According to this WSJ article, during a recent speech, Jack Welch, the famous former CEO of General Electric, told the audience that there is no such thing as work-life balance. Instead, there are trade-offs: If you want to take time off to stay home with your kids the trade-off is that you’re unlikely to get to the corner office. The article has several quotes from high-powered women executives who disagree with this notion of no work-life balance, and I’ve read some great blog posts of disagreement as well.
But having been a working mom in the business world (aka world that has corner offices to aspire to) I am here to say that I completely agree with Mr. Welch. It’s not possible to have it all. It’s not possible to work your butt off, go to all the networking and schmoozing breakfasts and dinners, fly to meetings at the last minute, stay late at the office, be under constant stress and pressure that a high-powered corner office-bound career has and have any significant time or energy left to be a mom. This might sound old-fashioned to some and as with every rule, there are definitely exceptions in the form of absolutely exceptional women who have figured this out, but I feel confident in saying that for most of us, there is definitely a choice between an intense career and living a life that has some kind of balance between work and family.
I speak from experience. I’ve been there (when I worked in the ultra-competitive, ultra intense world of venture capital) and by many measures, while my current gig is a lot less crazy, it’s still intense and stressful. At the end of an average day, I hardly have enough time or mental and physical energy to be a mom to my daughter. I make it work — by focusing on spending some quality time together and not feeling guilty about the rest — because I adore being with her, but juggling both being a mom and a professional in an intense career (not to mention a wife, a daughter, and the many other roles we all fill) is excruciatingly difficult. To do this while being on an even more intense path towards a corner office (or a top position in any field) to me, seems impossible — something would have to give.
I have zero judgement and quite the opposite, I tremendously respect those few women who do make the choice to go for that top post, that corner office, that incredibly high-profile job. But in doing so they are making a trade-off, however temporary, between work and family. I had a chance to speak to one of these women once. She is second in command at a huge company, whose name you’d all know if I wrote it. She has two teenage kids. And she told me, clearly and without a tinge of doubt, that what she has learned is that it is absolutely impossible to have it all at the same time. When her kids were young, she didn’t take time off but she did stay flat in her career path for a few years. When they got older, she decided to pursue big promotions, which meant not seeing her kids as much. I’ll never forget her quote:” Some think I have it all. I don’t. I’ve come to peace with having one of it at a time. Right now, it’s my career. Before, it was being a mom. Perhaps in my next phase it will be being a mom again.”
Her words seemed harsh at first, but she is right. As is Jack Welch. Unless someone figures out how to stretch the 24-hour day, to infuse us, mere humans, with a lot more energy and capacity, and to get it into the corporate hiring minds that just because a woman wants to favor being a mom for a period of time doesn’t mean that she NEVER wants to favor getting to the corner office, there is no such thing as work-life balance if you want a high profile corner-office type career. It doesn’t sound great. It seems like it shouldn’t be true in 2009. It feels weird to say as someone who started a community to empower working moms. But it’s the truth as far as I know it.
Do you agree or disagree? Do you think it’s possible to have a very high-profile career and have some work-life balance?