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Erin Grau: One Diagnosis Away from a Perspective Shift

Erin Grau is the Co-Founder and COO of Charter, an online media company that is working to transform the workplace and catalyze a new era of dynamic organizations where all workers thrive. Charter does this by bridging research to practice—giving people the tactical playbook for what work can and should be.

Erin has a long and impressive work history. Prior to Charter, Erin served as the VP of Culture at Away, the travel retail company. Before that, she was the Vice President of Transformation at the New York Times. Even more impressive than her work history is her personal history. At 36, Erin was diagnosed with breast cancer, completely her approach to life and work. Now, in remission, she continues to work hard professionally, and for her family.

Transcript

BRYAN WISH: What’s the One Away moment you’d like to share with us today?

ERIN GRAU: There’s so many that I’ve been reflecting on. The one that really changed the trajectory of my life was being diagnosed with breast cancer in my 30s with a 1 year old and 3 year old and no family history. It was an instant change of perspective for me. There were so many highs and so many lows through my active treatment. I’m in remission now but it really shaped the kind of mom I want to be, the kind of human I want to be, the kind of work I want to do. 

BRYAN WISH: I bet that was extremely hard to process. Shock the system and put mortality right in front of you. When you got the diagnosis, what was your first reaction? 

ERIN GRAU: It’s funny we’re talking today because my three year anniversary of being diagnosed is tomorrow. This time of year is always really difficult for me just thinking through the series of events that led up to my diagnosis and then shortly after. It was extremely disorienting. I was 36 at the time and my first thought was, “God, please let me make it to 40.” My 40th birthday is actually in a few weeks. My first thought was, “Wow, I can’t die. I have so much work left to do. I have so much life left to live. I have so much parenting left to do.” My kids were so young. I was so worried they wouldn’t know who I was.

Those are the things I think about the most. I went right into treatment. I had a really aggressive form of breast cancer and I was diagnosed on August 20th and by August 29th, I started a really intense five month chemo regiment followed by a double mastectomy. 28 rounds of radiation. I did 14 months of targeted therapy. I was HER2 positive and estrogen positive. Then I had two mor surgeries after that. Here I am. 

BRYAN WISH: Wow, what a brave warrior, you are for going through all of that. Congrats on being in remission. I’m sure during that time, it was learning a sense of resilience and navigating struggle with life flashing before your eyes. From that experience, do any moments stand out or conversations you had with loved ones or insights that just became super clear over you that really have changed your way of being today? 

ERIN GRAU: So many moments in conversations and kind of everything changed after that. Being diagnosed that young with such young kids, in the prime of my career… From the family side, I made real plans for what was going to happen to my kids and my family if it didn’t turn out this way and I wasn’t in remission. Thinking through that and what I wanted for my kids and kind of our family’s values and our family’s mission. It’s something that my husband and I didn’t do before. We weren’t as intentional in our parenting because we thought we had so much time. Conversations with my husband were really hard and necessary and important. 

Then in my friends, I always say I’ve never felt so loved as I did when I was in treatment. Even after giving birth, a lot of people in my life stepped up and came to support me and celebrate my  new family but there was something very different about this. People fed me, cared for me, brought my kids presents. I actually had a group of former colleagues, at that point, at the New York Times that had organized every single… My treatment days were on Wednesdays for five months.

Every single Wednesday, I received a package from a different group of people with a different theme that included games and books for my kids, water bottles, food, slippers, blankets. So many things in so many ways because so many people in my life wanted to step up for me and support me in the only ways they knew how which were to take care of me and my kids through that period. That changed so many relationships that I had. 

On the career front, having kids gave me a lot of perspective in my job. My work had to be really meaningful because it was time I was spending away from them. But my cancer diagnosis really changed that a lot even more. Making sure that the work that I was doing was having an impact and that it was not only meaningful to me but the work that I’m doing – I work in the workforce transformation space – was really about creating a better future for my daughters that I hope I’m here to see. Making sure that their workplaces that they inherit are caring, human, will take care of them, and support them in all the things they want for their lives, their families, and their careers.

BRYAN WISH: Conversations with your husband that were really hard and you had to make plans on things you never thought of at an earlier stage, what were some of those?

