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?

12 Comments

  • I like this post. I also have some questions.

    Why exactly would “business” change the expectations? If there is an endless queue of hungry people willing to take the place of the burned out execs (which it appears there is), why not just burn through your people? Everyone is replaceable. Apparently whatever costs come with replacing people don’t exceed the benefit.

    Let me be clear, I agree it would be nice if certain levels of reward and compensation at work could be attained without sacrificing quality of life. But I’m just not sure why “business” will ever care as long as there is a pool of people who accept this way of life. Your boss accepted it. Many people do.

    • EDG –

      This is *exactly* what companies are failing to understand. When you burn people out – they leave. Now…. the company is in a position where they have to devote time and resources to finding new staff, training them, introducing them to clients, etc. All of this is a diversion from time that could be better spent on the core business objectives. Not to mention when companies experience high turnover, it erodes morale, affects team building (i.e. current employees think “why should I bother investing in this new person if they’re just going to leave anyway?”) and clients tend to view it as a sign of internal weakness (i.e. “what’s wrong with this company that they can’t keep their staff?”). Sure there will always be hungry up-and-comers but if they aren’t a fit or the company burns them out – they’ll leave too and the cycle starts again. While I agree that companies shouldn’t view anyone as irreplaceable – I strongly believe they need to do everything possible to hold on tight to A-players.

      EB

  • Right, I get that.

    What I don’t get is how something so straightforward that has been, as you point out, a conversation for decades now, isn’t in some way penciling out for employers. Your points make great sense on paper, and I personally believe you are correct.

    But having never been the CEO of a large corporation, I don’t see what they see. From the outside, I see what you do. From the inside, they clearly see something different.

    Have you ever interviewed those insiders on this? I’d be excited to see you pry this open from the inside!

    In short….what are they thinking?

    • I honestly don’t understand it either. Some companies get it – but most don’t. And I agree that the question is definitely, “Why not?” So…yep…I’ll be digging. :)

  • Kelly Rochleau says:

    I remember participating in a classroom “exercise” during an econ class in high school. We all had to grade ourselves on a quiz. If we all gave ourselves a B, we would all get B’s. But if someone gave themselves an A, they would get an A, and anyone who put a B would get a C. If everyone gave themselves an A, everyone would fail. The outcome was what you might expect. The system exists the way it does because it’s part of our culture of self-interest. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just how it is. I think it would take a dramatic shift in the culture of a company to balance out the teeter-totter of the work/life balance. I agree with your thoughts, but I think there is room for other factors. I used to work in an academic environment supporting executives who were pursuing their MBA. I had many similar conversations as the one you mentioned and would gasp “you haven’t been home in a month?!” Yes, some execs are motivated by an understanding of the sacrifice required to be the leaders in their industry, if they don’t commit the ridiculous amount of personal time, they’ll fall behind. But, consider these too… some execs devote themselves exponentially more to their work because it’s their passion. They live and breath it, maybe they don’t have to, but they want to, they love it. And I think others use their busy work schedules as an excuse to avoid their real lives, it gives them an excuse to disconnect and lead a separate life. Just my two cents for what it’s worth!

    • Thank you for saying this. I wanted to say something similar but couldn’t figure out how to do it without sounding like I’m anti-humanity. LOL

      What I think of is a scene on West Wing between Toby and his wife. They are on the brink of divorce. In a very intense conversation where she pleads with him to make time for their marriage, she says something like, “What is more important? This (the work) or us?” and without thinking he just blurts out, “THIS. This is more important right now!”

      After he says it out loud, they are both shocked but they have to accept that it is what he really believes.

      It’s a painful thing to watch, but I think it illustrates some of your point, Kelly. People can be in denial about what their real priorities are.

      • Kelly Rochleau says:

        “People can be in denial about what their real priorities are” – Exactly! And perhaps there is something to the “system” exploiting this while certain individuals perpetuate it … to the detriment of those who actually crave a different kind of life that doesn’t make them a slave to their job :).

  • Rebecca says:

    Take a look at this post. It is about Anne Marie Slaughter’s step down and Atlantic monthly article. http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2012/06/25/get-pregnant-at-25-if-you-want-a-high-powered-career/ . Anne’s position is realistic and I totally agree. Having it all is ridiculous.

  • Rebecca –

    Having it all is subjective and that’s where the media gets it wrong. Your version of “having it all” could be different than mine – which is great – as long as we are defining it for ourselves. Thank you for sharing Penelope’s article. I think she posts some of the smartest discussions on this topic I’ve seen in a while. See today’s on Marissa Mayer: http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2012/07/17/marissa-mayer-becomes-ceo-of-yahoo-and-proves-women-cannot-have-it-all/

    EB

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