Google's chief financial officer Patrick Pichette drew plaudits and some potshots when he announced he was stepping down to focus on family and personal pursuits. He had been preceded by two other high-profile men who stepped down as CEOs, Mohamed el-Erian of Pacific Investment Management Co. (Pimco), a global investment firm, and Max Schireson of MongoDB, a software firm.
Dog bites man is not news but man bites dog is news, as a traditional definition proclaims. So male executives stepping back from work for family is news because it is so rare. But there were some complaints that the attention they received was yet another example of bias toward men, making them seem nobler than women who step back. And because they weren't promising to live in an ashram but might one day return to heavy work challenges, they were attacked as not being consistent. Finally, it was noted they were able to take advantage of their wealth for a break poorer people can't afford.
But in the struggle for work-life balance, by women and men, these were important moments. As I did with Anne-Marie Slaughter's prescription for work-life balance in The Atlantic three years ago, I want to go back to focus attention on their original words.
Mr. Schireson, on his blog, talked about no longer being willing to head an East Coast-based company while living in California: "I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role. Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have a meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so. At first, it seemed like a hard choice, but the more I have sat with the choice the more certain I am that it is the right choice."
And to those who feel he, as a man, received undue attention, it's worth noting that after praising his wife's talents and accomplishments as a doctor and professor at Stanford University, he mentioned: "Friends and colleagues often ask my wife how she balances her job and motherhood. Somehow, the same people don't ask me."
Mr. Pichette in his letter of resignation talked of deflecting his wife's desire to continue exploring Africa after their climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. He defensively told her it wasn't time yet, as he had so much more to tackle at Google. "But then she asked the killer question: So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time? The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air," he recalled. That killer question may not have been asked of you. But could it? Should it?
He closed: "In the end, life is wonderful, but nonetheless a series of tradeoffs, especially between business/professional endeavours and family/community. And thankfully, I feel I'm at a point in my life where I no longer have to have to make such tough choices any more. And for that I am truly grateful. Carpe Diem."
Carpe Diem means seize the day. That day may be a long way off for you. Or perhaps it's a day you could have seized but have resisted, as he did initially.
I have returned to their words because, too often in the headlines, meaningful sentiments get lost. But I was also taken by work-fit expert Cali Williams Yost's response on her blog (subsequently transferred to Fast Company) advising how C-Suite leaders can help others before leaving to find balance for themselves:
Recognize it's not just about you. Lower-level employees may not have as extreme a schedule as you face, but they also don't have your financial resources to pay for supports that can ease the burden. "And for them, leaving may not be an option, for financial reasons," she notes.
Study the work-life reality in your organization. In the process, you may find some of your assumptions are not true. One example: Research often shows that single people and men in the organization are having a harder time managing work and life than married employees and women. Based on what you discover, devote resources – time, people, and money – to changing the culture.
Ms. Yost believes in small tweaks to make progress on work-life balance. Quitting your job is anything but a small tweak. But people in power can make small changes to their own situation and, perhaps as importantly, that of subordinates. So start with some simple adjustments to your own work-life situation but also, as she says, "Use your power as a leader to encourage and reward others who do the same. … This gives everyone permission to make very doable changes that have big impact."
That may be more difficult than walking away to pursue your own work-life balance. But I don't mean to devalue those who take that path. We need to honour, or at least understand, all answers to the killer question as we continue, individually and societally, to deal with this element of work-life balance.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter