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Anne Cicero Weisberg

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If Anne Weisberg has anything to say about it, the most talented and ambitious workers among us will not be climbing the corporate ladder. Instead, they’ll be scaling the corporate lattice—flexibly ramping up and down over the course of their careers as the circumstances of their lives evolve.

The corporate lattice is the central image that Weisberg and cowriter Cathleen Benko introduce in their paradigm-shifting book about the workplace, Mass Career Customization. It’s also an accurate description of the way Weisberg’s own career has unfolded over the last 25 years. Linear trajectories aren’t in her DNA.

In the 1970s Weisberg was an undergraduate at Cornell when the first energy crisis hit, amounting to what many in this country saw as a wake-up call to lessen our dependence on oil. Weisberg’s response to the crisis was to drop out of school and work to promote solar energy, eventually moving to New Mexico as a VISTA volunteer.

When she decided to go back to school she chose Berkeley, in part because her sister, Carla Cicero, was there (and still is, as senior curator at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology), but it also felt like a good fit. “The College of Natural Resources had this degree—Political Economy of Natural Resources—which was exactly what I wanted to study,” she says. “I basically wanted to make the world a better place.” This imperative to do good was instilled in her from a young age. So, too, was the importance of finding work she loved. Weisberg’s mother, a successful architect, stressed the necessity of carving out a satisfying work life.

Weisberg took that to heart. She’s long seen herself as a “change agent,” and early on she assumed that a career in law—and perhaps a life in politics—was the most logical vehicle for change. So after Cal, she went to Harvard Law School, where she graduated with honors. Three years later she had a law degree, a husband, and a baby on the way.

She spent the next year clerking for a federal judge in Chicago—the perfect law job for a new mother because the hours were nine to five. The following year her husband’s career drew them to New York, a city she viewed as less than hospitable to working mothers. She soon found out just how inhospitable. She interviewed at all the city’s major law firms, and despite her impressive resumé, didn’t get a single offer. “It wasn’t the resumé,” Weisberg says. “It was the fact that I had a ten-month-old at home.”

She wound up at a small environmental firm where motherhood wasn’t considered a liability. But the closed doors had made their impact and altered the direction of her career. “Even though I’d pursued this path in environmental law, the whole issue of work-life integration really became my passion.”

During this time, Weisberg had begun fielding calls from former law school colleagues, women wanting to start families who saw her as a font of information. When a publishing friend suggested she write a book about mothers and work, Weisberg loved the idea. She took a sabbatical from the law firm and wrote Everything a Working Mother Needs to Know.

By the time she finished the book, she had three children—and wanted to continue to pursue her passion in the work-life field. She went to work at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing women at work. Her first assignment was to direct a research study on the career experiences of male and female law graduates.

Among the study’s most interesting findings, Weisberg says, was that both men and women in law considered work-life conflict the number one barrier to women’s advancement. In the corporate world, women cited other issues: lack of sponsorship and access to informal networks. “But in the law, most major firms have a very rigid career track. It’s up or out in eight to ten years.” Considering that 28 was the average age of women coming out of law school, the implications seemed clear. “The career path structure was basically forcing them to choose between making a baby or making partner. And most women are going to choose the former.”

As Weisberg saw it, this fundamental structural rigidity was what shut women out of the highest levels, not only of law but any number of arenas. “It’s a structural issue, and if we’re going to make progress, we’re going to have to redesign how careers are built.” From ladders to lattices.

Today Weisberg is a Talent Director at Deloitte, the professional services giant, where the concept of “mass career customization” was born. In a nutshell, all of Deloitte’s 50,000 workers have the option to “dial up” or “dial down”—working more or working less at different phases of their careers, as long as their choices work for them and for the business. Weisman says this flexibility doesn’t only benefit working mothers; it benefits fathers, workers with aging parents, as well as boomers who aren’t ready to retire but who no longer want to work at the same intensity.

And it’s not only corporations that are interested in a more flexible workplace. After blizzards shut down the government for a week last year—to the tune of $400 million in lost productivity—the Obama administration held a forum on workplace flexibility. Suddenly, enabling people to work from home looked stunningly cost-effective.

Weisberg believes we’re on the cusp of a whole new vision of work. “Essentially, we need to think about the workplace and the home front as one ecosystem,” she says. “It’s all just life.”

At press time, Weisberg was beginning a new position as Director of Diversity at Blackrock, a global financial management firm.

-Carol Ghiglieri


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