Career Advice Working Women

Sommer blooms

Amid the demands of motherhood, Morgan McKinley associate director blossoms, thanks to the company’s comprehensive flexible-work scheme

One morning recently, Sommer Owens, associate director at recruitment firm Morgan McKinley, was about to leave for work when her young son suddenly became sick and she needed to stay at home. At some companies, this might have been a problem, but because Morgan McKinley encourages its employees to work more flexibly, Owens felt fine about taking the time to care for her son.

“The thing with being a mum is that there’s only so much you can plan and schedule,” Owens says. “You need a boss who can understand.”

Owens is passionate about working in recruitment and in helping individuals and companies get ahead. When she became pregnant with her second child last year, she worried that the pressures of bringing up two young children might mean that she had to stop doing the work she loved. Fortunately, the strong support for flexible working offered by her company has helped her to successfully balance the demands of family and work.

Owens started her career in real estate sales before somebody suggested that she might prefer recruitment, as it requires similar skills but has more regular hours. She tried it and found recruitment really met her desire to work with and help people.

She explains that by working in recruitment, she has increasingly seen how the industry can make a difference to people. “People really trust us with a very important part of their lives,” she says. “When we’re good at our jobs, we can have a very positive impact on people’s lives.”

Owens worked for several recruitment firms in Melbourne, where she specialised in IT recruitment. In 2004, while also studying a bachelor of business degree, she spent a semester at the Hong Kong Baptist University. She really liked the city and saw that its booming economy made it a great place to work in recruitment. After graduating, she moved to Hong Kong to work with a search firm as a consultant specialising in recruiting IT staff for the banking sector.

It was initially challenging. She had to learn all about the city’s dominant financial services industry, as well as understand the attitudes of local jobseekers and companies. “The challenges for me, really, were cultural,” she says.

Her enthusiasm helped her overcome these challenges and quickly move up to a more managerial role. In late 2007, she was promoted to a position where her time was split between working as a consultant, and leading and training others.

In 2008, the global financial crisis turned the world of recruitment upside down. Owens’s firm responded by launching a contract recruitment service, which helped companies hire people for a particular work, something possible even if they had frozen headcounts.

Owens played a key role in setting up this service. “I just lived and breathed it,” she says. “Having come from Australia, where I’d seen contracting in its maturity, I had a vision for what we were trying to do. I could really see the value to people who were sitting at home not working. To get them a contract was really valuable.”

She oversaw the service’s gradual expansion as it grew to 13 consultants in three teams, hiring and training up new employees as she went. “It was really the best thing I’ve done, to build something from the ground up,” she says.

Towards the end of 2012, Owens was expecting her second child. She worried that once the baby was born, it would be difficult to balance taking care of it and working. “Coping with one child in Hong Kong is surprisingly easy,” she says. “But after the second one, it was on my mind how I was going to cope.”

She was keen to find a way to continue working. “I couldn’t love my children more,” she says. “But I really like work as well. I’m trying to have my cake and eat it. I want a family and I want my kids, but I also want my career. To take a number of years out of the workforce to me seemed a very big sacrifice.”

She heard about a job going with Morgan McKinley. Looking at the firm, she saw it offered exceptional support for flexible work. “The body of evidence about Morgan McKinley’s flexibility was just overwhelming,” she says. “They don’t just say ‘we support work-life balance’. It is absolutely part of the heart and soul of this business.”

She adds that Morgan McKinley, which she joined early this year, has set up IT systems to help employees work remotely and access information from different places.

Owens says that as well as providing such practical help, the company’s overall attitude is equally important. “In no way do I have to apologise or feel like I have to hide the fact that I have a flexible working arrangement,” she says.

The extensive support given to her has resulted in a strong sense of loyalty back from Owens. “It makes me just want to do the very best I can,” she says. 


Sommer Owens explains how companies can really help working mothers

Crisis preparation
“Provide an allowance of unpaid leave days that can be claimed as parental leave for emergencies.”
Ease back in
“Give extended maternity leave or a part-time transition period to enable a smooth return to work – or both.”
Remote access
“Enable staff to be able to work effectively from home via systems access or telecommuting.”
Don’t point fingers
“Nurture a guilt-free atmosphere towards flexible work.”