For decades, career-minded women have been wrestling with one nagging question: Is it possible to have it all? The answers range from yes; to no; to yes, but not at the same time.
This month, for our Career Issue, we speak with two women who appear to have it all, at the same time.
Heather Harding is Vice President of Finance and Planning for Cooper Lighting, a division of Cooper Industries, a multinational, multibillion dollar manufacturer of lighting devices based in Peachtree City. Tammy Livers is Vice President of Electrical Sales for Cooper Wiring, a separate division of Cooper Industries, also headquartered in Peachtree City. Each of these women has it all—high-profile, influential careers, loving, supportive families; and each possess the ability to make—both work and family – a priority. How do they do it? With focus, impeccable time management and unique perspectives on a pesky little concept called work/life balance.
In an era when corporate greed is seemingly daily front page news, Tammy Livers’ (pronounced Ly-vers) dedication to giving back stands out. In fact, her volunteer work is almost as extensive as her professional work. For starters, Livers is on the Board of Directors for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She’s also an adult literacy tutor, the fundraising co-chair for a non-profit that advocates for senior citizens, and a women’s professional mentor. “I believe in paying it forward. It comes back to you,” she says.
If, in fact, it does, then it’s coming back in spades for Livers, Vice President of Electrical Sales for Cooper Wiring Devices. At press time, she had just been promoted to her current post from her previous job as Vice President of Electrical Sales at Cooper B-Line in St. Louis, Missouri.
As we speak about her work and promotion, Livers is still in St. Louis, preparing to relocate to Peachtree City, where her job will be to drive the entire sales strategy for the company’s products and grow and expand its sales throughout the United States and Canada. My call interrupts her running errands, yet she is friendly and accommodating, assuring me that now is as good a time as any to speak.
Steering the sales strategy for a major corporation was not the life Livers envisioned for herself growing up in Vermillion, Ohio, a sleepy town on Lake Eerie. The oldest of her siblings, Tammy spent much of her youth absorbed in the arts. “I kept her involved in a lot of activities,” says her mother, Pam Giese. “She had tap lessons, she was involved in violin and she did a lot of plays.” In fact, Tammy’s love of acting was a constant throughout her school years and even during college. Her mother laughingly recalls the time her daughter won the role of Sandra Dee in the musical Grease. “When I saw her come out on stage, I was shocked. I had never seen my daughter in leather pants before,” Giese quips.
For a while, it seemed like acting was the path she would take. “I was sure I was going to be an actress,” Livers says. “But I didn’t love it enough to sacrifice everything for it.” Instead, after she graduated from high school, she enrolled at Walsh University in Canton, Ohio, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science and history. She later earned her Master’s in European History from Cleveland State University. After graduation, she took a job in sales and never looked back. “I love people. I’m genuinely interested in what they have to say, and I got out there and tried to develop relationships. A very smart person told me once that I would succeed if I focused on being interested instead of being interesting,” Livers says.
And succeed she did, rising through the corporate ranks at bullet speed, eventually ascending to one of Cooper’s top posts. “I live by the golden rule: Treat people fairly, give everyone a fair chance to succeed and always have an open mind. I try to understand first before trying to be understood,” she explains. “I feel I am a success if everyone on my team feels they are succeeding.”
That drive to help others succeed is the motivation behind Livers’ work to mentor others. “Having a mentor takes the fear out of anything. I’ve had at least three or four mentors in corporate America,” Livers says. And, true to her philosophy of paying it forward, she volunteers with the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED), which launched a concerted effort for women to mentor other women. “We’re in an industry that doesn’t have a lot of women,” she notes. “Women think [that] in business we have to be in competition with each other, but if we don’t help each other, we’re not getting very far.”
One of the things she wants to help women understand is that they can achieve harmony between their personal and professional lives—what many of us call that elusive work/life balance. “It’s less of a balance, more of a cadence,” Livers explains. “If you view work and family as separate buckets, you’re always going to struggle with who deserves more. It’s a mindset. I view work/life balance as a cadence, not as separate buckets.”
That means there are no hard and fast rules or lines in the sand drawn between work and family time. In fact, work is a popular topic at the dinner table for Tammy’s family, which includes her husband Logan, who works in manufacturing sales, and her two stepsons, ages 17 and 20. “We talk to the kids about success. For instance, I had my review the other day. I told the kids about it and they were excited,” she says. Logan works with his wife to create an easy harmony between their professional and personal lives. “We can work at home, weekends included if necessary, and not feel like it is work, but a means to fulfill our passion for the job and family; [we] make the two parts of our lives work together,” he says.
But while work is never off-topic at home, Livers does take off her “boss hat,” and lets the rest of the clan call the shots in the family’s downtime. “She can be quite the pushover at home, which I think is a very different quality from most executive-type personalities,” Logan quips. “And, she loves to eat good chocolate.”
It’s 10 o’clock in the morning on a cool, damp, unusually foggy day in Peachtree City. When I arrive at Cooper Lighting headquarters, Heather Harding, Vice President of Finance and Planning, greets me promptly. She’s visibly excited, yet a bit nervous about our interview. I’m nervous too, having never interviewed a high-ranking corporate executive and not quite sure what to expect. But after just a few minutes of small talk, I’m completely at ease.
