Two years ago this story would never have seen the light of day. No one would have known Shari Joslin’s story except Shari Joslin, and there was no was she was talking.
What was she like then? Arrogant, perhaps. Egotistical, certainly. And a Class-A workaholic who put her BlackBerry ahead of pretty much everyone she knew. Deep down, she didn’t believe the people who worked under her could really handle their jobs. Forget that they were professionals too. Forget that they had minds and ideas and perspectives of their own. She was the boss, and that’s all the further the communication ever really got.
But Shari Joslin 2.0 is a more relaxed model. Quick to laugh, easy to approach, and stunningly candid, she lays out her personal and professional life with matter-of-fact ease in an accent that is pure Kentucky bluegrass. She came to New Jersey with no family, save for a young daughter she cared for by herself, and she didn’t need anybody. Until she realized that she did.
What changed her was the act of following through on her ambition. She wanted an executive MBA because she had hoped it would change her life for the better. And to her surprise, it actually did.
Joslin is business development manager for the beverage division at Firmenich, a Switzerland-based developer of fragrances and flavorings whose U.S. headquarters is located at 250 Plainsboro Road. She was in this same position two years ago, when she thought it was time to take a necessary step to help her to the next rung on the corporate ladder. She didn’t believe that getting an EMBA would make her an automatic CEO, but she knew that if she were ever to get to a spot like that, getting this degree meant getting her ticket punched. She enrolled in the fledgling EMBA program at Rider University and committed herself to the workload — every Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., for 21 weeks.
Saturday had been her day to spend with her daughter, Katarina, now 14. Weekdays were spent working, usually traveling. When Katarina was small, she was usually in bed by 6 p.m., so Joslin didn’t feel so guilty about working late. Many of her late nights were spent at home, yes, but she spent most of her time on her BlackBerry, returning calls and E-mails, talking with customers around the world, and setting up more travel time. At her peak, she traveled three or four times a week, mostly to domestic destinations, to see what Firmenich could do for its beverage clients.
Now she was about to lose her Saturdays too, which at first was no big deal. “We were in school from 8 to 5 so it was like just another day at work,” she says. Saturday movies or lunch with Katarina would simply be replaced by Saturday night dinner and Sunday time together.
By the end of the first few weeks the reality of her commitment was obvious. It wasn’t the $55,000 tuition (paid in part by Firmenich, and in exchange for which Joslin has committed to work there for another three years), nor even that her Saturdays had become another work day. She just looked around and noticed that her priorities had gone akimbo and that she had to juggle a job, a daughter, and school. There was no big a-ha moment, just the realization that she went from really busy to really, really busy and yet seemed to never have the time she needed for anything.
One of the EMBA program’s first ventures was to teach the 10 executive-level students about personal management. Everyone used the word “balance.” For Joslin, it didn’t register.
The harder she tried to carve out any kind of balance between work, life, and school, the less able she was to do it. Then, about halfway through her first semester, a business coach in the course used a different word — integration.
The difference between balance and integration, Joslin says, is that while balance means allotting eight hours to work, two hours to homework, and three hours to the kids every day, integration means working all avenues of your life together when the time is best for a particular avenue.
At home, she has learned to pause before responding to her BlackBerry. She still sleeps with it and she always answers it, but it doesn’t automatically wake her up like it used to, and she does not always answer it right away. If she and Katarina are doing something together, the job can wait an hour or two.
Being the mother of a teenager has opened things up a little for Joslin. Katarina is old enough to take care of herself at home in the afternoons, but not old enough to stay home alone whenever her mother is out of town overnight. “She like’s to think she’s old enough, but she’s not,” Joslin says.
With her family back in Kentucky, Joslin has cultivated a network of trusted friends who have become her surrogate family here. Neighbors and the families of Katarina’s friends take her in when Joslin goes out of town.
Joslin says the effort to integrate work, school, and family demands a good support network. If you have good family who can help you out, use them. If you need to make some friends, make some. But for God’s sake, don’t try to go it alone.
The instinct to pull back every now and again, to trust in others, and to let Katarina’s wishes trump other things might have been there all along, but it had been quashed by Joslin’s ambitions. She felt the way to get ahead in life was to work, and all other things would fall into place accordingly. But thanks to some insights gleaned from her EMBA study, Joslin has learned the value of life outside the office.