ERIN GRAU: One very specific one I remember is I have two necklaces I wear all the time. One has my kids’ initials on it and the conversation I had with my husband was, “I want you to save this necklace for when you for the next person who will be a mother figure to my kids.” That’s a very specific, really hard conversation. It sounds so silly but I think, for me, I’m such a planner and having a plan for them and for him and for my things that mean something to me were a really important part of my journey.

Even thinking about what is important for us for the kids and what we want. I want my kids to understand that they’re a small part in a really big world. We have this rule where we decided we want the number of new countries our kids visit every year to be higher than their age. The idea that travel is so important to them. It’s a goal. It’s a way to orient us into the things that really matter in life so that they can have all of these perspectives. Travel has been such a huge part of my life and my husband’s life together. Things like that. Obviously, there was the practicalities of a will.

My husband and I share our finances  but I wanted to make sure my money that I had was earmarked for their college because if something happened, I wanted to make sure that they knew that their mother paid for their college. It was so important to me. There was a lot of things that were both practical and important for me. It was a good thing for me to focus on because I was trying to focus on the future and it was a way that I could plan but also focus on the future. Both in my personal life and my professional life, I’m constantly steering people, organizations, leaders toward the future. That’s kind of my orientation too. It’s healing to actually share but also tough to think back in time.

BRYAN WISH: Thank you for your vulnerability and being so open. I just read The Gifts of Imperfection this weekend and it talked about how you heal through the sharing. The thoughtfulness, the deliberateness, and the forethought you gave to if and when you had to set up a life for your daughters where they knew you were always with them, how special and intentional. You’ve talked about how it changed you as a mom and how you spent family time. Without the diagnosis, how do you think you would have parented differently?

ERIN GRAU: It’s so hard to answer because my kids were so young when I was diagnosed. Especially for my one year old, this is really the only mom she knows. It’s hard to predict what it would have been without this diagnosis. I will say that one of the great gifts of that diagnosis and the really intense year that followed, I learned to put my family at the center of gravity. I’m almost ashamed that I didn’t know how to do that before.

I was a really ambitious person. I had really healthy children and a healthy family and the thing that always seemed to need most of my time and attention and talents was my job and the people who relied on me to do that job really well. I felt I had a great village for my kids. My kids have great babysitters. I have a great partner. I have a twin sister who lives a couple miles away from me and she’s married to my husband’s childhood best friend. We just had so many people in their lives. I’d always told myself that’s what I needed to do.

I needed to get a village of people. I needed to put them into activities and they were going to learn better from all these other people than they’re going to learn from me. Them going to ballet or soccer, that mattered. It mattered who I chose to be with them during the day when I was at work. I focused on that. it wasn’t as intentional. I think that’s probably a shift too. More intentional parenting for me which is thinking through similar to what we do at work. These are the outcomes I want and these are the paths to get there. These are the things I need to do for my family for us to have these outcomes. I didn’t think about it that way. 

Then when I was kind of forced to really think about what it is I wanted and what my husband and I were going to agree my kids were going to get out of this life and how we were going to set them up for success long-term, things really changed for us. I believe it changed so much about me as a parent and really about who they are going to be as humans. Also, they don’t know any different. Their memories will only ever include me having survived breast cancer. They were there when I was first diagnosed. I was going to lose my hair and I did. I had very long hair. I had a party with all of my girlfriends.

My mom came up and my kids. We hired a hairdresser to my apartment. My kids sat in my lap and the hairdresser cut my hair and they were so much a part of it. When I had my last day of chemo, they came and we had a cake and we celebrated. It wasn’t a thing that happened away from them. They were so much a part of it and I’m hopeful that when they look back and think about resilience and hard things and challenges that you face, I’m hopeful they remember that from early on. That we can all do hard things. They’ve had to do hard things from the very beginning. Watching their mom go through that is really hard. They don’t fully understand it and who knows what they’ll understand later. 

BRYAN WISH: You said you made family your center of gravity and were super intentional. There was a person in my life who was very special to me. I remember him telling me that he was so intentional with his kids because of his parents. He was very present in taking a very active role in their life because of how he grew up. His parents didn’t how the example. He was also the first man that I saw that was very complete as a family figure but was also a creative entrepreneur. He could balance the two yet was one, whole person. He was extremely special. You said your kids will only know what they saw growing up. It sounds like your lean early was career and ambition. What was your model for your own life growing up? 

