The Big Price of Big Titles

A few years ago when I was working for a corporate public accounting firm I was driving home from a business dinner with our managing partner. When I jokingly mentioned that I felt guilty dining on sea bass while my family was eating spaghetti, he casually replied, “I haven’t been home for dinner in 16 nights straight.”

Huh?

I think I muddled something like, “Wow” but in my head I was thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

Turns out, he wasn’t.

When you’re the managing partner of a corporate empire, your schedule is packed with client receptions, dinner obligations, after work meetings – and that’s just when you’re in town. Knowing he had two young girls at home, I asked how his wife felt about all that travel.

“She’s not crazy about it.”

Then – after a few beats of awkward silence – he added, “But whenever she gets testy, I just ask, ‘Do you like your house? How about those cars in the driveway? Do you like those?’”

Just to be clear, my boss wasn’t a jerk – nor is he a bad father. He’s just at the top of the food chain in a very demanding industry. To keep his position – and the house and cars – he had to play the game…so he did.

I was reminded of this conversation recently in an interview with Heather Bresch, CEO of Mylan which is, notably, one of only 18 Fortune 500 companies with a woman at the helm. Bresch said a typical week for her is working from 6a.m. (where she can chat with teams in Europe, India, or Australia) to 8 or 9p.m. at night Monday to Friday. Again – that’s just when she’s in town. Bresch says 1/3 of her time is spent traveling to Mylan’s global facilities.

I guess this is the part where I should mention Bresch has four kids.

Of her schedule Bresch said, “My husband and I have had to teach our children that they have been given opportunities and exposure to things most children do not get, but it comes at a price. I tell them because my position affords them those privileges, I have to work really hard. It’s a double edge sword.” 

Ah, yes. The “having it all” debate again.

About once a year the internet will go into a tizzy on this, particularly as it relates to women – last year it was Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk, this year it’s The Atlantic cover story – but when the dust settles, nothing changes. We’re still working as much as ever, trying to strike a “balance” that is very, very difficult.

The Atlantic article (correctly) points out the higher you go, the less control you will have over your schedule, which means at some point every hyper-successful executive – both men and women – will come to a crossroads where they will be forced to make a choice between a life and a career. This used to be true only for those at the highest levels of their organizations, but it’s trickling down the org chart for sure. (I’ll freely admit that I wouldn’t have held my corporate job without a nanny when my kids were younger – and I wasn’t even a Partner.)

But what happens when you fail to see employees as “whole people” with lives outside the office? That’s right. You lose them eventually so the whole notion of pushing employees until they break seems massively short-sighted. Question is: Are companies listening?

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