Always a “mother at heart,” Alyson Von Feldt is an organization design consultant, author, speaker, published religious scholar, seminary teacher, and mom of four. She discusses her forays in and out of the workforce, the blessings of scripture study, and how she’s integrated theories from her profession into a more mindful family life.
Tell me about your personal and educational background.
I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where my mom was a high school teacher and my dad was a professor at the University of New Mexico. My mom was a non member, so I grew up with an active father who took me and my sister to church every Sunday. I went to BYU with the full support of my mom, studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and also danced on the ballroom dance team. My last year at BYU, I took some business classes so that I would be prepared for business school and continued on to get a masters in organizational behavior.
When I left for an internship between my first and second years of my graduate degree, I had been at BYU for seven years and was not married. My internship was in Richmond, Indiana, and I wrote the story of the innovative organization design at a Colgate-Palmolive plant there. It was a tiny town, about 40,000 people, but I met my husband while we were working at the same plant. He was not a member of the church. We dated that summer and he was warmly fellowshipped by the small ward there and got baptized in October. I went back to BYU for the fall semester and we were married in December in my home in Albuquerque. We were sealed a year from his baptism in the Salt Lake Temple and I finished my last semester of graduate school from Richmond.
What is organization design?
My choice to go into organization design was sort of naive. There was one other philosophy student the year ahead of me who had done it and I had a friend in the MBA program who suggested it to me. I didn’t really understand what organization design was until I got into the program, but I knew that it was a field where you were involved in training. So it was kind of felicity that put me there, but then I became very interested in it.
Organization design is a methodology for significant organizational change. Those in our discipline help leaders clarify their strategy and then change their organizational structures and work processes. An enterprise might face the challenge of saving money, growing, becoming more efficient, reaching a new type of customer, or launching new products. Organization design is a discipline that helps an enterprise change their organization so they can reach these kinds of goals. We help leaders adjust groups of people who work together and find new ways of doing their work. We might also help them develop new goals or methods of measuring and rewarding their progress.
How have you managed to meld your personal and professional lives?
It’s funny. I grew up with a working mom and then I went to BYU and always thought that I would have to convince a husband that I should be able to work to some degree. Instead I married a man who had not grown up in the church and did not have the values of a mom staying home with their kids embedded in him. He had a working mom, and oddly I found myself persuading him early in my marriage that I should stay home. He said, “Why you? Why can’t I?” And I said, “Well you’re right. Someone should be home with the kids. Who should it be?” We left that question open until after our oldest child was born and I nabbed the job quick because I wanted it badly.
I worked for two or three years before we had our first child, and then I worked part time on and off until we had our third child. After that I thought I was done working forever. My heart wanted to be home with my children. But I had strong ties to the consulting firm I worked with and it was hard to let go. About ten years later, my oldest son had many adventures and we ended up sending him to boarding school. We needed additional income, so I went back to work to help pay for boarding school. Luckily, I had a good education and some experience, so I ramped up my contacts and was able transition back into my career. It actually was really hard to go back to work because technology had changed a lot. For example, when I left, we were using small floppy disks. When I came back even very large files could be transferred through email. Group meetings were set up and rooms for them booked using what I found to be confusing online scheduling systems. But I just kind of eased into it and figured it out.
What has your career path looked like since then, transitioning in and out of the workforce?
That is constantly changing throughout my career. Sometimes I have worked at home part time to full time involved in developing training materials or writing books with other authors. Other times I have worked out of town for months at a time for five days a week. That worked better when my husband was working locally. Right now I am not working at all by choice. Instead I really like to be here for the kids. I’m exploring some professional interests in new ways to apply organizational design. My husband is a full time consultant as of about two years ago and it really can’t work for both of us to travel.
When I was traveling and the kids were pre-teens and teenagers, he worked full time near home. My parents lived with us but couldn’t drive. So there wasn’t a family member who could get the kids to any of their activities after school. We often hired young couples from our ward to help get them to ballet and piano lessons. My husband was here in the morning and would usually be home in time to make dinner and handle the night stuff. With a few hours’ help in the afternoon, we could make things work pretty well.
