Sophie Vandebroek is in a rush. It's six o'clock on a Tuesday evening, and she has just arrived home, half an hour earlier than usual. Her eldest child, Elena, 17, is at the movies. Arno, 15, is in the kitchen, playing with his pet snake. And her youngest, Jonas, 13, is at school, where he's scheduled to begin a viola concert in an hour. Vandebroek, who showed up late for the last recital, is determined to be there.
The family's sitter sets dinner on the table, and Vandebroek talks quickly between bites of pasta. It's a simple meal in a simple home. There's an antique granite dining table and a big deck where she likes to read on quiet Saturday afternoons. "The schedule is just so hectic at work—people popping in, running from one thing to the next," she says. "You really need your refuge." On the table, the red light of her BlackBerry flickers as email pours in.
Ten years ago, Vandebroek's husband, Bart, died suddenly, leaving her alone with three small children and no other relatives in the United States. Vandebroek responded not just by sticking to her career but by taking on a series of increasingly challenging, high-profile jobs. In January, she became Xerox's chief technology officer, responsible for harnessing the creations of five global laboratories to drive growth at the $15.7 billion document company.
Her colleagues have watched this ascent with some awe: I don't know how she does it, they whispered. And for years, Vandebroek, 44, fed the mystery, reluctant to discuss her husband's death. But lately, she has begun talking openly about how her family's tragedy helped her understand what's really important. She's passionate about the strategies she has used to balance home and work as a single parent, including strict rules for travel, refusing relocations, even capping the number of friends she keeps up with. Her mantra: "Delegate, simplify, and leverage IT."
For most of us, work-life balance is like losing those last 5 pounds on a diet: It's something we'll get around to… someday. We collect time-management tips at www.lifehacker.com, we read David Allen's Getting Things Done, but like New Year's resolutions, the discipline fades and we're just as time-strapped and stressed-out as ever. Vandebroek, by contrast, was forced by difficult circumstances to make changes immediately—no procrastination allowed. "We had a balanced life when Bart and I were together, then the balance broke," she says. "So I had to find a way to get it back."
Vandebroek was born in Belgium and earned undergraduate and master's degrees in engineering before emigrating to the States in 1986. She and Bart, also Belgian, arrived at Cornell University with four suitcases, $500, and two scholarships. She earned a doctorate in microelectronics engineering and he an MBA. By 1991, they'd bought a house in suburban Rochester, New York, near Bart's job at Electronic Navigation Industries, where he was director of engineering. Sophie was working at IBM's research center in Yorktown Heights, driving seven hours to work each Monday morning and returning home each Friday night. When her second child arrived, she persuaded IBM to install a broadband Internet connection in her home, though her boss at the time made her keep an hour-by-hour journal of what exactly she was working on. She telecommuted for a year before jumping to Xerox.
By 1996, the Vandebroeks had three kids. Bart, then 34, and Sophie loved their jobs and life beyond, spending weekends hiking, kayaking, and camping. Then in August, during a trip on an isolated island in the Adirondacks, Bart suffered a severe asthma attack. Sophie called for help, and two EMTs arrived in a rescue boat. "He was alive when they came," she says softly, but he died before being evacuated. The next morning, she drove Elena, Arno, and Jonas, then 7, 5, and 2, back to Rochester. Relatives came from Belgium for the funeral. And within 10 days, she was back at work as a manager in Xerox's inkjet printer division.
Her boss suggested she trade her line job for a less-demanding staff role. "Don't worry about us—just get through this," he told her. She declined. "I said, 'That's the worst thing you could do.' I loved my job—it's like reading a fantastic book where your brain gets so involved in a topic that you basically forget everything else."
At home, though, there was no forgetting her new status as a single parent. Bart had barely any life insurance, and the family's income was cut in half. He'd done most of the cooking, handled all the finances, and mowed their one-acre yard. Sophie immediately delegated cooking to the sitter who watched Jonas during the day, telling her, "I don't care what's on the table as long as there's something to eat." She spent weekends riding the lawn mower and digging through their financial records. When Jonas entered school in 1998, she cut the sitter back to three hours each afternoon. Life went on.
Over time, with promotions and pay raises at work, she began to outsource more home responsibilities. She used to worry that hiring out every household task would set a bad example for her kids, but no more: Today, any time she can hire someone to do something that will give her more free time with the kids, she does it. Her 15-hour-a-week sitter handles the bulk of the laundry and the cooking. On her refrigerator hangs a two-page computer printout of grocery items, the sequence corresponding to the layout at the local grocery store. During the week, she and the kids check off what they need, and on Fridays a $10-an-hour high- school student does all the shopping.
Next to the kitchen sink hangs a bunch of bananas. To Vandebroek, it symbolizes the trade-offs of her outsourced life. Some weeks the bananas are too green; others, they're too brown. If she did the shopping herself, they might be perfect. Likewise, she'd do a better job than her housecleaners or her lawn-care crew. But timewise, it's not worth it. "I learned that the hard way when Bart died," she says. "So many things we worry about are not important."
