Pursuit of Success: Single Working Mom

Interview with Shelmina Babai Abji

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MONIQUE BETTY: Hello and welcome to Looking Glass Academy. This is Executive Coach Monique Betty welcoming you to this month’s special edition titled, The Pursuit of Success by a Single Working Mom.

Today, my guest is Shelmina Babai Abji who had a thriving career at IBM, all while raising two children.

Shelmina, welcome.

SHELMINA: Thank you, Monique. I’m excited to be here.

MONIQUE: So to just start us off, Shelmina, if you could please just shed light on what do you attribute your success in advancing your career while raising two young children as a single parent?

SHELMINA: First and foremost, it started with my desire to succeed. And when we have the deep desire to succeed and when we have clarity around what that means to me, to you, very personal, internalize that, that’s when we start focusing our energy and our attention to that word “success”.

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After 12 years of marriage in which my ex-husband was my 50 percent partner not just in upkeeping my household but also raising my two children who at the time were two and four, we separated. My world, as I knew it, came to an end. I had to do a lot of soul-searching on what was important to me.

My definition of success at the time was that I was going to provide for my children, to provide for the wellbeing of my children, to provide a secure future for my children

For me, it was about education. It was really important that I be able to provide my children with the best education that was available to them.

MONIQUE: Absolutely.

SHELMINA: I decided that if my kids went to college, what would it cost me. And also, I wanted to retire without being a burden on anyone. I was very motivated to make sure that I had enough money to ensure that my kids went to college without taking out a loan and that I retired without being a burden.

That was my definition of success at the time. It was a very limited definition but it worked for me because at that time, it drove me to become who I am

MONIQUE: Was that a journey for you to get to that mindset of ownership, of saying, “Now I got to step to the plate and provide for my children educationally to ensure that I carry that burden.” Did you need help in that or did you get there pretty quickly? What was that part like for you?

SHELMINA: It wasn’t pretty quickly, Monique. And first of all, I completely agree with you about setting your mindset, what I believe, what I tell people is energy goes where attention goes.

MONIQUE: There you go. I love that.

SHELMINA: It didn’t happen right away. I was devastated, as I told you. I went through some serious soul-searching. I had to first find myself and my own truth and my own sense of confidence to get to that point. I had to do a lot of inner work.

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MONIQUE: Okay.

SHELMINA: I think it’s really important for women to realize that if you want to be able to take care of the wellbeing of your children, it has to start with your own wellbeing because you cannot give anyone what you yourself don’t own.

There’s a lot of internal work that has to occur within yourself to get to that point of being able to clearly define what success means to you. If your brain is not clear, you will not be able to define success and what that means to you.

MONIQUE: Please address some of your attributes for success. What were some of your other lessons in addition to taking care of, you know, your mental health, your wellbeing?

SHELMINA: I learned to simplify my life. I learned to say no to many things that didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. I really learned how not to waste time. And then I also learned how to do more.

One of my biggest challenge, Monique, was when I first became single, I found myself thinking about my children at work.

MONIQUE: Terrible, of course.

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SHELMINA: And I also found myself thinking about work when I was playing with my children. And then when they went to bed, I would feel badly about the fact that I was physically present but I wasn’t mentally and emotionally present with my children.

SHELMINA: [My progress] didn’t happen overnight, Monique. Initially, when I was disturbed mentally, I was angry. I was paralyzed by fear.

SHELMINA: You would hear about, you know, drug addicts and teenage pregnancy and school dropouts. And that can paralyze. You know, that fear is paralyzing. And for me, it was a very abnormal state of mind because I was a confident, happy go lucky individual who now is fearful, which means that my mental wellbeing was not right. And because I was fearful, I was angry and my daughter reminds me that, you know, a busy mom was better than an angry mom.

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MONIQUE: Was there a particular tool you used to help you on that focusing at home, you’re at home, at work, you’re at work?

SHELMINA: I had to do a lot of work on it. You know, I read a book. It was by Stephen Covey called, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

MONIQUE: Okay.

SHELMINA: And I would highly, it’s an old book. But I would highly recommend people to go back and think about, you know, Stephen Covey talks about this jar and he talks about big rocks. And big rocks are things like your mental wellbeing. And he says, if you don’t take care of your big rocks, you will fill your days with sand. It never gets to your big rocks. So let me share, so that was one thing. And the other thing, Monique, I really believe that, you know, when you need help and when you’re open to messages, angels come your way, messages come your way, books come your way when you are seeking, it comes to you.

MONIQUE: Well, you said the key word, which is being open to it, Shelmina.

SHELMINA: Yes.

MONIQUE: That’s the key word. You are open to some support.

SHELMINA: Yes. And I was a very deliberate about what’s important and what’s urgent, what’s not important. You know, you could spend 24 hours in an urgency mode that doesn’t add any value to anything that you define as success.

MONIQUE: Yeah.

