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Jack Welch says there is no such thing as work-life balance and I agree

Categories: Balancing Act, Career Talk


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?


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26 comments so far...

  • It depends on the field and the company. And also on how each woman defines “having a family.” Personally I would not have kids if I didn’t plan to be the primary person raising them. For me, that means being there for them during some significant part of almost every day. I have worked in a company where my definition of “having a family” would not be compatible with the type of career path I was trained for.

    In my current job, I still put in many hours, but I am able to structure my job to suit my life situation - meaning I work mostly at home, travel little, schmooze little, etc. I am basically a “back office” type who will always have to be the “wind beneath someone else’s wings,” at least until I decide to change my parenting priorities.

    There may be some high-profile jobs that an involved mom could kick butt at - jobs that don’t involve a lot of travel and require face time mostly during office hours, for example - but honestly, I can’t think of one off hand.

    I know some women are going to say “it shouldn’t be that way, employers should change to accommodate working moms.” But there will always be women who choose to dedicate 16+ hours a day to their career, and frankly, they should be rewarded accordingly. My choice to have children should not take away from what they have earned (and sacrificed).

    SKL  |  July 19th, 2009 at 7:36 pm

  • I agree that in the corporate world, it’s extremely difficult go up the ladder while having young kids. I personally knew that it would be difficult for me to climb to the top as a mother and a wife. That’s the reason I decided to leave and create my own wealth. I believe that through business ownership, investing, it’s possible to reach the top. Sky is the limit.

    I like the quote from that woman, about life phases, being more about a mom and then more of a career person. It makes sense.

    I just don’t think we should be so hard on ourselves to be perfect and then things will be ok.

    vera babayeva  |  July 19th, 2009 at 9:07 pm

  • I agree that it’s impossible to get to the corner office in most fields without some significant sacrifices in parenting, unless you are freakishly efficient or just plain lucky. But I don’t think it is such a bad thing to tread water for a while in your career when your kids are little. It keeps you in the game, and the reality is that most people will have lots of phases to their careers. It’s a long life. Also, it is hard to maintain a constant drive to compete and succeed over the years even without the pressures of motherhood. Men get burnt out or fired or laid off all the time. Besides, who wants to peak in your career at 38 and then have years and years of working to try to maintain that level of success? It can be harder to get a job as a CFO than if you have a title further down the chain. I’m aiming for being a late bloomer in the corporate world.

    kbc  |  July 19th, 2009 at 11:24 pm

  • I agree! With my agency I know would have a lot more opportunity if I moved my family around BUT it is hard to take little ones away from their grandparents. You do make sacrifices as a parent BUT it is so worth it in the end.

    Amanda  |  July 20th, 2009 at 7:42 am

  • Perhaps in certain fields, this might be true. But there are many careers where “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” aren’t necessarily part of the gig.

    Robyn  |  July 20th, 2009 at 9:56 am

  • This quote: “You can bet that people don’t get to the corner office unless they make some tough choices” by Kim Ruyle (sp?) rubbed me the wrong way. It implies that women who chose to stay home for a little while, or possibly have their career take a back seat for awhile even though continuing to work are making the “easy choice”. I feel like I made the tough choice - choosing a position at a company that would enable me to work full time and keep my skill set growing, but with little promotion-ability knowing that in a few years when my children are in school/more independent I will have to work twice as hard to get where I want to be to make up for lost (career) time.

    The other thing is, (making a couple of sweeping generalizations), men who have very high-profile careers more frequently have wives who stay home to raise the children/care for the home etc. It’s not like they (the men) do it “all” like women tend to expect of themselves.

    emma  |  July 20th, 2009 at 10:18 am

  • Thank you, this is exactly what I have been trying to explain to people. I currenlty have that corner office and it is killing me to fill this roll with two babies at home (2 & 5 mos). I try to explain this to my friends and family, who cannot understand why I can’t just ask to work from home, or work flex time. Yeah right, I work about 75% of the time my male counterparts do as it is. They laughed at me when I wanted to consider coming in earlier and leave earlier.

    I am so torn because I worked so hard to get here and the economy is so bad, but I miss my babies. Right now as I type this my husband is taking my 5 month old to the Dr., sick again. gotta love daycare. Breaks my heart.

