Abruptly widowed, Sophie Vandebroek stayed with her demanding fast-track career — but on her terms
Ten years ago, Sophie Vandebroek’s husband, Bart, died suddenly, leaving her alone with three small children and no other relatives in the United States. Vandebroek responded not just by sticking to her career, but by taking on a series of increasingly challenging, high-profile jobs. In January, she became Xerox’s chief technology officer(CTO), responsible for harnessing the creations of five global laboratories to drive growth at the $15.7 billion document company.
For years, people wondered how she did it. Now, Vandebroek, 44, talks about how her family’s tragedy helped her understand what’s really important. She’s passionate about the strategies she has used to balance home and work as a single parent. Her mantra : “Delegate, simplify and leverage IT.”
The early years
Vandebroek was born in Belgium and earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in engineering before immigrating to the States in 1986. She and Bart, also Belgium, arrived at Cornell University with four suitcases, $500, and two scholarships. She earned a doctorate in microelectronics engineering and he, an MBA. bY 1991, They’d bought a house in suburban Rochester, New York, near Bart’s job, Sophie was working at IBM’s research center in Yorktown Heights, New York, driving seven hours to work each Monday morning and returning home each Friday night. When her second child arrived, she persuaded IBM to install a broadband Internet connection in her home. She telecommuted for a year before jumping to Xerox.
When Bart died in 1996 from a severe asthma attack, within 10 days, Sophie was back at work as a manager in Xerox’s inkjet printer division. Her boss suggested she trade her line job for a less-demanding staff role. She declined. “I loved my job-it’s like reading a fantastic book where your brain gets so involved in a topic that you basically forget everything else.”
At home, there was no forgetting her new status as a single parent. Bart had done most of the cooking, handled all the finances, and mowed their one-acre yard. Sophie immediately delegated cooking to the sitter, telling her, “I don’t care what’s on the table as long as there’s something to eat.”
Over time, with promotions and pay raises at work, she began to outsource more home responsibilities. Today, any time she can hire someone to do something that will give her more free time with the kids, she does it. Her 15-hour-a-week sitter handles the bulk of the laundry and the cooking. On her refrigerator hangs a computer printout of grocery items. During the week, she and the kids check off what they need, and on Fridays a $10-an-hour high school student does all the shopping.
Keeping it simple
On a monthly calendar in the kitchen, she and the kids fill in their schedules. There’s plenty of white space, reflecting her desire to keep their lives simple. Each child can participate in only one sport or after-school activity each season. They don’t watch regular television; instead, they read, and on Friday nights the family watches one movie together. Vacations are simple, too- usually skiing or camping. Many professionals plan such elaborate vacations, Vandebroek believes, that they actually take on stress when they should be relaxing.
Sophie and Bart, both engineers, had always embraced an efficient, rational approach to things. Now all the more so: Sophie keeps her hair short to make the morning routine quicker. For work she dresses in basic pantsuits and scarves.
To save time, she doesn’t believe in niceties like sending Christmas cards or thank-you notes. She even tries to limit her friendships. “Don’t maintain 50 friends-a handful of close ones will give you perhaps even more satisfaction,” she says.
Vandebroek’s office routine is also very disciplined. She limits her schedule to prevent the workday from spilling into family time. She won’t plan meetings before 9 a.m. or after 5:30 p.m.
In meetings, she’s a BlackBerry fiend ; she uses it so much she wears out the keys. “It saves me an hour a day of email,” she says. She and her sitter communicate mostly via text messaging.
When Vandebroek travels domestically, she avoids scheduling meetings before 10 a.m. and flies that morning, allowing her to limit most U.S travel to day trips. The promotion to CTO changes that, at least temporarily. “I have to be present in all of these divisions I lead as part of building the human fabric, ” she says. “Once you’ve worked with people and built up relationships, you can [manage] much more through the phone and through e-mail.”
Since Bart’s death, she has also put one nonnegotiable condition on her career: no relocating. She has held jobs bases in Syracuse, Toronto, and Stamford, Connecticut — and for each she kept the family in the same house that she and Bart bought 15 years ago, arranging with her bosses to be in her faraway office as little as possible. In 2000, Vandebroek left Xerox and spent 12 months as CTO at Carrier Corp., based in Hartford, but she spent only one day a week at headquarters. “It’s a lot of work to move, especially with kids,” says Jonathan Ayers, former Carrier president. “It’s all the things you don’t think of that you develop when you’re in a location — the pediatrician, the schools, the activities.” Indeed, Vandebroek refers to relationships with neighbors, doctors, and sitters as “infrastructure,” an investment that would take too long to rebuild if she moved. “Jobs are fairly easy to change,” she says. “Relationships aren’t.”
- telecommute : to work from on a computer connected to the network of one’s employer
- outsource : to send work out of one’s business to an outside company in order to cut costs
- infrastructure : the basic systems and service, such as transportation and power, that a country or organization uses in order to work effectively
- harness : to control something, usually in order to use its power
- mantra : a word or phrase which is often repeated and which sometimes expresses a belief
- sitter : one who takes care of a baby or child, especially as a job
- take on : to begin to have, use or do something
- nicety : a detail or small difference, especially of social etiquette
- spill into : to begin to affect another situation or group of people, especially in an unpleasant way
- fiend : someone who is very interested in something
- fabric : the structure or parts, especially of a social unit or a building
- stay put : to remain in the same place
- nonnegotiable : something which cannot be changed by discussion