ERIN GRAU: Funny enough, my dad was in the military for his whole career. My mom was largely a stay-at-home mom. She ended up going back to school and eventually got a masters in anthropology when I was in high school. When I look at workplaces, these are not the models I grew up with. I learned a lot. My mom was an incredible present mom and my dad was such a hard worker and so hungry for learning new things. I learned a lot from  them but not necessarily as models of what I would adopt as my ambitious, grownup self. I feel there’s a huge problem for the women in my generation. We were told that you can have it all and to have it all, it’s kind of on you. 

I was talking recently  to activist, author, and founder of Marshall Plan for Moms, Reshma Saujani; also founder of Girls Who Code, just two weeks ago. We were having this conversation. We were talking about how this corporate feminism hasn’t served us well. For moms, there aren’t people demanding change for working mothers in the workplace. 9-5 does not work for caregivers. It doesn’t align with school schedules. It’s not optimal to be working so many hours while your kids are awake and then having to have a second shift. We were kind of taught a long time ago that motherhood is a choice. If you want things to be better, it’s on you to make them better.

All of that to say that I actually think I took that into my career thinking I have to outwork everybody. I have to get to the top as quickly as I can to prove myself. I got a lot of value from saying I am this title, like a VP or a COO, and I work for this company or I work in startups or I work at a big media organization. I think that I was socialized more than it was taught in my home. I was socialized to believe that’s what I needed to do. Also, getting to my 40s and thinking, “Well, what is the rest of my life going to look like and how do I design a life that makes me happy and fulfilled vs designing a life around a job that I have?” I’m slowly trying to do that work and it’s so deeply cultural. It’s not easy to do. 

BRYAN WISH: Good for you in recognizing it. It’s like you have to let go of the old self to come into a new shell. It’s hard emotional work. Tell us a bit about your prior career history with The New York Times and the things you were doing there and how that shaped your next decisions to what you’re doing today.

ERIN GRAU: I spent most of my career in media. I was at NBC and Newscorp. I spent seven years at The New York Times. My last role there was vice president of transformation. It was a new role in the operations group. I reported into the now CEO, Meredith Levien who is brilliant, wise, and wonderful. It was really about modernizing a 160+ year old institution. That includes systems, leaders, talent, and culture.

I got to work on a lot of really cool projects when I was there. Then I wanted to try to innovate into white space. I was innovating against incredible market pressures. I wanted to really try something new. I went to a startup. I went to Away which is a luggage, travel startup. I worked there for over two years and ran a lot of business ops functions. I started as the VP of organizational development. Then I ran people and culture and also process, strategic planning, project management, social impact, customer experience. I ran a lot of different teams as you do at startups.

I had the full startup experience and then I went out and did my own work consulting around the intersection of talent and operations which is really where I think I work best. Now I am the co-founder and COO of a company called Charter. My other two co-founders, Jay Lauf and Kevin Delaney are also long, tenured media execs. We decided to create this media and services business. Focus on the future of work. I think this job is cool for me because it’s at the intersection of that Venn diagram of what the world needs, what I’m really passionate about, and also what I think I’m good at or at least have some experience in. Having impact that way across multiple organizations and still through media is really fulfilling to me. 

We do a ton of work. We have this newsletter. We have a website. We create a lot of content. We create playbooks. We’re really surfacing beliefs and priorities around the future of work. 

BRYAN WISH: You’ve taken all these experiences and perhaps put them under one roof in a way and probably bringing the networks and your abilities with these other leaders. You’ve seemed to create something super meaningful. You’re creating the change you want to see unfold over the next 20, 30, 40, 50; hopefully next few centuries. 

ERIN GRAU: That’s exactly right. Work is changing so much. The pandemic just exposed the unmet needs of so many people. The 9-5 does not work for so many employees in this country. Our lives are more intertwined with work than ever before. Work is totally outdated. Businesses don’t know how to manage people. How can managers be expected to know how to manage people? On top of that, there’s so much pressure on the private sector to step up and lead in things like caregiving, mental health, racial injustice because so many institutions have failed the American people. Now is such a great time to get into this work; for us to just have such a greater impact. Also to add capability and capacity to so many organizational leaders who have so much work to do to steer their company towards the future.

