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Want Balance? Forget About Being a CEO

When I attended business school in the 1980s, the idea of work-life balance was just beginning to be debated. Our convocation speaker, a well-known European CEO, used the occasion of our graduation to launch into a Napoleonic tirade disavowing the idea of balance in the executive suite. He insisted that successful leaders put their careers first, willingly accepting that their personal lives will suffer irreparable damage. He insisted that this was the price of success, and one could choose either to be successful, or to enjoy a happy personal life with a career stuck in neutral. It was clear that his words came from bitter personal experience.

Fast forward to today and our speaker’s words ring just as true – notwithstanding the thousands of articles that have been written suggesting that men and women can “have it all,” or that milennials will force businesses to change how they manage employees.

I recently worked with four different clients who were all offered exciting new roles – some leading different companies and others taking on intra-company transfers as part of their executive development. The sub-text for all for these executives was that moving location was critical to their continued advancement as senior business leaders – a nice way of saying that without moving, their careers would stall. These were very high performing people who loved their jobs, and they were having great impacts on their organizations.

However, in each of these cases my clients needed to negotiate the terms and conditions of the moves with their families, and they reached very different results. In one case, an empty nester CEO came to an amicable arrangement with her spouse, agreeing that they would live on different continents as long as the job lasted; in another case, my client was faced with a partner who became resistant and hostile to his long-term weekly commute between cities. In the third case, my client tried, with great difficulty, to negotiate a family move across a continent, while in a fourth case, my client turned down a significant CEO opportunity because of the disruption that a long-distance move would create for her career-oriented spouse and activity-laden children.

Although all of these examples focus on geography, the trade-offs are the same as for the CEO who coaches a child’s soccer team or wants to attend a school recital. I am not arguing against the valuable efforts made by organizations to promote balance and wellness – I am pointing out that these ideas just don’t work very well in the context of the extraordinary commitment required in the

C-Suite. I really don’t have any sage advice for senior leaders who are desperately trying to find some balance. The best I can do is to suggest that you discuss boundaries, and their consequences, with your family, and then stick to them. In my own career I adhered to one boundary – a commitment that I would not move my children while they were in high school.

I encourage you to take to heart Jerry Seinfeld’s observation that “there is no such thing as fun for the whole family.” Just because you are enjoying your success as a business leader, don’t assume that the people you love are also enjoying the ride.

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