Whitney von Haam shares how she runs a nonprofit, gives back, and still makes space in her life for what matters most.
By Alex Davis
When we set goals for our careers and lives, “do what makes you happy” is rarely a factor we include. However, no matter how hard we try to suppress the nagging feelings in the back of our minds that we would rather do something else for a living, we all undeniably want to be happy in our work. Unfortunately, we all tend to welcome a chorus of voices that stops us from pursuing what we want: the unsolicited opinions of well-meaning people who tell us what we would be so “good at,” societal values about what defines success, maxims about what makes a “good life.”
At some point, when do we just shut this all down and think about what kind of life we actually want? And more importantly, when will we just accept that we can pursue this life – AND still be successful?
Whitney von Haam is an inspiring example of a woman who did all of this and more.
She is the Executive Director of the Wake County Bar Association, has served on the boards of countless nonprofits in her community, is a past president of the Junior League of Raleigh, and has a list of professional accomplishments that would stretch from here to Fiji. But what is so interesting about Whitney is not her long list of accomplishments, but the fact that in spite of them, she is clearly a very happy person. She is a fixture in her community, known and loved by all, but also has three young children and speaks often of how she preserves her weekends for family time. She commits time during the week to give each of her children one-on-one attention, outsources household chores in order to maximize time to recharge and spend time with her family, and refuses to compromise her values.
I am so excited to share some of her wisdom about how she has built a meaningful career while maintaining a fulfilling personal life. I hope you are as inspired as I was by her perspective on how to be a happy and balanced professional.
Alex Davis: Tell us about your career path and your journey to the Wake County Bar Association.
Whitney von Haam: Like most great journeys, my current position was attained by a fair share of serendipity and planning. I went to graduate school in Georgia and worked for two publishing companies in Atlanta after graduation, doing both marketing and editing. As my then-fiancé and I planned our wedding and subsequent life together, we knew we didn’t want to grow roots in Atlanta. Therefore, when we arrived home from our honeymoon, we quit our jobs and made plans to move to Raleigh, North Carolina. We had visited a number of times, since I have a sister who lives in Raleigh with her family. We had hoped one of us would have a job before arriving, and I was offered a job as the Assistant Director of Communications at the North Carolina Bar Association (NCBA), literally as the movers were loading our furniture into our apartment. I served in that role for almost a year, until there was a sudden opening for the Membership Director role at the NCBA. What I found editing all of the NCBA’s section newsletters is that my people skills were not being exercised, and it drove me crazy. As Membership Director, I traveled around the state sharing the menu of valuable membership services that NCBA members could enjoy. I loved the interaction with lawyers and the chance to utilize my marketing background.
The week I returned from maternity leave with my twins (who are now about to turn eight), the then-executive director of the Wake County Bar Association announced her retirement. What a leap of faith that the search committee took, since I had nine-month-old twins and a three-year-old daughter when they offered me the job! Luckily, they had confidence in my skills and experience, and I must have shown up to the interview with minimal snot or drool on my suit. I’ve loved every minute of serving the WCBA – I think we have both honored the great legacy of the organization, while also reinvigorating the events, services and membership.
AD: What drew you to the nonprofit sector?
WVH: I didn’t go looking for a nonprofit job when I was drawn to the NCBA 17 years ago. However, I have become very passionate about the important role membership-based organizations play in our lives. I enjoy memberships within a variety of organizations, and my experience as a member serves to make me a better employee. I have loved the emphasis placed on work-life balance and flexibility that I’ve grown to not only enjoy, but in many ways, take for granted. What a gift to come to work each day happy and ready to serve!
AD: What does a typical day look like for you as Executive Director?
WVH: I think what I like best about my job is how atypical each day is. Most days, I start by going through emails, answering member and staff questions, and returning calls. From that point, it can really change from day to day. I go to a lot of committee meetings and meet with our many partners in the community, such as Legal Aid or the Pro Bono Resource Center. I get to regularly interact with people, whether that involves a meeting, a Continuing Legal Education Course, socials, or running into folks out and about, as well as working on projects. Getting a new “boss” or bosses on years when we have two separate organization presidents keeps my job feeling very fresh. Each leader has new ideas and helping them achieve their goals as president, as well as our board’s goals and those of our strategic plan, ensures that we always have new things to do and new projects to think about.
