Successful Women Reflecting on Work-Life Balance
Many working women choose their career path because they have been inspired by other women. With each chapter of my career, there have been numerous women cheering me on, giving me advice and sharing how they manage to strike harmony between work and home. Work-life balance sounds ideal in theory, but figuring out how to juggle it all is always a challenge, especially when it seems the system is working against us. A demanding career makes things even more difficult; between the back-to-back meetings, endless emails, and constant deadlines, it’s tricky enough to squeeze in a good cup of coffee, let alone carve out time for a date night, kids’ school activities, or a quick yoga class. During this blog series, I invite you to meet women in my life who have found harmony and balance between their professional and personal life. So, pull up an OfficeSource chair and meet the amazing women in my life.
President and CEO
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
“A successful woman is one who can build a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at her.”
– Ishania Kurmi
Being appointed to the position in May 2015, she became the first female and youngest CEO in the Symphony’s 123-year history. Talk about a strong and determined woman! Melia has been working in the Symphony environment for nearly 25 years, after receiving a Bachelor of Music Degree in 1994 from the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music with a major in piano performance and a minor in musicology. In April 2007, she also received a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis on nonprofit leadership from Grand Valley State University. And while her resume is impressive enough with all of the above, she is also a board member of Young Presidents Organization (YPO), the International Women’s Forum and an officer for Group1 Managers at the League of American Orchestras. She lives in the Pittsburgh suburbs with her husband and two children.
Melia and I became friends a few years ago, after meeting at a family function. It was at this function where we discussed the balance of being a working mom and keeping up with demands of both family and career. I continue to admire the way she is able to balance it all. After sitting down again with her recently, I was able to capture in writing some of her advice on work-life balance and how to succeed as a woman in the working world. I hope that her words below inspire you to work hard, stay dedicated, and realize that you are all rock stars
Here are some of the Questions I asked Melia.
My biggest accomplishment in my career has been the organizational turn-around since my arrival in 2015 at the PSO. The Pittsburgh Symphony was in a challenged position financially; it needed better governance from the board, and the culture on the staff was less than optimal. It was a much more challenging situation than what I thought, and we had to make some hard changes to save the organization. We had to endure a painful work stoppage with our musicians in 2016, which was probably the lowest point and hardest thing I have ever done. Between 2016 and 2019, we have grown earned revenue and contributed revenue significantly to fix the operating accrual budget and the past two years we have seen surplus budgets for the first time in over a decade. Our challenges are not solved completely, but we are about 180 degrees from where we were five years ago on every front.
My biggest accomplishment in my personal life is the fact that I have a wonderful husband, who was diagnosed with brain cancer about 25 years ago. He survived the cancer, which is a real miracle, and he is my beacon of strength. It’s been a journey for us, and not easy to say the least. He is technically disabled due to the brain damage of surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy, but he is physically quite able and a wonderful stay at home father to our two children. We have a wonderful family, and my husband’s strength is always a reminder to me of what’s really important in life.
In our organization, we work when others play. We also work when others work! I have a 9 AM-5 PM job during the week and a 5 PM-midnight job often several nights a week and on the weekends, with concerts and other Symphony/non-symphony events in the community. I also have two children that I love to be with and a wonderful husband. I learned a long time ago that if you try to be there for everyone, you will fail. I had to learn how to forgive myself for not always being Super Mom, learn to take care of my own health and well-being first, and learn to not feel guilty about building time into my work schedule for me and my family. Some tactical ways I’ve done this are:
(1) My assistant only books me three nights a week – including concerts. If I want to do more than that, I do it, but she stops at three and reminds me before I book more.
(2) The important school events, like parent-teacher conferences, band concerts, school orientations, kid sporting events are booked in my calendar and are hard to negotiate off if asked to move.
(3) I schedule ALL my vacation days at the beginning of the year. I never let one go to waste!
(4) If I’ve got a late night on the calendar, I come in later in the morning, or take a 3-4 hour break in the afternoon and go home to be with the kids and my husband.
(5) I read every night, if even for two minutes, and journal to get stuff out of my head before I go to sleep.
(6) I finally hired a personal trainer to make sure I go to the gym and exercise on a regular basis.
I believe my coworkers would describe me as collaborative, empowering, dedicated and passionate. I asked my kids how they would describe me and they said I am determined, loving, kind and supportive.
Some of my core values are kindness, empathy, commitment, trust, and integrity. I am dedicated to the work I do and to my family. I give people the benefit of the doubt and try to put myself in their shoes to better understand where they are coming from. I always think about what information I know and who else needs to be informed. I also insist on strong communication among my staff and myself. I don’t ever want to be surprised or blindsided.
Balancing my work and personal life, and the guilt associated with feeling like I am either letting people at work down or I’m letting my family down. I have overcome that challenge by accepting that I can’t be all things to all people, that I need to make intentional choices about what is important to me and my family, and I clearly articulate with my colleagues at work and with my husband and kids what those choices are and why they are important.
