"Left to spend time with family" has long been one of the most popular euphemisms used in the business world, a nice way for both sides to save face when everyone knows that the executive in question was pushed out. In 2007, the phrase was used 47 different times in published reports and press releases detailing the departures of C-level executives, according to a LexisNexis search. But every so often, the clich� turns out to be true.
When Qwest Communications C.E.O. Richard C. Notebaert announced last June that he was leaving the company, he used just these words to explain his departure: "The time has come for me to spend more time with my family and focus on other commitments," he said. Today, he lives in Naples, Florida, with his wife, Peggy, and travels to the Midwest to see his two daughters and their families about once every three weeks.
"I worked for 39 years, and it was really enjoyable to be immersed in and passionate about not just a job but a way of life," he says now. "So you shift gears, and now the challenge is not just to fill the white space but to find something else that you're extremely passionate about."
Notebaert attends his grandsons' football games, babysits when needed, and occasionally travels with Peggy. He says his current role as the chairman of the board of trustees at Notre Dame University gives him much the same satisfaction as running a Fortune 500 company, and he also holds board seats at Aon Corp. and Cardinal Health.
Determining how many executives use "family" as an excuse and how many really mean it is impossible. But public-relations and workplace experts say that the timeworn family excuse remains an effective way for both company and executive to bow out without embarrassment.
"I think it's a good way to save face for the company and the executive. It's a graceful way to deal with it on both sides," says a veteran California-based public-relations professional who requested anonymity. "Most companies don't want to air their dirty laundry. There's no way to absolutely prove the statement is true or untrue."
Many of the public-relations specialists interviewed for this article didn't want to be quoted as being skeptical of the excuse in case any of their clients ever wanted to use it in the future. "It's suspect, for sure," says an anonymous expert. But she suggests that it's so commonly used that people and companies tolerate it-even when they know it's not true.
For his part, Notebaert says he doesn't prejudge an executive's motive when he hears that they left their company for family reasons. Widely hailed as the man who saved Qwest from bankruptcy in 2002, his own resignation took people by surprise.
But it wasn't the first time Notebaert left to do the family thing. At the end of 1999, he left Ameritech, where he'd been chairman of the board, but couldn't figure out how to fill his time. He returned to work six months later to head up Tellabs before joining Qwest in 2002, but now admits that he underestimated the time commitment and challenges (even by C.E.O. standards) that the job would require, especially with regard to legal issues and dealing with the U.S. government, which was looking into fraud and insider-trading allegations against Notebaert's predecessor, Joseph Nacchio. As a result, he missed his children's soccer and basketball games and canceled long-planned vacations. He describes his family as "understanding and forgiving" about the time he missed, but he had his own regrets. This time he picked the right moment to go. Says Notebaert, "We accomplished what we set out to do. There's nothing wrong with retiring while you're successful."
Michael Smellie, the former chief operating officer of Sony B.M.G. Entertainment, was also missing time away from his family before he stepped down in 2005 to return to his native Australia. The circumstances at home had been mounting. Smellie had spent part of the previous nine years away from his wife, Sharon, as well as from his two sons and one daughter, as he worked his way up the corporate ladder in places like Tokyo and Hong Kong. His son Martin, a rambunctious teenager, had begun getting the wrong kind of attention from teachers and the headmaster at boarding school, something Smellie and his wife chalked up to his father's absence.
"In hindsight, I think I underestimated the effect of my absence," Smellie says. "I realized I wanted and needed to come back." Now, says Smellie, "my son has a role model who's around the house every day. He was a handful who needed a father's guiding hand."
Further, a few months before Smellie resigned, Sharon learned that her mother was seriously ill and had chosen to return to Australia.
These days, Smellie races his sailboat every Thursday evening with Sharon and their elder son, Joel. He attends Martin's track-and-field events at the University of Sydney and supports his wife in her struggle with her mother's illness. In 2006, just less than a year after he left Sony B.M.G., Bertelsmann made Smellie its president for media development in the Asia Pacific region, a part-time job that takes him to China about one week per month.
Smellie admits to being somewhat skeptical when he hears an executive has resigned to spend more time with family. "It's really difficult to give up that kind of position," he says of high-level executive posts. "More often than not, people can't leave the job, and I'd be lying if I said I don't have some regrets about my decision."
In the case of Notebaert and Smellie, at least some observers questioned the true motives behind their departures. Smellie's deteriorating relationship with Sony chairman Andrew Lack has been cited as a reason behind his decision to leave, while Notebaert's critics suggested he quit knowing of harder times ahead for Qwest.
Ben Dattner, an industrial psychologist and principal of Dattner Consulting in New York, says it would be better for companies and their employees, as well as shareholders, if companies were more honest about the reasons for executive departures.
"In an age where there's supposed to be greater transparency, 'leaving to spend time with family' is the ultimate nontransparent answer," Dattner says. "But there's still a notion that this is face-saving and socially acceptable. You're not going to see a press release that says she left because of a power struggle or this guy just wasn't up to snuff."