The only female executive in her division, Heather Harding is not at all like the high-flying, corporate woman stereotype—you know, the one who not only broke through the glass ceiling, but shattered a few employees’ spirits along the way. Rather, she’s warm and personable; talkative, not stoic; her ability to lead and inspire — yet be approachable and “real”— is instantly recognizable, and not just during our interview. They’re traits for which Harding is known among her team members, as well. Mignon Ferebee is a buyer at Cooper Lighting. She served as Executive Administrative Assistant to Heather for six years. “She is always willing to take the time to listen to any of her team members. She’s very personable and people feel comfortable talking to her at any given time. She has always shown her appreciation by saying ‘thank you,’ for things she has requested to be done by others,” says Mignon.
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Heather Harding didn’t always know what she wanted to be, but she did know one thing. “My parents said, ‘You’re going to college, and you’re going away,’ ” she says. In high school, Harding did a lot of work in television and communications.
Although she enjoyed it, she knew that she didn’t want the hectic, oftentimes “on-call,” life of a news reporter. “My mom had been an accountant and I had always been good at math, so I thought, ‘I could do that,’ ” she says.
So she enrolled at Southern Illinois University, where she earned an accounting degree, and was recruited right out of college to Emerson Electric in St. Louis, Missouri. Harding’s first job? Auditing Emerson’s manufacturing locations throughout the United States and Mexico. “I was twenty-two years old and doing a lot of traveling for work. The traveling sounds more glamorous than it was,” she recalls. Every Monday for three years, she’d board a plane for work, not returning home until Friday. Still, she enjoyed the work and quickly decided the path she wanted her professional life to take. “In three or four years, I figured out, ‘This is the position I want.’ I wanted to be a VP because there was a real breadth of what they could do,” she says. “I raised my hand and was open to relocation.”
And relocate she did. Harding stayed with Emerson for 13 years, moving several times—to Denver, Colorado, Orange County, California and Houston, Texas—for different jobs and promotions. “There were aspects of certain positions I didn’t like, but I took them to develop my skills and make myself a viable candidate for the next position,” Harding recalls.
Not only did she have a plan, but she had mentors. Like Tammy Livers, Harding says mentors were integral to her success. She remembers one particular supervisor she had at Emerson. “He was tough, but I really appreciated his input. He’d give you an assignment and know you weren’t going to finish it. Once, he went on vacation and gave me this financial analysis to work on while he was away. I spent the whole week pulling my hair out to finish it, and finally, I got it done. When he came back, he was surprised that I’d finished it. He said, ‘I didn’t think you’d get it done. I just wanted to see if you could handle it.” Harding’s diligence, determination and focus paid off. She rapidly scaled the corporate ranks, holding several executive-level positions at other companies before joining Cooper eight years ago.
As Vice President of Finance for Cooper Lighting, Harding has total responsibility for the financial aspects of the business. She oversees the financial operations for 15 locations, works with the Operations team to see where the company can improve productivity, and is involved when Cooper is considering mergers or acquisitions. It’s a job that keeps her on the go, to say the least.
I ask how she handles this high-pressure, high-profile job and balances family life, too. In other words, how is it possible to do it all? Her answer: prioritize. “I believe very strongly in time management,” says Harding. “I try to make time for the important events—a ball game for my daughter, for example—as well as handling all job requirements.” But isn’t that the opposite of what women have been told for so long about how to succeed in corporate America? That staying late at your desk, working around the clock, being the first one in the office and the last to leave—was the way to succeed?
“It’s about how you manage your time and the proactive decisions you make,” Harding explains. “You have to decide who you want to be. Part of it is you; part of it is the culture of the company you work for. Set expectations and communicate. You have to decide what’s really important in life, otherwise you’ll look up and life will have flown by.”
Her husband, Duncan, owns a corporate investigations business. Duncan applauds his wife’s laser-sharp focus and excellence in leading both her personal and professional lives. “Heather is a fantastic mother, loving and supportive wife and is terrifically loyal to her friends,” he says. “She’s also a talented time manager and a voracious planner, which allows her to separate her work from our family life, giving her time to switch off and recharge when she chooses to.”
For Harding, “recharging” means spending time with her 10-year-old twins, trying new recipes, and indulging her appetite for reading. “I read 18 books last year. This year, I’m behind,” she quips. Harding also enjoys playing the piano with Duncan and her son and traveling (for fun, Harding stresses). They try to visit Duncan’s family in England once a year. But perhaps a vacation closer to home might be in the family’s future? “Heather is fascinated with all things ‘Disney’ and would love nothing else but to spend her time helping people plan their vacations at Disney World!” Duncan exclaims. Somehow, I get the feeling that if Heather Harding decided to do that, she’d be at the top of her game.
After speaking with these women, I’m exhilarated and hopeful, understanding perhaps for the first time, that even with a demanding job, a busy family life and breakneck schedule, you can have it all. It just takes some planning ahead, a decision to have it all and a willingness to redefine work/life balance for yourself.