How do you decide which opportunities to pursue?
It’s just taking one opportunity at a time, working with my family, as we do with their opportunities, deciding whether we feel it fits in and will be a fun challenge that we can adapt to or will over tax us. That way we make deliberate family choices as they seem wise.
We have tried to always follow the spirit to make choices about how much I worked to meet financial needs or challenges or goals. I’ve been hugely blessed because the leaders of the consulting firms I work with have always been glad to put my talents to use when I want to work yet graciously let me move into part time work or work from home or even take a hiatus when I want to so I can put more into my family. These colleagues are all men and strong members of the church and they could not have been more supportive of my contribution and my aspirations because they are constantly changing. I cannot say enough good things about these men and their flexibility and how much our family has been blessed because of that.
What is the most interesting or challenging project you have worked on?
A couple of years ago, my husband decided to launch his own consulting practice, which he had wanted to do for a long time. So he left his full time job. At the same time, I had an opportunity to work on a very intense organizational design out of state and eventually spent six or seven months on it. After two months, the consulting firm I worked with needed a little more help on the project so they were one of my husband’s first clients and contracted with him to join the effort. So both of us were on the project together, but it was out of town every day for months at a time.
After discussing the situation, we moved our entire family to North Carolina for six months. It was incredibly interesting on many fronts. Our deal with the kids was that we were going to try to treat it as a long vacation since they were willing to move and leave all their friends behind. Luckily we found a rental house on a lake, so we found kayaks on Craigslist and tried to spend a lot of time on the water. It was a challenge that could have been really stressful for our family, but we tried to parlay it into one of our funnest experiences. Because we left everything behind and both my husband and I were working, we minimized the kids’ extracurricular activities. They even called me to teach seminary there. Since one of my daughters was old enough to attend, she was already going anyway so it was less overwhelming to the family at this intense period because it was a way for us to spend time together. Our life in a rental house became pared down to its very simplest. Our callings were very focused to where we were doing them with the kids instead of doing separate things. It was a blissful time in our lives.
Professionally, the organization we were doing the consulting for was going through a total overhaul of their strategy and needed extensive organizational redesign. It was really fun to be a part of such a dedicated effort on behalf of this business and to meet many talented and bright leaders who were excited by the challenge. It was also fun because I was working with my husband.
How do you implement the principles of organization design into your own life?
My husband is now a consultant in the same field as I. We have doctored into our family discussions some of the concepts that we use when designing larger organizations. We talk about how some activities are vital and we would never want to trade off the regularity with which we do those activities. Like church attendance and family prayer. For example, right now he travels four or five days a week but he always calls every morning at 7:15 and we have family prayer. And then we talk about other activities that we recognize as less vital to our well-being. Sometimes we avoid them but sometimes the spirit guides us to just say yes for a season when we think they won’t take away from our vital activities.
An example of that is for two years I chaired the BYU alumni chapter in Kansas City. Another example is from a couple of years ago, when my coauthor and I needed to buckle down and finish our book on Bronco Mendenhall, the BYU football coach. We were writing about how he implemented values and principles of organization design with his team. I was working at home, but I knew I needed to spend long hours each day at the computer in order to get it done. So we gathered the kids around the table and wrote all of my family responsibilities on sticky notes. Then we dealt out those sticky notes to family members. Some of them we decided I would keep, like putting my youngest son to bed or tracking the family finances because that’s kind of my niche in the family. But other family members volunteered for things like making dinner and doing the laundry. My teenagers set up a schedule where they took turns making dinner. They gave my husband their meal plans on Saturday and then he bought groceries and he and the teenagers would take turns making dinner. This went on for five to six months and they had so much fun planning meals, cooking them, and serving them to our family. Sometimes it was hot dogs or tomato soup and others times it was a gourmet feast. They were awesome sports and I think we all learned a lot about flexibility, how to serve each other, and accommodating one family member who has a need. We were really blessed because we finally finished the book. That’s the kind of method we have used to have conversations about work and roles and responsibilities in our family.
