Arlene Kristianto, partner at RSM Australia, shares how she manages a demanding career and maintains a full family life

by Liz Marchant

Arlene Kristianto – partner at RSM Australia

Age: 35
Number of kids: 2
Age of kids: 4 and 2

What’s important to you in a role?
Even before I was a partner at RSM, the most important thing to me in a role is the satisfaction of helping clients and working with a great team. You spend a lot of time at work so it’s important to work with a group that gets along well. A family-friendly culture is also very important and that’s what I was looking for when I moved from a small firm to RSM.

Can you describe what’s involved in doing your job on a day-to-day basis? As a partner at RSM, I’m also practically a business owner. So, my day consists of dealing with clients and staff as well as the usual tasks around managing the performance of the business. This includes addressing challenges in the business market, and coping with the rapid rate of change in the market and the industry.

Did you have any personal concerns or worries in relation to family or out-of-work commitments when you started combining working and parenting?
I certainly had a lot more concerns as I was expecting my first child because so much was unknown. Before you do it, you don’t know how to juggle work as well as having a baby. However, you work it out and take it one day at a time.

People like to talk about balance but I don’t think it’s about balance, it’s more about finding the right mix. And that mix might be different depending on the month or the year.

What kind of support do you have?
My husband is a big support, especially because I stepped into the partnership role when we were expecting our second child. We had lots of discussions about what this would look like with two kids. The result was that my husband went into part-time work to make it work with family and young kids. We each work four days per week, so the kids are in long daycare for three days and with one of us for a day each.

We also have family support. My parents live five minutes away, and my husband’s family comes to town every few months, and I can leave the kids with them when I need to. That lets us get out at night and have time together, as well as make sure we fulfil all of our work commitments.

What are your work commitments?
Fortunately, I don’t travel very much for work. The only commitment outside of working hours are business development activities. My role includes a responsibility to maintain my client base, expand and grow. That doesn’t happen during nine-to-five hours because you have to attend networking events and so on. And, although it’s getting easier as the children get older, it’s still important to choose which events to attend carefully. I can’t go to every single networking event that looks interesting. Instead, I focus on the events that will let me target the right people, market, and industry. That helps minimise the amount of time that I have to be away from the family. 

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced finding a balance between work and parenting commitments?
Working at night is the biggest challenge not just because it impacts family time but because it also makes it hard to find me time. Sometimes you just want to chill out and relax but there is still the pressure of things that need to happen in a day. There is also the issue of losing momentum when you have to break up your work day. However, it’s relatively easy at the moment because the kids are pretty young so they have very set routine. There is no homework and no extracurricular activities to fit in.

How long did you take maternity leave/time out of your career with each of your children?
I took seven months of leave both times. For the first one, I didn’t know what to expect so I just said I would take 12 months. But, by six months I was itching to get back. The second time around, I knew six months was probably about right but I planned to take seven months to make sure she would settle into childcare.

What advice would you give someone before commencing maternity leave?
It’s important to plan ahead and train your team well. It’s important to prepare them and give them autonomy, which not only helps them, it helps you because you have peace of mind while you’re on leave that they know what they’re doing. This helps the team because most are more motivated to do a good job when they feel that trust and empowerment.

What advice would you give someone returning to their career after having kids?
If you plan to go back to work, it’s important to keep in touch with your team. This gives you sanity and keeps the connection alive. It’s not as easy to keep in touch with clients but it’s valuable to extend a hello when it makes sense.

A lot of the work of coming back happens before you go on maternity leave. This means being organised and planning which clients you’ll ask someone else to look after, and making it clear what will happen when you come back. For example, will those people continue looking after those clients or hand them back to you? This sort of certainty really helps.

Were there many women at your level juggling family and work at RSM? There weren’t many women whose paths I could follow at RSM as I was progressing but that drove me more to prove that it can be done. This is good for the firm because it demonstrates that people won’t lose opportunities just because they have a family. It’s so much easier to see someone else doing it.

I had my first child not long after being promoted to principal at the firm. Then, when I was expecting my second child and had already announced my pregnancy, I was promoted to partner. This was a first for RSM and it sent a great message. It was very special and rare that they offered the promotion before I went on maternity leave rather than waiting until I came back.

RSM Chairman, Jamie O’Rourke has been a massive supporter, an amazing role model, and an invaluable mentor. This is crucial because, to improve the gender balance in senior positions, it’s not going to happen by women pushing themselves up alone through hard work (which is still a key component), but by being pulled along by someone as well. It’s therefore important to find a good mentor and supporter who is willing to pull you across. Lots of people are happy to help if they know that’s what you’re trying to achieve.

Now, within RSM nationally, there are more partners working part-time and female partners. Part of our Diversify strategy for 2020 is to continue increasing the female leadership pipeline. One of the ways to do that is by making sure that trickles down to the staffing levels too, for example, by offering staff flexible arrangements and support for parents in the workplace.

Do you find time for yourself? And if so, how and what do you use it for?
I don’t have a lot of me-time but I would like to figure out a way to make more time for myself, just to recharge. We’re currently in the midst of resilience training for partners, principals, and managers. That’s giving me some support to understand how I can work in some time for myself. If I could have me-time, I would use it for baking a lot more, watching Netflix, or just getting my hair done.

Do you have a daily routine, and if so, what does it look like?
Everything is a routine. The kids wake me at 6am and we get ready to go to daycare and work. Daycare is around the corner from work. I work all day then pick them up at 5:30. We get home, they have dinner, start the sleeping routine, and get the kids in bed by 7:30. That’s when generally my husband and I start downloading about the day while we’re preparing our dinner. We talk about what’s happened and have dinner together. If neither of us has to work we sit in the living room and watch Netflix or talk, then head to bed. If I do have to work at night, it’s usually about two hours or so, and I normally do that three nights per week.

If you could do anything differently in relation to developing your career over the years, what would it be (if anything)?
The only thing I would do differently would be to have more me-time and include fitness and exercise. I’d like to think I was pretty lucky in that I unconsciously chose to start my career really young. I’ve worked really hard since then, had really good mentors and support along the way, so things happened with very good timing.

It’s important to know what your priorities are. A career is a marathon and not a sprint. People these days want to get to the next level very quickly. But there’s no need to rush. You have time to do whatever you want to do. There will be times when the mix has to be towards family or towards work, and you just have to go with that.