Professional Associations:  Fellow, IEEE  |  Women in Technology International (WITI)


What I love most about my role is collaborating with amazingly creative and entrepreneurial people from all over the globe. Together we co-innovate with clients to create the future of work, the future of healthcare, the future of cities, the future of energy and more with the goal to not only make our clients successful, but also to make a difference to the world.

To me work-life balance comes down to three simple concepts:

  1. Make smart choices. Find out where you want to spend your precious time on. Find out what is really important to you. What is your dream?
  2. Then as Cheryl Sandberg says in her book, Lean in. Throw yourself 100% on those priorities such that you can achieve your dreams.
  3. Finding time to Lean in means that you need to Lean Out. Just like lean manufacturing. With that I mean, be lean where you can be lean and where you want to be lean. Say no to requests, simplify all aspects of your life and outsource everything else.

Sounds simple, right: make smart choices, lean in and then lean out everything else. By the way, this applies to both men and women.

Obviously the smart choices are very personal to each of us. Let me illustrate what they meant for me.

  • I love my work. Early in my career my dream was to be the best expert in the world regarding the microelectronics research I was doing. I wanted to invent, present at top conferences and publish in top journals. This dream became true early on. Once I joined Xerox my dream became to lead this world-class global research organization. I am lucky, this dream became reality a decade ago.
  • With no doubt, a much higher priority than my work are my three kids. It was a no-brainer to me that I must make time for my kids. My dream was to make sure they became happy, confident, resilient and caring adults. Knock wood… There were many bumps along the road, but I am hopeful that my dream is finally becoming a reality.

These are and have always been my two priorities.

  • However, I quickly realized that I could not achieve these two dreams if I did not first of all took care of myself. I just can not think clearly, be passionate or more importantly be patient when I am tired or stressed. It all starts with taking care of ourselves: physically and emotionally. So I needed to dedicate time to sleep, to exercise and to eating healthy. As for my emotional health, I was lucky that my husband was also my best friend as that simplified things significantly.

So in order to find time for my work, my kids, and my health I needed to lean out everything else. We simplified and we outsourced.

  • Let me give some examples of simplification: my husband and I lived in a simple home and took simple vacations such as local camping trips. We did not keep a large circle of friends, in fact we almost never had anyone over, we planned free weekends with no commitments, and we skipped most mandatory niceties such as writing Christmas or thank you cards.
  • Equally important was to outsource routine jobs that must be taken care of. We had no family in the USA that could help out. So we asked our sitter to not only watch the three kids but to do everything else on my list of things I was not going to spend time on. She cleaned our home. She did our laundry. She went grocery shopping. In fact, this does not need to be expensive. If some else shops for you it is less expensive as you end up buying only the essentials. When I shop I have the tendency to throw expensive Belgian chocolate or fancy olives or cheese into my shopping cart. As you can see the cost of those items alone quickly exceeds the cost of asking someone to shop for a couple of hours. My husband loved cooking which was great as it was on my list of things not to do, and I love to eat. We were not rich, we both were starting engineers. By simplifying we found the money to outsource. We found balance.

 

  • But then the balance abruptly broke. Twenty years ago my husband died suddenly. I was left alone with three kids under 8 years old. I needed to focus on my kids as my dream for them remained the same. It just became much harder to achieve. I also needed to keep my dream at work. Working indeed was my shelter. At work I could forget everything else. I considered for a moment to give it up and move back to Belgium to be with family. But that would disrupt the remaining constants in my children’s lives: their sitter, their school, their home, and their friends. In addition, I would have to give up my dream. So I chose to continue to as they call it here “climb the corporate ladder”. But I now needed even more time for the kids and I needed to be sure I stayed healthy.
  • So as you might have guessed, very quickly in addition to all the other household chores, our sitter also learned to cook. I got rid of material things that required time to maintain but that not bring happiness (such as our boat). At work I cut down the time for each of my many meetings. An hour meeting became 45 min, a 30 min meeting became 20 min. That way I had time to take care of all the actions I took during the day. I said no to many requests that were not essential to achieve my dream.
  • I found a balance again… I spent my time with the kids, I spent time sleeping, exercising and was truly enjoying my ever broader responsibility at work. By the way, as you get more responsibility you also have more control over your time which definitely helped.

 

  • The years passed and I made a couple truly wonderful friends. But I missed having a best friend. I can tell you when you do not have this special person in your live it is very lonely. Luckily I did figure out how to fit dating into my schedule. My now husband and I lived 6 hours apart when we started going out. This actually worked very well. I was happy to have a best friend without needing to find time for him each and every day. After about 5 years of long-distance dating we married once my two older kids went off to college and we moved in together.  I also got blessed with three additional great kids. All six of our kids now all young adults and are starting their own independent lives.
  • I am so lucky I got a second chance. And, yes you guessed it, my new Spanish husband is also an amazing cook!

So let me summarize my three recommendations:

Number 1, make smart choices regarding where you want to spend time.

Number 2, lean in and dedicate the time to the choices you made.

Number 3, lean out everything else. Say no. Simplify. Outsource.

“Smart choices, lean in, most importantly lean out!”

 Vandebroek Work-Life Selfie