My husband and I have so much fun doing this. We have seen the success of our consulting methods in the business world and we have tried to apply them to our family and it’s helping us. I have a colleague who is particularly interested in doing the same thing. He and his wife are working on applying these organization design methods in their family. And we started to talk about it a little bit and so my colleague and I are joining forces and we are working on a workshop to share these ideas. All parents want to use their time with their families wisely. We sometimes get caught up in activities and routines that make us feel stressed and disconnected instead of enriched and close. So we think maybe there are ways to think through the intentional design of a family that can lead to a more purposeful family life. So that’s capturing my interest right now. It’s great to think about because it brings together my interest in being a mother with my professional expertise and what works best.
You also teach seminary. How does that fit in?
I love teaching seminary, but it’s not without its challenges. Several years ago I started waking up really early in the morning and that was before I got the calling, so it’s not hard for me to get up early. Last year I was going with my two daughters to seminary every morning so it was literally a family activity. Now one of them has graduated but I still go with my other daughter every morning and it’s such a sweet experience to be with her. I love it also because it vastly helps my understanding of the scriptures, being in the position that I need to teach them to others. I love the students I teach. It’s worked out perfectly because I am home just about the time my youngest son is getting up so he never feels my absence in the morning.
The relentless nature of preparing a lesson every day is the biggest challenge for me, but I’ve felt like I needed to learn to devote the right amount of time to it. You can easily spend four hours a day preparing for seminary, but I have tried to teach myself that that would interfere with the vital activities of our family. Serving in my calling is important for my spiritual growth but over preparing doesn’t serve anybody. So I have tried to put my faith in the Lord and in the spirit and the manuals available from the church. Lots of times I prepare while I am waiting for my son at martial arts lessons or cub scouts. I try to multi task and it’s worked out great. Someone applied the parable of the loaves and the fishes to this type of situation. You bring your loaves and the Savior takes them and multiplies them to the quantity that you need. So I give my hour or two and I have to trust the spirit to multiply that to meet the needs of the seminary students who I am praying for and thinking of as I prepare. With that attitude I feel like I can offer my humble offering and it will be enough because it will be magnified by the Savior and the Spirit.
How did you get into religious scholarship?
Years ago when I was a new mother, I was studying the topic of revelation. I was in D&C 76 and I followed a cross reference which took me to the book of Proverbs and I read the first dozen or so chapters as if for the first time. When I came to Proverbs 8:22-31, I read about a woman named Wisdom speaking in that poem and had a significant spiritual experience. One of the most profound of my entire life. I felt like the top of my head was opened up and light and understanding poured into it. I read in this poem about a heavenly woman named Wisdom who was present at creation and I could not believe that I had never noticed her there before nor had anyone ever called her to my attention at church or in my religion classes. It just seemed to me plain as day that a divine woman was telling her story in that poem. I remember standing up in astonishment because I always wondered why the scriptures never mention a heavenly woman of any sort. Not an angel who is a woman, not a heavenly mother, not a single noble and great female intelligence performing a heavenly role. Of course there are many great strong, mortal women in the scriptures, but here was what appeared to be a heavenly woman speaking in her own voice, plain as day.
Later, as I read up on this passage, I was disappointed that I could find almost no commentary by either church leaders or LDS scholars. I was just nuts to learn more about her. It was like I had looked down a long tunnel and I had seen her in the opening on the other side and I went running down the tunnel so I could meet her. But when I got to that other side I could not find her anywhere. So after that I just was driven and passionate about learning more about this Wisdom woman.
How does this idea of the divine feminine affect how you see yourself or how women should see themselves?