    Sam  |  July 20th, 2009 at 11:31 am

  • Two years ago my boss sat down with me to discuss the new position I was in and I felt brave enough to say I didn’t like it an preferred a different role, one that was less front and center. She was OK to make the trade but we had a discussion that doing as I was asking meant I was giving up any chance at promotion in that area of the company. She too was a mother so I knew she understood.
    But I’m ok if I never make it to the executive board room. I’d rather be able to see the school plays, participate in homework time, all that stuff my former boss had to leave to the nanny.
    What’s even more surprising to me, is that had I had that conversation two years earlier than I did, I might have made a different decision. So I really do agree with the articles last quote that it doesn’t necessarily mean always no for career, but one at a time.

    Mich  |  July 20th, 2009 at 12:56 pm

  • Agree wholeheartedly and blogged about this–and Jack Welch–when I heard him say very similar things about “choices” at the MA Conference for Women in late 2007:

    JB  |  July 20th, 2009 at 1:04 pm

  • I have to agree with you … to an extent. Not all careers are as intense, gunning-for-that-corner-office oriented as others. Not all careers make the choices so hard or so black-and-white. I think it depends on the company, the position you are comfortable with being in, your at-home support system, your ability to multi-task, etc.

    I work at a job I love (it’s a career, not just a job), and I have a baby who I don’t see as often as I’d like but who I definitely spend quality time with. There is definitely a give and take, just as you mentioned. You skip this for that. You miss the first time he rolls over because you’re on a conference call. You miss an important meeting because he’s sick. You skip out on sleep far too often so you can answer emails, edit photos, clean the living room. You sacrifice something in all areas, but you figure out what works for you and you juggle the way you have to to find the balance that makes you happy.

    There are some jobs, as you mentioned, that are too intense for any normal human to be able to do well while raising kids well. It’s just … nearly impossible. But not all jobs, all across the board.

    I also think you’re dead on about not doing it all. Something always has to give and sometimes it’s cooking, sometimes it’s throwing a great birthday party, sometimes it’s sleep, sometimes it’s downtime. You can’t do it all. No one can. But that doesn’t mean balance is impossible. Balance is just defined differently for every single working parent.

    She Likes Purple  |  July 20th, 2009 at 1:39 pm

  • Mom or dad, I don’t think it’s possible to have the corner office without making sacrifices, and typically the sacrifice is time with your family. It’s unfortunate that, even in this modern day, mom’s are still expected to fill the traditional mom roles when they come home from a day at the office. True, there are many ways to make it easier on yourself, make ahead dinners, etc., but how do you balance the two? When do you get a break when you’re expected to work two full-time jobs?
    I have a 2-year-old and a husband. I grew up in a very traditional household where my mom stayed home and I was raised to believe that was the “right” way to do things. Now I work full time outside the home and struggle to find the balance. I feel guilty leaving my daughter in the hands of a day care provider for 40 hours a week only to come home and have an hour or two to spend with her. I envy the women that are able to stay home full time. But at the same time, I enjoy my career. I get excited when there are new opportunities in front of me, but then comes the question, is it worth the sacrifice? How can a mother be everything to everyone, including herself?

    Sarah  |  July 22nd, 2009 at 6:59 pm

  • The other thing you might have to sacrifice is money. I have chosen a career in non-profits in part because they are more flexible and family-friendly, but more because I feel better about spending my time away from home doing work that is driven by a social mission rather than profit. But it means I will never make the big bucks. Yeah, there’s always a trade-off. I’m not pursuing that next career move yet while I have a kid in 2nd grade and another on the way. But eventually I will want to focus more on my career and moving up the ladder. I think you can acheive “balance” between work and family life if you understand that the scales are always going to be a little tippy (but not falling over necessarily).

    Larisa  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 9:05 am

  • In all the early hubbub about Welch’s remarks, I kept thinking, “But he’s talking about such a small subset of actual jobs!” He’s not talking about making partner (a fantastic goal), he’s talking about becoming a named partner!

    The woman you spoke to, Nataly, didn’t quit while her kids were young. She didn’t take a job outside of her career path. She just slowed down for a while. Lot’s of people do that — even unintentionally — for reasons that don’t even have anything to do with kids.

    Sounds like good planning, to me.

    My beef with Welch is that he was clearly directing his remarks at women. Speaking on behalf of all the loving, committed fathers in my life: Shove it, Jack.

    Tricia  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 9:26 am

  • I think we are responding to the wrong questions when it comes to work-life balance. The real question is “What is the best way to live a life of meaning”? And the next question is “What does it mean to have it all”?

    I believe at each moment in the day when we have to choose between a career move and family it is vital to stop, literally stop, even if just for a minute and check with our gut to decide between the important meeting and a kid’s soccer game. Choices will vary with the needs of the day.

