Most successful business people I know struggle with balancing work and family life.
For some, rewards, recognition and money at work takes priority and for others work can be escape from family duties. But there are a few who admit to the extreme challenge of being successful at work and as a parent. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in The Atlantic about her decision to give up her foreigh-policy dream job at the U.S. State Department to spend more time with her two sons, and recently, Mohamed El-Erian discussed why he gave up his $100 million salary at Pimco because his daughter handed him a list of 22 important milestones he had missed in her life.
Every female CEO will at some point be asked how she manages to “balance it all,” but the struggles are no less real for men; men are simply less often publicly condemned for not having the right answer. Therefore, I think it’s less a gendered issue and more an individual one.
Does balance exist?
How do you balance business success and familial success? Some say it can’t be done, that you can’t be a successful career person, CEO or business owner and a truly engaged parent with a high-quality relationship with your children.
In a recent Financial Times article Luke Johnson recalls a sad story of a business tycoon he had known as an acquaintance for several years before he ever found out that he had any children. And when he finally mentioned his son and daughter it was to express his contempt and disappointment in them. He had almost written then out of his life because he felt they were massively spoilt, didn’t appreciate the privileged life they had and lacked his drive and work ethic.
This story is mirrored so many times in the business world, where career driven and success hungry people neglect their children or try to substitute the lack of attention with material gifts. In a response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece, James Joyner argued that life is about trade-offs, and that you simply can’t have both the “big job” and be a successful parent.
Personally, I find myself hoping that he is wrong, but also wondering if the problem isn’t more with our definition of success. Our culture has put business and material success on a pedestal high above the kind of familial success we’re talking about here. Perhaps it needs to be taken down a peg or two.
In my own life, I have taken many steps to ensure I spend more time with my three children, and indeed my wife. Especially as a business owner it is so easy to get caught up with chasing business success and forgetting about the children at home. I could easily fill every day of the week, including the weekends, with business functions and meetings. But I’ve discovered that, for my personal definition of success, sometimes it is about saying no and prioritising the sports day at school and the term-break with the kids over the business opportunity.
I am lucky enough to be in a position were I am the boss and were I can make those choices but I have always granted the same choices to anyone who has ever worked for me. I don't think anyone should ever get to a point in their life where they have this massive regret that they haven't spent enough time with their kids. I meet so many successful CEOs and business leaders who seem to have this one regret in common.
Fortunately, I think it’s becoming more acceptable for successful men and women to put the success of their families on par with the success of their businesses. It’s certainly not yet de rigeur to be the guy who cancels a business meeting to attend his kid’s football match or school play, but I think it is becoming less strange, less immediately damning.
My great hope is that, as a culture, we can slowly redefine our understanding of what success looks like, that money and power will no longer be the only outward indicators of extreme success, but the relationships we have with our children, our partners, even our friends and ourselves be the greater measure.
What do you think? Can you be successful in business and in your relationships? If so, how? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.