Is Being A Good Parent And A Good CEO Impossible?

Max Schireson, the departing CEO of MongoDB, says yes–at least for him.

Is Being A Good Parent And A Good CEO Impossible?
[Image: Flickr user Andrew Xu]

Working mothers have been saying for years that they can’t really have it all; now a prominent male tech CEO is joining their lament.


Max Schireson, the CEO of database giant MongoDB, is stepping down after four years with the company, citing his desire to spend more time with family. “I cannot be that leader given the geography of the majority of the company in New York and my family in California,” he writes in a blog post titled “Why I am leaving the best job I ever had.” “I decided the only way to balance was by stepping back from my job.” While “spending more time with the family” is often a euphemism for “the company is pushing me out,” that does not appear to be the case for Schireson, who is staying on as vice chairman.

We’re accustomed to women citing family as a reason to pull back at work, but it’s much rarer to hear men admit to the same, as Schireson points out:

Earlier this summer, Matt Lauer asked Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, whether she could balance the demands of being a mom and being a CEO. The Atlantic asked similar questions of PepsiCo’s female CEO Indra Nooyi. As a male CEO, I have been asked what kind of car I drive and what type of music I like, but never how I balance the demands of being both a dad and a CEO. While the press haven’t asked me, it is a question that I often ask myself.

There are reasons that the work-life-balance conversation focuses on women. Women spend almost twice as much time as men on household chores and child care. High-powered female executives are also judged more harshly. (Remember all the news stories about Marissa Mayer’s baby?) And, even if (currently weak to nonexistent) policies to support moms in the workplace improved, women will always have the burden of carrying and birthing children.

Schireson argues that no matter your gender, running a company and focusing on family are incompatible (and in his case, the problem was exacerbated by the bicoastal offices of the company for which he worked). He writes: “I am on pace to fly 300,000 miles this year, all the normal CEO travel plus commuting between Palo Alto and New York every 2-3 weeks. During that travel, I have missed a lot of family fun, perhaps more importantly, I was not with my kids when our puppy was hit by a car or when my son had (minor and successful, and of course unexpected) emergency surgery.”

Schireson is not the first to argue that because of the demands of leadership, and specifically the travel demands of a high-powered executive, nobody can “have it all.” Unfortunately, because of the realities of the cold hard capitalist world, Schireson admits that his decision likely means he will forgo future, high-paying, prestigious positions. He doesn’t, however, think he will never work again. “I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have an meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so.” Time will tell if Schireson’s decision actually ends up being all that detrimental to his career.

In the short term, at least, he’s not doing too bad. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg applauded him, giving him the “Lean In award of the day for speaking out for fathers and husbands everywhere who want to do more for their families.” As Schireson steps away from his responsibilities as CEO, perhaps his wife–a doctor and professor at Stanford–will have more opportunity to Lean In to her career.

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.