In the Wisdom poem in Proverbs 8, this woman stands beside God as he creates the world. Different translations treat it differently, but she rejoices as he does it, she is dancing before him, she is clearly anticipating the advent of mankind on Earth. She is interested and involved and enthusiastic about mankind. She loves us exuberantly. It makes me love her. I suppose the implications are about our roles as exalted women. That we can see our place in the heavens with other divine women who are with God. We have a place there that we are returning to, from which we came mothered by a heavenly mother and where perhaps some of us were great and noble intelligences, involved as Wisdom was in the creation and in the care and nurturing of God’s children. These women are our sisters here on Earth and they will also be exalted and become heavenly women. To some degree we can see the great Lady Wisdom in ourselves.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I was dreadfully sick all day long and it floored me because I thought it was mind over matter and you could work when you were pregnant. But I could hardly get out of bed. I had to stop consulting. I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t even read. Going to the bathroom was an ordeal. I had to gear up mentally to do it because I was so sick. At the time I was reading (when I could) perspectives about the female persona. One female author suggested that women are tied by their natures to the earth. As depicted in world literature and art, men are more up in their heads and up in the sky creating, championing, and executing their ideas. But for women, it’s their physical nature and fertility that is often emphasized. At the time it struck me because I recognized for the first time how much my physical nature was a part of my identity. I had been wrapped up in my head and my ideas through school and my early career and thought that I could accomplish anything with my intellect and the support of family members. But my body shut me down when I was pregnant. I was delighted to be pregnant, but it was a little depressing at the time because my identity was a little shaken by the inescapable demands of my physical body. I wrote a poem wondering what it would be like to be a heavenly woman. Here on earth, we are constantly engaged in a monthly cycle of physical and hormonal and emotional changes. We undergo so many physical changes when we have children and there are so many physical demands on us. I thought, “What would it be like to be a heavenly woman when you aren’t tied to the cycles of the moon and of blood and earthly child-bearing?” Of course that is very philosophical. I don’t know the answer, but it was amazing to see a heavenly woman in the scriptures talking about herself in her own voice, and it was the voice of a woman in ebullient anticipation of the creation and its promise for humankind.
I think that a lot of women believe that they aren’t scriptorians. What advice would you give to women about that?
I would give the advice that Wisdom gives in Proverbs. She is depicted in Proverbs 1 as standing in the public places of the city and calling to people to come to her. She says I will pour out my spirit unto you and I will make my words known unto you. She is disappointed to find that many refuse her or disregard her and would have none of her council. I think if we just hearken to the invitation to study the scriptures that the spirit will be poured out upon us and we will understand things that we weren’t even searching for. Like when I was reading about revelation and all of a sudden I saw divine woman speaking in her own voice. I think that is the kind of mystery and knowledge and wisdom that our father in heaven has for us if we will open the scriptures and search and pray and study. If we can just take those steps I think that Wisdom will help us, if you will. The spirit will help us to see things that will excite us and drive us to greater understanding and cause us to eagerly turn to the scriptures and read them in search of more.
What role in your life do you identify with the most?
I think of myself as a mother and a wife. It’s the role I prefer to be in. Certainly, I feel blessed to be free to pursue my intellectual interests. When we first got married, my husband felt strongly that I should use those first years after I graduated to develop my talents outside the home so that I was experienced and could serve other people better. He turned out to be right because we needed my contribution financially later. I was able to co-author some books, and in so doing, perform service to co-authors who were friends and mentors and whose stories and ideas I very much wanted to share. When I have written about the scriptures, it was because I felt like I couldn’t rest until I put down the thoughts that had come to me on paper. I feel blessed that some of those things have been published because then there are more brains and spirits coming to the conversation. But all that doesn’t necessarily comprise the core of my identity.
I have at times been a professional woman, either because it could help my family or there are certain things that I felt the Lord wanted me to do. But even when I am working at home, I hate feeling torn between the two spheres, and I do! No doubt, when I am working away from home I can get super into it and forget about my family for a day or two at a time. It really can slip away very quickly and I don’t like that. I don’t like when I work from home on a deadline and I have a child asking me for something because I really want to help the child without being distracted by anything else. I don’t want to glorify my life. I’m lucky to be able to move so easily in and out of the workforce. I can’t imagine greater ease of doing so, but that doesn’t mean that I like straddling the two worlds. Overall, I just have a personal preference to be home with my kids so I can give them my fullest attention.
At A Glance
Alyson Von Feldt
Location: Lawrence, KS
Marital status: Married
Children: Jacob (20), Sophie (18), Meredith (16), Aidan (10)
Occupation: Stay-at-home Mom, Organization Design Consultant, Writer
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: Abide with Me, Be Still my Soul, O My Father
Interview by Nollie Haws. Photos used with permission.