Work/life balance is at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth, today’s senior executives will tell you. But by making deliberate choices about which opportunities they’ll pursue and which they’ll decline, rather than simply reacting to emergencies, leaders can and do engage meaningfully with work, family and community. In this article we draw on five years’ worth of interviews with almost 4000 executives worldwide, conducted by students at Harvard Business School, and a survey of 82 executives in a Harvard Business School leadership course. Their stories and advice reflect five main themes.
1. DEFINING SUCCESS FOR YOURSELF
When you are leading a major project, you determine early on what a win should look like. The same principle applies to leading a deliberate life: you have to define what success means to you.
Some intriguing gender differences emerged in our survey data. In defining professional success, women place more value than men do on individual achievement, having passion for their work, receiving respect and making a difference, but less value on organisational achievement and ongoing learning and development. A lower percentage of women than of men list financial achievement as an aspect of personal or professional success. Rewarding relationships are by far the most common element of personal success for both sexes, but men list merely having a family as an indicator of success, whereas women describe what a good family life looks like to them.
Many women said that the most difficult aspect of managing work and family is contending with cultural expectations about mothering. One commented: “When you are paid well, you can get all the [practical] help you need. What is the most difficult thing, though – what I see my women friends leave their careers for – is the real emotional guilt of not spending enough time with their children. The guilt of missing out.” Both men and women associated personal success with not having regrets.
2. MANAGING TECHNOLOGY
Nearly all the interviewees talked about how critical it is to corral their emails, text messages, voice mails and other communications. Deciding when, where and how to be accessible for work is an ongoing challenge, particularly for executives with families. Many of them cautioned against using communications technology to be in two places at once, insisting on the value of undivided attention.
When it comes to technology in the home, more than a third of the surveyed executives view it as an invader, and about a quarter see it as a liberator. Some of them resent the smartphone’s infringement on family time. Others appreciate the flexibility that technology affords them.
But both camps acknowledged that executives must learn to manage communications technology wisely. Their advice in this area is quite consistent: make yourself available, but not too available to your team; be honest with yourself about how much you can multitask; build relationships and trust through face time; and keep your inbox under control.
3. BUILDING SUPPORT NETWORKS
Across the board, senior executives insisted that managing family and professional life requires a strong network of behind-the-scenes supporters. Without a primary caregiver who stays at home, they see paid help or assistance from extended family as a necessity. Even interviewees without children said they needed support at home when they became responsible for ageing parents or suffered their own health problems. Emotional support is equally essential. Like anyone else, executives occasionally need to vent when they’re dealing with something crazy or irritating at work, and friends and family are a safer audience than colleagues.
Support at work matters, too. Trusted colleagues serve as valuable sounding boards. And many leaders reported that health crises – their own or family members’ – might have derailed their careers if not for compassionate bosses and co-workers.
4. TRAVELLING OR RELOCATING SELECTIVELY
When leaders decide whether to travel or relocate, their home lives play a huge part. Many women reported cutting back on business trips after having children, and several executives of both sexes said they had refused to relocate when their children were adolescents.
Female executives are less likely than men to be offered or accept international assignments, in part because of family responsibilities but also because of the restrictive gender roles in certain cultures or perceptions that they are unwilling to relocate. International assignments are not easy for anyone, and they may simply not be worth it for many executives. Members of both sexes have built gratifying careers while grounding themselves in a particular country or even city. However, if travel is undesirable, ambitious young executives should decide so early on. That way they can avoid getting trapped in an industry that doesn’t mesh with their geographic preferences and give themselves time to find ways other than travel to signal open-mindedness, sophistication, skill diversity and willingness to go above and beyond.
5. COLLABORATING WITH YOUR PARTNER
Managing yourself, technology, networks, travel – it’s a tall order. Leaders with strong family lives spoke again and again of needing a shared vision of success for everyone at home – not just for themselves. Most of the executives in our sample have partners or spouses, and common goals hold those couples together.
Leaders also emphasised the importance of complementary relationships. Many said how much they value their partners’ cognitive and behavioural skills that balance out their own tendencies. And many consider emotional support the biggest contribution their partners have made to their careers.
A partner’s support may come in many forms, but what it almost always boils down to is making sure the executive manages his or her own human capital effectively. The pressures and demands on executives are intense, multidirectional and unceasing. Partners can help them keep their eyes on what matters, budget their time and energy, live healthfully and make deliberate choices about work, travel, household management and community involvement.
The fact that the interviewees all agreed to take time from their hectic schedules to share their insights with students might introduce a selection effect. Busy leaders who choose to help students presumably value interpersonal relationships. Because they’re inclined to reflect on work and life, they’re probably also making deliberate choices in both realms – and they certainly have enough money to pay for support at home. All that may explain why many interviewees reported being basically happy despite their struggles and why few mentioned serious damage to their marriages or families due to career pressures. This sample is an elite group of people better positioned than most to achieve work/life balance. That they nevertheless consider it an impossible task suggests a sobering reality for the rest of us. It remains to be seen whether, and how, that reality can be changed for tomorrow.
ABOUT THIS RESEARCH
Since 2008 more than 600 students in Harvard Business School’s second-year Managing Human Capital course have interviewed 3850 C-suite executives and leaders (of whom 655 were chief executives, presidents or board members) at companies and non-profit organisations around the world.
The goal? To gain greater insight into how today’s top leaders make choices in their professional and personal lives. This project has been a true partnership between the students and the executives. Everyone involved wanted to deeply explore what it means for leaders to manage their human capital in the 21st century – and more specifically, in the wake of the recent global recession.
The executives were a diverse group (44 per cent female, 56 per cent male) and represented a wide range of industries, including finance, retail, energy, healthcare and technology. They came from 51 countries, and 45 per cent of them had worked in countries other than the United States.
The interviews were semi-structured: as long as students related their questions to topics covered in managing human capital, they were allowed considerable leeway in what to ask and how far to go in following up on responses. That way they could dig into the issues they found most compelling.
To supplement the interviews, we surveyed 82 senior executives who were attending a 2012 leadership course at Harvard Business School. We asked them about their experiences managing their careers and families. The sample consisted of 58 men and 24 women from 33 countries in Africa, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North and South America. Statistics in the article come from the survey data, and quotations come from the field data.
(Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the author (with Michael Slind) of “Talk, Inc”. Robin Abrahams is a research associate at Harvard Business School.)
©2014 Harvard Business Review