SHELMINA: And you have to work at this, you must work at it. For me, I started with Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and I will tell you when I first became single, as I told you, my life was turned upside down. And I was running around like a chicken with my head cut-off. And I met a friend who knew me as this very confident, very positive, very…

MONIQUE: Having it all together?

SHELMINA: Yeah, all together. When this friend saw me, she goes, “What has happened to you?” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “You are not the Shelmina I have known since we were kids.” And, you know, sometimes it takes an external force to make you realize. And so I of course started telling her how I was stretched with time with a fulltime career and small children, cooking, cleaning, taking care of them, giving them a bath, reading them stories, making sure that I was there for them, not getting depleted of my energy. This was just really difficult. And she’s the one that told me, “You know, Shelmina, if you want to take care of your children, you first have to take care of yourself.” And I looked at her and I said, “I have no time. Are you kidding me? I have no time.” And she said, “Everybody has time. Everyone has 24 hours in a day.”

MONIQUE: Yes. Mm-hmm.

SHELMINA: It got me thinking and I said, “You know what, she is absolutely right. I cannot become a victim of my circumstances. I must control how I allocate my time. I must get myself back together.” And I started doing some yoga and some meditation first thing in the morning. Before the kids woke up, I replenished my soul and my energy by being by myself all alone in solitude, in quiet, a little bit of stretching, a little bit of yoga. When I was done with that hour, the next 23 hours, I was able to accomplish so much more because now I was full of energy and I could give it to my work, I could give it to my kids and I still had energy when went to sleep. It’s because…

MONIQUE: Terrific.

SHELMINA: …I took care of allowing myself to become energetic, to become calm, to become peaceful before I even started my day.

MONIQUE: Yes.

SHELMINA: I remember a time when I was at an IBM recognition event, listening to the legendary football coach. Now remember, I am not into sports at all. But this guy, Lou Holtz, you may have heard of him.

MONIQUE: Yes.

SHELMINA: Brilliant man. He started talking about how he defines win. He talked about winning and how he defines win. His definition of win was, what’s important now? W-I-N. What’s important now? In that really resonated with me. So when I was focused on a task, I would turn off the phone because this task was important to me. I would shut my office door. I did not allow interruptions.

And when I was interrupted by something that was truly needed, I was very quickly able to decide what’s important now.

MONIQUE: So having that acronym, what’s important now? Although, it’s simplistic in initial concept, it’s so powerful. And that tool in and of itself is a powerful resource for individuals to identify a mantra, something they can say to themselves to get unhinged when they’re about ready to derail and fall back into bad patterns that aren’t serving them well. If you have a mantra that resonates with your newly established belief system on where you are and how you’re progressing through life, that is a powerful tool.

So thank you for sharing that.

SHELMINA: You’re very welcome. I’ll tell you, it’s a process. It is a process. That’s why this self-reflection every week and to course correct where you made an error, don’t punish yourself, don’t be hard on yourself. Just accept the fact that you made an error and that you are going to change. But without reflecting, without understanding and without knowing yourself, your strength, your weaknesses, everything, it’s very difficult do this. They sound simple, but they are very, very difficult to implement if you do not reflect and learn.

MONIQUE: So Shelmina, in terms of what I heard you say in reference to your success principle, number one was really having that mindset, that deep desire to succeed, you know what you want for your children, you know what you wanted for your career. And working hard in a very disciplined manner to strike a balance that would allow you to then accomplish these goals.

Number two, focus your decision. Number three, make decision on what was most important and prioritize those. And then lastly, the power of the word WIN.

SHELMINA: Yes.

MONIQUE: And so and then also I applaud you for tapping into resources. And there are resources. No one is out here on an island. But to your point, you have to be open to receive. So you picking up a copy of Stephen Covey’s book, you being open in conversation with your friends and the one who pointed out to you that you need to take care of you before you could be any good anyone else.

SHELMINA: Yes.

MONIQUE: And you are resonating with yoga and meditation, and then recognizing the power of you taking control of one hour of your day would make you better for the other 23. And I truly applaud you for the efforts that you did during that time and I’m excited for the audience to hear kind of your continued story about the workplace because often times, workplaces don’t take kindly to the role of single parents. And we’ll have an opportunity to explore more of that in part 2 of our interview series.

MONIQUE: How did you manage the expectations of your boss and colleagues when you were faced with competing forces between work and home?

SHELMINA: That is a great question, Monique.

First it has to start with managing my own expectations. I had to be realistic about what’s possible, what’s not possible, what do I bring to the table.

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And, you know, once you find your own strength, once you have confidence in the value that you’re bringing to all your stakeholders, then you are able to clearly articulate, have open and honest communications with everyone on what your priorities are.

I was a single working mother and everybody knew that. But I also made sure that I was aligned with the right organization. It was a good cultural fit. IBM was a very friendly organization for people with children. But I was also cognizant of the fact that I needed to work harder to make sure that nobody ever questioned where my priorities lied. And nobody ever questioned the value that I was able to bring to the organization.