The culture of the PSO has changed considerably since I arrived. It was not a happy place to work when I got here. It was a very soiled workplace with an underappreciated and non-empowered staff. There was a culture of “fear of retribution” by the board and the musicians to the staff. We have changed that culture significantly across the organization. A combination of some new staff in leadership positions, a building of trust within the staff that they are appreciated and supported by me and the Board, building communication lines between musicians, staff and board to allow for the proper flow of information and facts, as opposed to assumptions and myths spreading across the organization. These are just a few of the things that have changed since I arrived. I encourage all my leadership team to follow my example of living a healthy work/life balance. Because musicians never stop being musicians; they never take a break from work, and this mentality tends to bleed over to the culture of the staff in our industry. However, the staff are not musicians and by modeling healthy work practices we have created a much healthier workplace with better productivity and results.
I lead a $32 million-dollar professional orchestra with 101 full time 52-week salaried musicians, 75 full-time administrative staff and another 50 part-time staff. We own and operate Heinz Hall, which is a historic venue in downtown Pittsburgh and the home of the Orchestra. We are the 6th oldest orchestra in the country with an incredible legacy. My direct reports are the Music Director Manfred Honeck, Principal Pops Conductor Byron Stripling, Sr. VP & Chief Operating Officer, Sr. VP and Chief Financial Officer, Sr. VP and Chief Development Officer, our HR Director, and Administrative Assistant. Our entire senior leadership team is 11 people, which in addition to my direct reports, includes the VP of Artistic Planning, VP of Orchestra Operations, VP of Marketing & Sales, Sr. VP of Learning & Community Engagement, VP of Innovation & Technology and Director of Communications. We have a Board of Directors who I report to, which currently has 54 members, as well as an Honorary Board, The Jack Heinz Society (which is a junior board), the Pittsburgh Symphony Association (our volunteer association) and the New Leadership Council.
I spend the majority of my time working with our Board, fundraising and managing community relations as the face of the orchestra. I absolutely love this part of my job as it is all about relationships and building advocacy for the orchestra and our mission. Working strategically with our Music Director and Principal Pops Conductor to build an artistic vision is an exciting part of my job that fuels my passion for the orchestra and our work, and developing a strategic direction for the organization overall is what I work on with the Board. I love spending time with the musicians and being their advocates.
I wish we had a better financial model that was more dependable. Ticket sales and earned revenue, in general, is only 25% of our budget. We have a large endowment, and the draw from that annually is about 25% of our revenue every year. The rest comes from donations from the community. We raise $16 million annually in private support, which is a heavy lift. We also have seven unions that we work with at Heinz Hall, the largest being the Musicians Union. Contract negotiations are my least favorite thing to do and always have been. I hate the antagonistic nature of negotiations and the “us vs them” mentality.
My days start by having coffee with my husband and getting our kids off to school. I sometimes go to the gym, but more often go in the evening and weekends. I get to the office between 8-9 AM and have meetings most of the day with donors, with staff, with musicians, with board members, and board committee meetings. If there is a rehearsal, I try to go down before rehearsal starts or at the break to visit with the musicians, welcome the guest conductors and guest artists, and if I have time, I will sit in on a little of the rehearsal. I often will have breakfast and lunch meetings most days of the week, which gets hard on the waistline! After the Friday night of each of our BNY Mellon Grand Classics weekends, I host a dinner with the conductor, guest artists, and donors (and I often have a dinner before concerts with donors as well). On those evenings, I don’t get home until about 1 AM.
When I’m home, I really try to unplug from work and just be with the family. I will do what I need to as far as emails, but I really try not to spend my time at home working. I do often need to go in Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon for concerts, which interrupts the family time, but is part of the deal in my job. When I’m home, I love to cook, hike in North Park with my husband and our two Labrador retrievers, go to my son’s hockey games or my daughter’s trombone lessons and band concerts, go to the gym and relax at our home with a movie.
Working hard is good, but working smart is better. Focus and prioritize what is most important and don’t let the little things get you off track.
I love it! It has great support, and it looks fantastic and is really comfortable.
Now you can see why Melia is a force to be reckoned with! She is truly an inspiration to all working women and all the young girls who need someone to look up to. Melia can now conquer her day-to-day in one of our most comfortable and supportive OfficeSource chairs from the Corpo Collection. This chair is all about supporting the areas of the body that experience the most stress and discomfort during a long day in the office and at home. Not only does it come with an optional headrest, but also has unique seat cushion color options to choose from. After sitting in the chair, Melia said that she absolutely loved it!
If you want to be a part of the magic of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, visit their website, where you can also see a list of upcoming events
Melia's Chair Review
The Corpo Collection is your solution for functional seating that will both look and feel good. Focusing on supporting the areas of your body that experience the most stress and discomfort during a long work day, this collection is just what the doctor ordered. With an optional headrest and unique seat cushion color options, you will create a unique space that is full of comfort and support.