On a monthly calendar in the kitchen, she and the kids all fill in their schedules. There's plenty of white space—reflecting her desire to keep their lives simple. Each child can participate in only one sport or after-school activity each season, to keep the family from spending all weekend running from one event to another. They don't watch regular television; instead, the children are big readers, and on Friday nights the family watches one Netflix movie together. Vacations are simple, too—usually skiing or camping. Many professionals plan such elaborate vacations, Vandebroek believes, that they actually take on stress when they should be relaxing.
Sophie and Bart, both engineers, had always embraced an efficient, rational approach to things. Now all the more so: Sophie keeps her hair relatively short to make the morning routine quicker. For work she dresses in basic pantsuits and scarves—though since her latest promotion, one Xerox executive has suggested that she wear brighter colors for client meetings.
To save time, she doesn't believe in niceties like sending Christmas cards or thank-you notes. She even tries to limit her friendships. "Don't maintain 50 friends—a handful of close ones will give you perhaps even more satisfaction," she tells colleagues. It's an attitude that can sound off-putting, but some find it inspirational. "She has fewer hang-ups about stuff that to me seems so important," says MIT professor Jesus del Alamo, a longtime friend who, with Vandebroek's encouragement, recently went cold turkey on Christmas cards himself. "Some of the strategies she has applied are so sound, so commonsense," he says. "She seems to have learned to delegate in an amazing way so she can carry this enormous load gracefully."
At the office, Vandebroek's routine is, if anything, more disciplined. She and her administrative assistant strictly limit her schedule to prevent the workday from spilling into family time. They won't plan meetings before 9 a.m. or after 5:30 p.m., allowing Vandebroek time to make the 12-minute commute and relieve the sitter by 6:30.
In meetings, she's a BlackBerry fiend; she was the second Xerox employee to carry the device, and she uses it so much she wears out the keys. "It saves me an hour a day of email," she says, citing it as a key example of using technology toward better balance. She and her sitter communicate mostly via text messaging. And though she checks email after 9 p.m., it's always from home. When Stephen Hoover, a vice president in charge of one of Xerox's research centers, sends her an evening email, he says she'll sometimes BlackBerry him back: "Oh my gosh, what are you doing at work? Go home—we can do this later."
When Vandebroek travels domestically, she avoids scheduling meetings before 10 a.m. and usually flies that morning, allowing her to limit most U.S. travel to day trips. In her last job, as Xerox's chief engineer, it wasn't unusual for her to go a month at a time without any overnight travel, says her sitter, Sarah Van Cor-Hosmer, a student who stays overnight when Vandebroek is on the road. The promotion to CTO changes that, at least for now: Looking over her schedule recently, Vandebroek noticed she'll be away 10 nights out of the next 30. "You always travel a lot when you take a new job," she says. "I have to be present in all of these divisions I lead as part of building the human fabric. Once you've worked with people and built up relationships, you can [manage] much more through the phone and through email."
Since Bart's death, she has also put one nonnegotiable condition on her career: no relocating. She has held jobs based in Rochester, Syracuse, Toronto, and Stamford, Connecticut—and for each she kept the family in the same house that she and Bart bought for $160,000 15 years ago, arranging with her bosses to be in her faraway office as little as possible. In 2000, Vandebroek left Xerox and spent 12 months as chief technology officer at Carrier Corp., based in Hartford, but she spent only one day a week at headquarters. "It's a lot of work to move, especially with kids," says Jonathan Ayers, the former Carrier president who recruited Vandebroek. "It's all the things you don't think of that you develop when you're in a location—the pediatrician, the schools, the activities." Indeed, Vandebroek refers to relationships with neighbors, doctors, and sitters as "infrastructure," an investment that would take too long to rebuild if she moved. "Jobs are fairly easy to change," she says. "Relationships aren't."
"Jobs are fairly easy to change," she says. "Relationships aren't."
She has also rejected the illusion of the so-called life-cycle career, in which a rising executive tries to time moves at work to the ebbs and flows of family life. Vandebroek has always taken new jobs no matter what was going on at home—and to her, that's the smart solution. "The more senior jobs you get, the easier it is," she says. "You get less control over how busy you are, but you get more over decisions about when you're busy and how you're going to do things." While most people equate seniority with stress, she equates it with flexibility.
Vandebroek admits that not every worker could get—nor even deserves—the accommodations she has been granted. "What's important is you deliver results," she says, finishing dinner. "If you're requesting flexibility and you're not performing to the level your manager expects, you're in big trouble—you can't do that."
Tonight, of course, Vandebroek faces different expectations. The clock is ticking past 6:30, and many of the nation's chief technology officers are probably still at their desks. But in a school gymnasium a few miles away, the string section is tuning up. And when the curtain rises, Sophie Vandebroek has every intention of being there.
Daniel McGinn is a Newsweek correspondent based in Boston.
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A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.