You see, Monique, when you clearly know what your value is, it gives you the confidence to have a conversation with your boss, with your colleagues. If you have to take the afternoon off, no one questions because they know that if she’s gone in the afternoon, she’s going to take care of what’s needed at night after the kids go to sleep.

To me, when you have that flexibility, it actually puts more responsibility on your shoulder. It puts accountability. You must ensure that you are not taking advantage of the flexibility but you’re using the flexibility and ensuring that while you have the flexibility to take care of your children, you are also giving what the organization, what all your stakeholders need from you.

MONIQUE: You held a quantitative job.

SHELMINA: Yeah, I didn’t have the job where I wouldn’t, in fact, I wouldn’t take a job where I had to be at a desk for 10 hours a day because I had to be realistic with myself that my kids were my priority. I had to go pick them up when the daycare ended. I had to attend a PTA meeting. If there was a doctor appointment, I needed to take them to the doctor. So I needed to be realistic about the jobs I can and cannot do.

And while I was raising my kids as a single parent, I wouldn’t have taken a job that required me to be in the office 12 hours a day because it would have defeated the purpose. My purpose, my definition of success was the wellbeing of my children.

And so I had to find that right balance, that right fit, that ability to soar with my strength to provide maximum value within the flexibility I needed to raise my children.

MONIQUE: What did you learn about yourself in this delicate act of balancing between a mom and a high performing professional?

SHELMINA: What I learned was that I was capable of accomplishing a lot more than I had ever imagined when I was present in the moment, when I was intentional about where I focused my attention.

I also learned that time was my most valuable asset and that I had to be very smart about how I allocated that asset. And when I decided to focus my attention, to give time to a certain task, I poured my heart and soul into the task. That task got done to the best of my ability.

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MONIQUE: And how receptive were those in the workplace of your new balance?

SHELMINA: It is about the value that you bring to the organization. Let’s not forget. It’s not about the time you put into work, it’s about the outcome you deliver at work.

I always met or exceeded my expectation at work and so no one ever questioned how many hours I work, or whether I was a single mom, not focused. I learned not to waste time.

MONIQUE: What role did relationships play? To be successful it is important that you still make the time to build relationships.

SHELMINA: My biggest strength, Monique, is to build trust and confidence. It’s to build relationships.

I work on getting to know people. I work on getting people to get to know me. And this is where when you have to take an afternoon off, nobody questions because they trust you. They have confidence in you. And I trust the people I work with. I have confidence in the people that I work for, I work with, who work for me. So relationships in my opinion is the underlying principle for success.

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MONIQUE: Did you share with your coworkers what your boundaries were?

SHELMINA: Yeah. You know, I don’t really discuss relationships. I live relationships.
Relationships are the big rocks. Remember, you must make time, you must make time for what’s most important to you. You are laying the foundation. If you don’t cultivate the relationship, you don’t have a solid foundation. When you start building on that foundation, it will crack. So you must take the time to build relationships with all your stakeholders. No relationship is small enough.

MONIQUE: That’s a terrific point because inside of organizations, so these relationships get so key in particular of navigating. You need others to be speaking up for you and on your behalf when you’re not there about what a terrific job you would do in this role or that role. And, you know, seeing you as a leader, you know, those are those internal advocates that only get there when you establish that quality relationship. And you cannot just make it all about just the work or getting that next sale with a client without navigating those internal relationships.

MONIQUE : I have one last question for you. If you were granted a do-over, particularly during the trying times of trying to navigate your career and your role as mom, what would you have done differently?

SHELMINA: I will tell you that if I had a do-over, I would have learned to more gratefully accept the situation that I found myself in. I would have learned to do that faster. I would have found more help. I could have gone to a counselor, I never went to a counselor.

I would have shortened the timeframe of being paralyzed by fear.

MONIQUE: Right, well, and that is terrific, you know, to draw our interview time to a close because you’re not trying to deny your emotions. It was your truth. And I would imagine it’s the truth of anyone going through a divorce and finding yourself with two young children and being a working parent that it’s uncharted territory and you’re, been feeling the [responsibility] of keeping a roof on their heads, food on the table, education to be planned for, for your children, the way that, so it’s not a matter of denying your emotions you’re going to go through something. But to your point, it’s to seek support sooner so the duration isn’t that long. And that you’re in control and you’re the master of your journey. Is that a good way to bring us to a wrap up, Shelmina?

SHELMINA: It’s a great way. And let’s end this with the beginning– I am doing what I’m doing right now and speaking to more women is because I want to accelerate their journey. I want them to know that they don’t have to suffer for as long as did. And that it is possible to get over it and to gratefully accept it and to not become a victim of your circumstance because I will tell you Monique, when you change yourself, your external environment changes with you. When you become positive, you draw positivity into your life. And so the change has to start within. And the sooner you change, the faster you will be on the road to success.
MONIQUE: Bravo. Thank you so much Shelmina for your time today. And to our listeners at Looking Glass Academy, thank you for being with us. Make it a great day everyone.

SHELMINA: Thank you, Monique.