TIAA CEO Thasunda Brown Duckett on Rethinking Your Typical Approach to Work-Life Balance

Originally published on LinkedIn. TIAA ranked No. 9 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.


As we start sending kids back to school and gear up for Corporate America’s busiest season, it’s a great time to approach work with a fresh mindset.

Whatever your notion of “work-life balance” was before, the pandemic probably changed it. So many of us had to suddenly find space to work from home while helping children with remote learning, or scramble for safe childcare to keep serving customers or working the hospital floor. And of course, we were the fortunate ones. So many people have struggled as work dried up.

Now that unemployment is leveling out and we’re all trying to adjust to the current state, I’m often asked how I find time to “do it all.” And I do have a lot on my plate. In addition to serving as CEO of TIAA, my life outside of work is anchored on three things: Family, friends and philanthropy.

I have four children ranging in age from 5 to their 20s and an amazing husband. So I am a wife and mother. I am a daughter to Otis and Rosie Brown and my grandmother, who is in her 90s. I’m a sister to my brothers and an aunt to their children. So right there, I spend a lot of time connecting with my family where I live and in other states as well. I also need time to hang out with my friends and just unwind. That’s very important to me, so I try to find those moments.

I believe that when much is given, much is required, and I feel fortunate to give back through philanthropic work anchored on youth. I created a foundation in my parents’ honor and serve as a board member for a number of wonderful nonprofit organizations as well.

So how do I achieve a work-life balance? I don’t believe it’s possible. Instead, I live my life like a diversified portfolio. I write down everything that matters to me, and I allocate my time. That step is important to me because nothing happens unless it’s tracked.

Half the battle in living a full, meaningful life – for everyone, not just working parents — is not feeling shame, or guilt when you’re taking time away from one part of your life that’s really important to you for another. It’s being realistic. Maybe this week I have nonstop quarterly meetings at work, and that’s a huge portion of my current allocation of time. So the next week, I can consciously work to reconnect more deeply with my other priorities.

I would urge you to try this approach. Think about everything that really matters to you and aligns to who you are. As with the financial markets, you may have some ups and downs, and that’s okay. We expect volatility in most portfolios. You may have to spend more time on certain parts of your life at times than others, but over time you can outperform.

It’s really all about not having regrets. Down the road, you don’t want to be saying, “I didn’t spend enough time with my friends,” or, “I didn’t do enough for me – I lost myself when I had children,” or after you got married.

So maybe all you can do at the moment is one little thing – maybe with 2 percent of your time. Maybe you can take one course right now in an online program. But you’re keeping your professional development in your portfolio. Gradually, you might be able to increase your allocation. Maybe it takes you 10 years to earn that degree, but you’ve still earned it.

I didn’t learn this approach from business leaders earning six-figure salaries. My own parents have always lived this way, and they instilled the same values in me through their example. They were present not just for me and my brothers but also for the community. My dad would cut kids’ hair, and my mom, a teacher, would tutor them. She would encourage children to believe they could be successful.

That’s why our foundation focuses on giving scholarships anchored not in your GPA, or what sports or activities you do at school, but in character. We look for creativity, grit and perseverance. In other words, the outcome of the whole portfolio, when ordinary people are doing the extraordinary.

That’s why I find it so important to put everything down on paper that matters to you. Even allocating 1 percent of your time to what you find meaningful could lead to a better outcome. And over time, you get to outperform this thing called life.