Karen Haycox, CEO of Habitat for Humanity NYC, on the Work/Life Balance Fallacy
January 11, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Karen Haycox is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity’s New York affiliate, which builds affordable housing in the five boroughs of New York City. Originally from Canada, she took her position in 2015 after years of traveling the world with Habitat’s disaster relief team—but prior to that, she had a successful career in TV and film production. We recently visited her office in downtown Manhattan to talk dog parks (she’s the de facto mayor of hers), unexpected job changes, and why she doesn’t believe in five-year plans.
I’M AN ONLY CHILD, and my parents were both quite involved in nonprofit work, so they dragged me to all kinds of events—barbecue fundraisers, the Special Olympics, you name it. As a young person, I thought it was a tremendous inconvenience, and not cool or fun at all. It wasn’t until much later in my life that I looked back and thought, “Look at the seeds they planted.” I really do attribute much of my work in nonprofits, both as a volunteer and in my career, to my parents’ commitment to making their community a better place and wanting to be part of something larger than themselves. Habitat has made that dream a reality for me.
THIS IS ACTUALLY MY SECOND CAREER. I got my university degree in creative communications and cinematography, and I worked in film and television for many years, primarily producing commercials for the McCann Erickson Group in Toronto. The accounts I worked on were General Motors and Diet Coke—keeping the world a safe place for bright shiny metals and brown fizzy drinks. Then, the agency I worked for merged with another one and downsized significantly, which left me out of a job. It really stripped me to my foundations—I didn’t know what to do.
BEING A PRODUCER HAD BEEN ALL-CONSUMING, and that’s how I always defined who I was: “I am a producer. It’s not what I do, it’s what I am.” I wound up leaving Toronto for a contract job as a recruiter in Windsor, which is just north of Detroit on the Canadian side of the border. There, I developed a work/life balance for the very first time. I got a house and a social life. I took vacations. And I got really involved with Habitat for Humanity. I started as a volunteer on their board of directors, and it turned out I had a lot of transferable skills from my film and television days. Large builds felt very much like shooting a production: There were media elements, there were interviews to do, there were narratives to be written, there were people to be put in specific places at specific times—but the end result was so much more worth it than a 30-second commercial. It filled me up in a way that film and television never did. After a few years, I joined Habitat as the executive director.
LOOKING BACK, MY CAREER TRANSITION was swift. But at the time, it seemed slow, and I felt like I was floundering. Like many people, particularly women, I was very focused on figuring out the next “right” step in my career. These days, I’m not a big believer in things like five-year plans. Taking a chance on something that wasn’t part of my original vision for my career has served me well. I have never been happier than I am doing the work I do now, but it is not a life I would have thought to design for myself. Oprah used to say something to the effect of, “Pay attention to the pebbles that the universe sends you. Otherwise, one of these times, it’ll be a brick.” I try not to be so fixated on a particular outcome that I miss opportunities in the moment.
I LOST MY WIFE to cancer in 2014. When Trudy got sick, we were living in a lovely neighborhood in Michigan, where everybody was friends. Those people became my network of support. After Trudy’s final scan, we came home to find that our neighbors had come together and wrapped our entire house in Christmas lights. As Trudy got sicker, we set up her hospice bed in the living room, where we had a bay window. One night, one of our neighbors put up tables right outside the window and put potted plants on them, level with the windowsill, so that Trudy could see them. And from then on, every day, people came and added more flowers. It taught me the importance of being a good neighbor, and cultivating a sense of community wherever I am. It’s harder in some places than others, but I try not to have my head in my phone all the time, and to make eye contact with people and say, “Good morning.” In New York, that can be hilarious, because people are almost shocked that someone is talking to them.
BOTH MY PARENTS WERE BRITISH and World War II survivors. Neither had conventional schooling, but they were capable, intelligent people. My mother emigrated to Canada by herself in her very early twenties. She was an only child, her parents were gone, and she had no family—she just got on the Queen Mary and came over. I thought about that a lot when I moved to New York, because there is significant uncertainty and fear when you move to a new city and try to make your own way.
I’M THE DE-FACTO MAYOR of my local dog park. Every morning, we dog owners have a breakfast club at 6:00 A.M. It’s an amazing way to build a social life. If you want to meet people and create balance, you must get a dog. I kid you not, the dog has saved my life many times over.
I THINK THAT WORK/LIFE BALANCE is a bit of a fallacy. It’s like a seesaw: It’s only ever balanced for one split second before it starts to weigh down on the other side again. You just have to make sure that you’re at least doing something on both sides of the equation.
Photos by Tamara Schlesinger