Google’s CFO, Patrick Pichette, is just the latest C-suite leader to announce that he is stepping down to focus on personal pursuits, specifically his wife and travel. He follows the high-profile departures of Mohamed El-Erian and Max Schireson, who received near-unanimous applause when they resigned in the past year from their CEO positions to focus on their families.
But while these top execs made choices in their personal interests, they may have passed up an opportunity to use their power and authority to make changes in their companies and serve as examples for others.
Pichette called himself, "a member of FIWO, the noble Fraternity of Worldwide Insecure Over-achievers," but acknowledged he couldn’t shake his wife’s "killer question: 'So when is it going to be time? Our time?'"
El-Erian, the former CEO and co-CIO of PIMCO, cited a list his daughter presented him with 22 important activities and events he had missed because of work commitments.
"As much as I could rationalize it—as I had rationalized it—my work-life balance had gotten way out of whack, and the imbalance was hurting my very special relationship with my daughter," El-Erian told Reuters news.
Schireson, the former CEO of MongoDB, shared a similar list of his own in a blog post explaining his decision—"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."
In highly publicized fashion, these high-profile working fathers challenged the prevailing bias that balancing work and family is a battle fought only by women. As Schireson noted, "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 we all need to do what is right for us, here are the steps top executives like Pichette, El-Erian, and Schireson can take to make work and life better for their employees before they leave.
The schedules of lower-level employees may not be as extreme as Pichette’s always-on expectation, El-Erian’s 16-hour workday, or Schireson’s 300,000-miles-per-year travel schedule, but those workers also don’t have the same financial resources as a C-suite leader to pay for the supports that buffer the impact of work-life conflict. And for them, leaving may not be an option for financial reasons.
Balance is a unicorn you will never find, but everyone can take more control over his or her everyday work-life fit. It is a modern skill we all need to succeed, on and off the job. Start with a simple weekly practice to make more small, meaningful, personal events happen on a regular basis. Then use your power as a leader to encourage and reward others who do the same.
With a little more planning, communication, and telework, a CEO could make special moments like the ones El-Erian’s daughter listed a priority for themselves and their employees. This gives everyone permission to make very doable changes that have big impact.
Creating a culture of flexibility and giving the workforce the skills and tools to manage their work-life fit is a business imperative. Research shows that a strategic, coordinated approach can improve engagement, well-being, recruitment, and retention.
Study how your employees are managing their lives outside of work while getting their jobs done. Many C-suite leaders will find that some of their basic assumptions about work and life are not true. For example, oftentimes qualitative and quantitative research will show that single people and men in the organization are having a harder time managing work and life than married employees and women.
Once you know what is really going on in the workplace and in people’s lives, you can focus on what will help your workforce achieve high performance and work-life well-being. It will take more than a policy and a toolkit on the company’s intranet. It will take time. It will take a cross-functional effort of many people, not just HR. And it will take money to fund new technologies, training, and supports. You can’t do culture change on the cheap, and expect a meaningful shift to occur.
All is not lost. Pichette will remain at Google until they identify and transition responsibility to his successor. El-Erian currently works as the chief economic adviser at Allianz, the German insurer that owns PIMCO. And Schireson is now vice chairman of MongoDB. In these positions, all three leaders still have an opportunity to influence and translate their "I need more balance" insight into action. Let’s hope they, and other executives like them, use it!
—Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, has spent more than two decades helping hundreds of businesses and thousands of individuals partner to create award-winning flexible workplaces. Clients have included Quest Diagnostics, BDO USA, the Singapore Government, the United Nations, and Stanford University. An honors graduate of Columbia Business School, Yost offers her pioneering work+life "fit" advice to individuals in Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, (Center Street/Hachette, 2013), and in the critically acclaimed, Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Riverhead/Penguin Group, 2004). Connect with her on Twitter @caliyost.