We had the good fortune of connecting with Denise Berger and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Denise, how has your work-life balance changed over time?
I like to think of work and life as being less of a balance and more of an integration and a dance that work and life do together, as opposed to each taking a turn of equal proportion. Throughout my career I have found that proportional balance between the two is difficult to achieve at any given moment, but being aware of how the are integrated seems to be more realistic. With technology creating greater work access points in our personal lives, the two are increasingly intertwined. I think it takes some discipline to make sure that neither work nor life take over. Yes, I know we think we want the life part to dominate, but I think there is more to the equation. First, I was in the World Trade Center on 9/11 – on the 103rd floor. At the time, I was 7 weeks pregnant with my daughter. I was fortunate to have responded quickly to the threat, having watched the first plane impact the first tower, and I was able to leave my building before it was impacted. Unfortunately, we lost many good people that day, people with whom I worked side-by-side daily. One of those people, my boss, also had young children at home. Prior to this fateful day, he was expressing to a couple of us that his traveling for work was going to slow down and he couldn’t wait to spend more time with his family. During the aftermath of 9/11, I stepped into his shoes, and I made a promise (along with others from the group) that I/we would never let “work life get out of balance,” if for no other reason than in his memory. A few years later, work was consuming me. Well, it wasn’t even the workload, per se. Instead, it was all the politics at the office and the emotionally draining and stressful parts of a highly charged work environment. My husband had a job opportunity in LA and I agreed it was a good move and time for me to take back some balance, especially with two little ones at home. I ended up working part time in a different area of the company. Then, I left to pursue my doctorate in organizational leadership. Here’s where I think it got a little interesting. After my doctorate was complete, I was exploring different work options so I had time on my hands. I had a lot of time on my hands. And I found myself startled at the realization that I had too much idle time on my hands! I thought that I would love having all this free time. Instead, I felt life had consumed me and I had lost touch with the idea of accomplishment that often comes with work. It surprised me. Previously, I tended to think of work life balance as a thought process to ensure that work didn’t get disproportionately consuming and take over life. What I discovered is that life can consume too. I began to ramp up work, and I looked for opportunities to do something meaningful. I felt that work needed to fulfill me in a purpose-driven way. Work that I could find fulfilling would fit with life. The two would be more apt to sync up and be integrated. I started teaching at the graduate level for Pepperdine University and Vanderbilt University in areas of leadership because I truly enjoy helping others realize their full potential. I consult organizations on strategic planning – starting with vision, mission and values, talent development and operational excellence. Lastly, I started a jewelry business – Aliki Designs. I handmade all the designs, which are Greek inspired (from my heritage), bridge everyday wear and elegance, and include a GIFt (Giving It Forward Together – portion of sales going to key non profit activities). While these represent. quite different jobs, I am so far managing to integrate all of this work with life and living. I believe this is the case because I am doing work that is meaningful and fulfilling for me, and because I accept that on any given day work and life are not in balance, per se, but I do treat them as integrated. Perhaps that stems from acceptance that I want both work and life, and I also enjoy finding ways to do work efficiently and creatively to make it most effective. PS. I had COVID-19 back in March. My professor jobs were mostly online anyway. I was able to work through the weeks that I was in isolation. I never went to the hospital; For me, it was manageable. Having work kept me focused and took my mind off ruminating about the state of the affairs.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
From the story I shared about work life “integration” you will see that I pivoted from a business executive in a Fortunate 500 corporation to building my own business, teaching graduate students, and advising organizations. So, one of my distinguishing qualities is that I have a breadth of experience, and the academic work supports what I learned anecdotally. I will also add that where I am today is not where I want to end. I am in the middle of the journey, and none of the steps have been easy. I experienced sexism at my former work in NYC; I overcame this by taking charge of my career trajectory. That meant expanding my horizon and moving away from the industry in which I spent 17 years. Recognizing the many transferrable skills that I had developed was a big part of the momentum. Moving away from the corporate world, I learned how to define success on my own terms; and I know if I moved back into a corporate position, I have gained confidence. My confidence also stems from having completed a doctorate. Going through a program that rigorous, and completing a kick-ass dissertation on corporate social responsibility, gave me a huge sense of accomplishment. And I truly believe this: I can do pretty much do anything that I put my mind to. For example, if I were interviewing for a job today, I know that I may not know how to do everything that the job requires, but I feel secure in saying that I have the capability, the drive and the tenacity to figure it out. And I will do a good job. Everyone doesn’t have to do a dissertation to figure that out for themselves; I do believe everyone needs to find a point of challenge to tackle and rise to it. That sense of accomplishment is fuel for good things ahead. My final case in point is the start of Aliki Designs. I have gone through my whole life until 2 years ago believing and accepting that I am not artistic. I have come to find out that, while that is still true, I have a creative side. I never thought about the two being distinctive, but now I believe that each and every person has the capacity to be creative. Creativity comes in many forms; artistry being one of them. Creativity is about dreaming. Creativity is about innovation. Creativity keeps us pushing forward. My personal brand is about helping people realize their full potential. The Aliki Designs brand is about everyday elegance and meaningful messages of positive intentions that inspire people toward growth and possibilities. So many additional lessons; I could keep going. I’ll pause there…..
Any great local spots you’d like to shoutout?
I would take the friend on a hike in Malibu and then cruise over to Hero’s Garden at the highest point on Pepperdine’s campus. It is breathtaking and serene there. I would take them for a cruise along Mulholland Drive. It is iconic LA with spectacular views. We would visit the Griffith Observatory. I am a big fan of the Greek Theater and the Hollywood Bowl so it would be great to see an attraction at one of those places. Then, I would also take them to Palos Verdes and head down to Abalone Cove at low tide, and a hike around the area, ending at Terranea for a meal at Nelson’s. I’m also partial to Venice – the canals, and Abbott Kinney, and I would eat at any restaurant there! Finally, I would take my friend to Good Times at Davey Wayne’s or Break Room for drinks and dancing (maybe karaoke). So many great places around LA!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
For sure I must start with my husband, who has always supported my pursuits and was there encouraging me in times of weakness. I’d like to thank a couple mentors: Margaret Weber and Corbette Doyle, who recommended me for work. It is supremely difficult to find employment as a middle-aged female. Unfortunately, ageism abounds, and so having a professional network and having people who will make introductions and give strong references is crucial for any woman wanting to ramp up their work. Finally, my family and friends have been instrumental in my life – for the laughs, for their support, for the shared experiences, and for their jewelry purchases too!
Max Berger. I have rights and permissions for these images.