AD: On top of leading a nonprofit, you also are a wife, a mother to three, and a leader in the local community. How do you make this all work?
WVH: Well, teamwork is very important, and I have a lot of teams around me. First and foremost is my incredibly supportive husband, Eric. I also work with the best group of co-workers that anyone could wish for. Committed to the same goal and focused on member satisfaction, we get a lot done, and we have a lot of fun doing it. I’ve continued to work and volunteer throughout even the earliest days of my kids’ lives, so they don’t know otherwise. I was at the board meeting where we voted on buying the current Junior League building when my older daughter was ten days old. At the time, it didn’t seem weird to me. In fact, being at the board meeting felt much more natural than the new title I had at home!
I don’t always get to spend great amounts of time with my kids during the week, but I try to have a “meaningful moment” with each one every day, whether that is reading together at bedtime, having a good conversation while driving to an activity, or even playing a game together. Additionally, spending the weekends with my family is generally sacrosanct. I either want it to be five or two – that is, the five of us hanging out or my husband and I having a date night. We don’t do a lot of parties or even dinners with other couples, because we really need to reconnect as a family on our weekends. I’m pretty social during the week, between work, volunteering and hanging out with friends, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on something.
AD: A lot of professional women are starting to say that “balance” is overrated and “integration” is what it is all about. Do you agree? What does integration mean to you and how have you applied that concept in your life?
WVH: Absolutely! I definitely feel like integration is the key! It may mean that during my workday, I’m running over to the school to volunteer for an hour, or finishing emails at night once the kids go to bed. I have a generally hard-and-fast rule that whatever gets on my calendar first is there – whether it is for work, volunteering or kids’ activities. However, I will say that the only thing that I will reschedule things for will be special activities for the kids: for example, the year my daughter got into the school spelling bee, I had to do a little shuffling of my schedule. Generally though, whatever is on the calendar first, wins. AND, I make no apologies for it. I might not share that the “very important appointment that I can’t change” is actually my quarterly hair appointment or something, because it doesn’t have to be on anyone’s hierarchy of importance other than mine. Thankfully, I work in a job where that level of flexibility is fine. It makes up for early morning meetings (which I generally love!) and evening events.
AD: Would you say that you “do it all,” or you simply do what is important?
WVH: I definitely don’t do it all, as my gym membership would attest! I am at peace with the things that I don’t get to do, knowing that there will be a day for more reading, yoga and trips to the theater to see movies that aren’t cartoons, and embracing the time I have running my kids around to their various activities. I know these years are very limited. I’ve also had to make some concessions in my life. I used to be very concerned about my house always feeling pulled together and everything in its place. Living with four other people that don’t have that same quest for cleanliness and organization has meant that I needed to adjust my expectations…or go nuts! I also found myself uttering a new mantra after the twins were born when I would do a project around the house: It’s not perfect, but it’s better. Perfection was something that I needed to let go of. Making sure that my relationship with my husband and my kids is healthy and proliferating is number one. As long as I am feeding those things, everything else seems to fit into place.
AD: What are your top three favorite time-saving tricks that you use to make space in your life for what is important?
- I have REALLY missed reading. Even when I try to read a book, I find myself falling asleep. A good friend introduced me to Audible, and I love it! I listen to all the books I’ve wanted to read and not had time…or they’ve been too big and scary for me to finish. It has transformed my time in the car. I do a lot of running around during the day, and probably end up with about 1-1.5 hours to listen each day. Now, rather than getting stressed out in traffic, I find myself excited to have extra time to listen!
- When my twins were about two, we arrived home one beautiful spring evening and they wanted to go outside and play. They were still too young to play outside by themselves, and I had to say, “no, come inside because I have to make dinner.” It was a real turning point for me. I wanted us to be outside playing, not stuck inside making dinner. That’s when a really special person came into my life: Chef Leanne. Leanne is another working mom who had worked in restaurants for most of her early career and she LOVED to cook. She has a business where she sends out a menu of about 3-4 entrée options a week. I order a couple things for my family, and she delivers the food to our garage refrigerator on Sundays. Presto! We have these incredibly yummy meals without processed foods, and it takes me only a few minutes to heat up – therefore, I got back some time with the kids that otherwise I was missing. In the end, I found that we’ve saved money, since we’re not buying things at the grocery store with the best of intentions to cook it, and then being tired and going out OR ordering in.
