Rule 9: Work is a Member of the Family

Rule 9: Work is a Member of the Family


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Have you been able to balance professional goals with personal and family goals?

Yes: 42 percent

No: 58 percent

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I asked a lot of top professionals whether they are good at balancing their work activities with their family and outside interests. Barrett A. Toan, CEO of the multibillion-dollar pharmacy software company Express Scripts, gave me a succinct answer that echoed the sentiments of many others: "Not particularly."

A startling number of the invincible executives I have known are single or have divorced. About 15 percent have spouses who live or work in a different city than they do; and these executives catch up with their families on weekends, holidays, and vacations. Those who have remained married for a long time usually have stay-at-home spouses who have decided that supporting their spouse's career is their career. Because traditions erode slowly and top executives tend to be in their fifties or sixties, the stay-at-home spouses tend to be the wives. However, that trend is changing as well. In my own experience, a friend of mine recently quit his law practice to stay at home with the kids because his wife's medical practice was taking off in a big way. In fact, homemaker husbands now run approximately one in six households.

Career as a Top Priority

Because the invincible executive needs to be mobile, his family tends to move with him early in his career. However, at some point, the family (most often the stay-at-home spouse) may decide that the interests of the kids require more stability. As a result, the further an invincible executive is into his or her career, the more likely it is that his or her family will live in a different city. "There came a time when the kids and I said, 'We are not moving again. Our schools are here, our friends are here, and we love our house,'" the wife of a top executive at Johnson & Johnson told me recently. This may not sound like encouraging news for young people who aspire to great professional success.

But you know something? Most top executives accept the difficult balance between job and family without questioning it. Those who have experienced dizzying professional triumph do not do much hand-wringing about the state of their family lives. Yes, they wish that their first marriage had held up. Yes, they hate commuting to a different city. But they have made a commitment to achieve career success and everyone else is going to have to get used to it or get out of their lives.

"I treat my job like another member of the family," a young, ambitious pharmaceutical executive told me on an airplane a few months ago. "It gets the same attention, time, and nurturing as anyone else, and just like inter-sibling jealousy, if you're jealous of my career, get over it!" Similarly, Tom O'Neill, CEO of Parsons Brinckerhoff, told me, "I sort of gave up on the idea of achieving a very harmonious balance between work and home."

Unfortunately, however, a large percentage—almost half—of invincible executives have expressed some regrets about their relationships with their children. Several of the country's most well-known executives and politicians confided to me that they have had very difficult periods as parents. Combine two simple facts and it should be no surprise that family harmony can suffer when the father or mother is a professional star: First, the child of an invincible executive almost by definition feels tremendous pressure to succeed like his or her father or mother did. Most children in this situation simply will not enjoy the same levels of success. Then, throw in the fact that the parent was gone a lot when the child was young, and it becomes easy for the child to blame his or her failure to live up to the parent's success on the lack of parental presence. This is a recurrent theme among top professionals.

This book is not about the invincible father, or the invincible wife. So you are going to have to make a decision. Two of the brightest lawyers I have ever met decided at a midpoint in their careers that they were not ever going to consider their jobs to be anywhere near as important as their families. That is a noble and admirable decision. They took themselves off the stellar career trajectories. But if you want to get to the top, you have to put the job right up there with the family—not higher, but on almost the same plane. Obviously, a family emergency trumps everything, but short of that, there will be many times when the career wins out over the family.