BRYAN WISH: As you look at the trend of the future of work, if you could see three changes come to fruition or one, what do you hope those changes are?

ERIN GRAU: Kind of focusing on caregivers for a minute. Almost 2.5 million moms dropped out of the workforce in the last 18 months. The tide rises all boats. Doing work for caregivers is actually work that’s going to benefit everybody. Let’s take the 9-5. How do you create more flexible schedules? How do you do that more deliberately across your organization? I think rigidity of work is gone. Flexibility is here to stay. I think that looks like a lot of asynchronous work and then also making sure that you’re shoring up your internal practices so that you’re not letting proximity bias or visibility bias show up in performance reviews, for example. It’s one thing to give people flexibility. It’s another thing to penalize them if they take that option which we know, based on the data we have now, that more caregivers and more people of colors are more likely to want flexible or remote heavy schedules. 

This is kind of a little bit funny to say but I actually think the way we think about benefits are really outdated. The fact that one person in your organization designs the benefits that work for everybody but again, in that flexibility theme, it’s not one size fits all anymore. Dropbox announced $7,000 allowance and employees can choose their own benefits. If you need more caregiving or whatever it is or work from home setup. I think that is a future of work thing. I think we’re going to see more of that. That greater flexibility across many dimensions. The four day workweek is also really interesting to me. The 9-5 that we’re kind of breaking the mold of, and also what that could look like is that you are working in different ways so that you’re focused on work four days a week and then three days a week that you’re taking a longer break.

I’m not suggesting you do 10 hours a day. That’s like 9-7. I think figuring out what that looks like so that your employees are focusing on work within four days of a week. I think that’s also a trend. There’s data out of New Zealand and Iceland that this is really working for a lot of organizations. They’re not seeing a dip in productivity. In some cases, they’re seeing an increase in productivity. Related is more autonomy. Greater autonomy over your work is going to be really important. I think we’re going to see a lot more of that. 

BRYAN WISH: With Charter, what’s the model kind of look like so you can go and be a part of these changes? How do you measure those changes that are made?

ERIN GRAU: We believe deeply in the power of media to have a huge impact in helping to surface insights and research based best practices. What we do is we bridge research practice. Some people report on the trends or what some people are doing but we really try to make it real for leaders and organizations through our content and through the tools and resources that we offer but also in working with organizations. Then also, we advise companies around workplace transformation and what that looks like.

There are a few different steps on that path in helping them diagnose where they are and where they want to be and helping connect today to that future. There’s a lot of different ways that comes to life depending on the organization. It’s a lot of work, a lot of training, and a lot of introducing new skills and mindsets for leaders. It’s a lot of communication. It’s still early stages. We’re only a few months old. We’re trying some things out. We’re working with some really cool companies. We have some really incredible members that are consuming our content, using our content, and giving us insights, information, and feedback. Then we’re offering more things.

We’re still early days. It’s coming to life in a lot of different ways. We’ll see. Most startups, they’re a new company every few months. We’re no different. Right now, we’ve found this sweet spot of media and services which is a really new model. We get asked all the time, “How do you describe your company?” It’s so hard because there aren’t other companies that are doing the exact same thing. There are companies that consult or advise around workplace transformation. There are media companies talking about the future of work but there’s not many companies doing both things. 

BRYAN WISH: Thanks for showing up today with such transparency. 

ERIN GRAU: It was very therapeutic. Thank you so much for holding this space for conversations like this. It’s so important. The future of work is going to be more kind and human and there will be more space for people to have conversations about their health, their well-being, and their personal journeys as well as their professional journeys. Thank you.

BRYAN WISH: How can someone reach you?

ERIN GRAU: Our website is charterworks.com. You can check out what we’re doing there. You can find me on LinkedIn. I don’t really have much of a social presence beyond that. I respond to every DM on LinkedIn of anybody who ever needs support. I get a lot around parental leave and how to do that at their organization. Or just e@charterworks.com.

One Away Podcast
Bryan Wish

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