- Letting go of control in some areas. A great example in our house is that I am no longer the primary grocery shopper. My husband took over this job when the twins were born – it was a great way for him to get out of the house. Then, when they were toddlers, it was a great way to get them out of the house. He’s continued with this ever since. It’s really nice to know that it isn’t my primary responsibility, and he is much better at it than me, anyway.
AD: If one of your daughters told you she wanted to be a CEO or a nonprofit Executive Director one day, what practical advice would you give her?
WVH: I would tell her that the most important skill that she can develop is self-compassion. I am very forgiving to others when they make mistakes, but I found that I was not as easy on myself. You know, I would mentally beat myself up for making dumb mistakes, such as “why didn’t I leave my coat in the car? It’s warm now and I have to carry it around. Stupid, stupid!” I’ve really had to learn how to lay off a bit. It’s like I tell my husband: “If you think I nag YOU a lot, you should hear just how much I nag ME. And, I can’t get away from myself!”
AD: A lot of women worry that if they pursue excellence in their careers, their family lives will suffer. As someone who has successfully integrated professional life and family life, what would you tell these women?
WVH: I would tell anyone to be absolutely truthful with herself about what TRULY makes her happy. Happiness is the major driver of all of my decisions – from the big ones to the small ones. For instance, many folks told me early in my career that I would be great at sales and that I could make tons of money. I asked myself, “does tons of money sound like what would make me happy?” Just like anyone who has ever bought a lottery ticket thinks, my initial thought was, “Heck yeah!” However, then I thought about having sales goals and time limits…and factors beyond my control that could add stress, and suddenly, it didn’t add up to something that sounded like it would make me happy. In a similar vein, I made a conscious decision that I’m someone who isn’t going to be the best dressed or have the best hair (in fact, frequently I head out on the weekends with my hair still wet!). There were times when I’ve grappled with this – particularly when I was president of Junior League, but you know, it’s just not my thing. It doesn’t make me happy waking up an hour earlier each day to be more pulled together. I’d rather cuddle with my kids, cats or husband in bed. THAT makes me happy (and truly my bed is the place on earth where I’m the happiest – I love it!). You’re going to remember me for having a loud laugh and always smiling, not for being pulled together. And, you know what? That’s okay with me.
Also, I believe that getting enough sleep makes everything else work better. I normally get between 7-8 hours of sleep a night. I just need that much, and I think it’s worth getting it. I’m a happier wife and mom if I’m well rested In fact, when I’m tired, I immediately warn my kids and husband. I’ve also found if they’re on alert that the fuse is short, they will also dial it down to help out.
AD: You have shared with other women about how a thriving career often involves having to navigate difficult conversations. Why is this important, and what have your learned from developing this skill?
WVH: The ability to have difficult conversations, I believe, is critical to being successful in a career. Too many people think they are being kind to others by avoiding things that need to be said. I find it is much more humane to have the conversation, but do so in a manner that allows for all people in the conversation to maintain their dignity. I don’t pander to people that I’ve needed to say tough things to – whether it has been letting someone go from a job or giving difficult feedback. However, I am still empathetic to those on the other end of the conversation. Like anything, I think this is a skill that requires practice and training. People aren’t automatically good at the tough conversations. One thing I’ve found to be really helpful is developing my opening line and trying it out on someone (I frequently turn to my husband for this help!) until I’ve perfected what the first thing I am going to say is.
AD: What are some of your personal and professional goals in the coming year?
WVH: My daughter has prepared a reading checklist of 12 different types of books that I need to read in the next year – I think I can do that! The categories are, for instance: a book that someone else has picked out for you, or a book that has won an award.
I’m finishing off some volunteer duties, such as fund development chair for SAFEchild (it’s our 25th year, so it’s a big one!) and program committee chair for the National Association of Bar Executives (planning two national conferences!). And, starting some new ones, such as the Junior League of Raleigh Board and the Girl Scouts of the North Carolina Coastal Pines’ Board Development Committee.
At the WCBA, we’ll be doing a new strategic plan, which I always find to be a fun exercise. I’m not great at being visionary – I leave that to my members, but I am good at thinking through how to make those plans happen.
And, finally, I made a new year’s resolution that I would light more candles. My kids are now old enough that I can have some candles around the house, and darn it, I love it.
Featured Image by Haute Chocolate.