“You don’t have to be a workaholic to get ahead in life,” she says. “Stepping away has made me a better person all around. You don’t have to work 24/7.”
This is not to suggest that Joslin has ever overlooked her daughter. She says that no matter what, she was always there for Katarina’s choral concerts, her cheerleading camps, her school activities. She has always made time for her daughter, she has just come to realize that making a better life for Katarina means more than making money and being a whiz-bang executive type.
Joslin finds herself more often chauffeuring Katarina and her friends than simply hanging out, just the two of them, now that Katarina is 14. But Joslin makes it a point to leave work around 5 or 5:30 (rather than 8) and is particularly sensitive to her daughter’s temperament. When Katarina’s mood gets terser, Joslin knows it’s time to pull back on the work and spend more time with her.
This sensitivity happened largely because of the EMBA, Joslin says. The course, designed to mimic real-world executive settings, takes its lessons on work/life/school balance seriously.
More than just throwing students into a classroom, the instructors take great pains to guide them through management and leadership skills. Hand-in-hand with personal time management, Joslin says, are lessons in what makes an effective leader. She was surprised to find out that the answer is to take a back seat when necessary.
“Being a good leader means being a good follower too,” she says. “It takes a great deal of humility.”
Her sentiments hold true even when she knows she’s right and others aren’t. Whereas the Shari Joslin of 2007 would never say this, the new model says: “Sometimes you just have to let people make mistakes.”
In the environment of the program Joslin learned the value of listening. To her surprise, it turns out that other people actually have good ideas sometimes. It also turns out that listening has helped her pay better attention to Katarina’s moods. Despite her daughter’s independent nature and despite her being 14, Joslin says she has traded the physically demanding side of motherhood for the emotionally demanding one. “She’s at an age where she needs attention,” Joslin says. “And I can always tell by her mood when she needs it.”
Joslin knew she had made serious progress when she bought Katarina two tickets to see 16-year-old Canadian pop star Justin Bieber not too long ago. Joslin had bought two VIP tickets, expecting Katarina to go with a friend. Katarina’s answer: “I want to take my mom.”
Joslin still cries when she talks about it.
Joslin admits that she didn’t expect an executive business degree to give her better family and life skills, but she got them nonetheless. She didn’t expect it to beat the ego out of her either, but it did. And even though she has always had a solid work ethic, she says the EMBA has taught her the difference between being a working mom and being a mom who is always working.
Her work ethic in general, she says, was forged by her father, whose career has been on the managerial side of the supply chain. He has worked in various food-related plants, content to be a manager, uninterested in running the show itself.
Joslin, on the other hand, was born ambitious. At 18 she started working at the Brown-Forman distillery in Kentucky. This is the company that makes Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort, and various other name brand liquors. By age 19, she and one of her bosses left to start a product development consulting company. “It was just the two of us for a while,” she says. I stayed with him for seven years, but I didn’t know whether I really wanted to be an entrepreneur.”
During this tenure Joslin finished college. She holds a bachelor’s in chemistry from Bellarmine University in Kentucky, Class of 1997. She moved onto Sensient, a flavorings company, where she says “I cleaned house.” Soon she took up another co-worker on his offer to join him at Danisco in Florida. Danisco sold its flavors division to Firmenich in 2007, leading Joslin to New Jersey.
“People always ask me, ‘How could you leave Florida for New Jersey?’” she says. “But I like the seasons. Florida only has two — summer and more summer.”
These days Joslin is responsible mainly for profit and loss strategies in her division (“It’s all P&L”) and seemingly a thousand other responsibilities within the company. It’s the consequence of ambition. “When you do good work, you get more to do,” she says. She manages the business units that cover juices, drinks, and alcoholic beverages.
Firmenich is fond of certain acronyms, such as TASTE, which stands for trust, agility, success, talent, and engagement. Joslin oversees the success aspect, a 19-person subdivision that shares and distributes Firmenich success stories.
Agility, she says, is the hardest for most (including herself) to conquer. She has always been the type to adapt, but most people have a tough time getting their integration in line, much as she did herself.
And while she has a few titles Including that of champion of DIVISION, Joslin has stopped letting herself get hung up on titles. “I asked myself, ‘What makes me successful?” she says. “With my daughter, with my job.” Two years ago she would have said the title. Today she would say her ability to lead. And, when necessary, to follow.
“Seriously,” she says. “Who cares about a title?”