    My experience has been that if we can make a clear decision the meeting can go on without us and be successful, or the child will be generous in accepting the fact that the meeting took precedence. It is only when one side always wins and the other always loses that tensions and problems occur.

    One story that stays with me was told by Andrea Jung, Chairman and CEO of Avon Products. She had been invited to the White House for a dinner on the same night her son was going to his first sleepover. She chose to stay home and see her son off, stating that this was a wartershed moment she did not want to miss.

    Interestingly, she received an outpouring of applause. I looked around the auditorium and noted that both men and women were appreciating the difficulty and the importance of her choice.

    Sylvia Lafair  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 9:46 am

  • I agree with jack welsh and nataly. this is the dirty secret that feminst theorist failed to include….you can have a successful career after you give birth, just don’t plan on seeing your kids all that much.

    It’s something I struggle with on a daily basis. I am proud I am self sufficient and not dependant on my husband, but I don’t get to do alot of the mommy things I now realize would be great to experience.

    If I made less money, it would make sense to stay home and scrimp. As the major breadwinner - just not a reality. It’s really hard. I am not sure I would make the same choices. They are only little once and I am missing it.

    thanks for the topic interested to hear other’s take.

    ab  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 9:48 am

  • I think that we have been trained to feel like we can do it all. And you can. But, just not all at the same time and most likely NOT the way you thought you would.

    kat  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 11:10 am

  • I originally interpreted his comments as “choose one or the other ” and that’s certainly not what I wanted to hear, but I do see what you’re saying.

    Here’s a very revealing interview with CNN’s Campbell Brown on this much-discussed working mother “balancing act”. There’s even a very funny breastfeeding story — with FedEx involved! Check it out…

    Jenn R.  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 2:00 pm

  • I totally agree with you and Jack Welch. Absolutely, 100% it is impossible to have it all because you would have to DO it all and BE it all…every second of every day. People have limitations..emotional, physical, mental. And we can’t, quite simply, be in 3 places at one time.

    I spent YEARS juggling a stressful position with a 6 figure salary and 2 young children. Even with a flexible work arrangement, I was constantly overwhelmed and my children almost never had a bath or a dinner where my cell phone didn’t ring incessantly. Finally, after being told I had to travel internationally for an indefinite period of time or leave my job, I “chose” to leave. I am glad now that I was placed in such an impossible position because I think I lacked the perspective at that time to see what the constant stress was doing to me and my kids.

    Miraculously, within 90 days of leaving the job, many of my physical ailments disappeared as well. The doctor was no longer sending me to neurologists to figure out why my resting pulse rate was 120. When the job disappeared, my body and mind returned to normal. And my kids? They’re happier and I actually get to see them.

    I do think it is a personal choice that every parent has to make - what their priorities are at any point in time. But they should also recognize and acknowledge that they ARE choosing one thing over another. Either the career or the family is put on hold in some way…I’m glad I was forced to see that.

    I am a single parent so I have to say that in some ways this limits my ability to choose…financial considerations often force me into positions I don’t want to be in. But i control what I can and prioritize where I’m able. I think that’s all we can do.

    Best wishes and hugs to all the working moms out there….I think we all need it!

    Cheryl  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 8:49 pm

  • I think the point is that something has got to give. It makes sense, and you should do what works for you and your family. There is no right or wrong.
    I chose to put my career aside (teaching) and replace it with a night job (waitressing) so I could be with my children while they are little. I have to respond to the comment someone made in their response.
    “I am proud I am self sufficient and not dependent on my husband”
    It sort of puts me off. The way I look at it is that together you make the right choices for your family. I don’t look at it that I am dependent on him because he makes more. He is dependent on my caring for our kids. We both spend a great deal of time with our kids, but the “dependent” comment makes me feel like the relationship is deemed unequal when that should not be the case. It is still a partnership regardless of who is making what.

    Christine  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 10:21 pm

  • I have read Jack Welch’s book, and while his accomplishments are admirable from a business-standpoint, I strongly disagree with his opinion that there IS NO work-life balance. Just because SOME people can not achieve it, doesn’t mean that it is NOT ATTAINABLE TO OTHERS! While I respect everyone’s right to their opinion (and at the risk of hearing some negative feedback!) it seems to me that the people who swear the work-life balance doesn’t exist are simply not approaching their dual identities and responsibilities correctly! I am living PROOF (as are COUNTLESS women I know!) that the work-life balance exists and is there for the taking. The key to flexibility, control and fulfillment, and freedom to direct one’s own destiny can be found through entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship especially provides more options to today’s mothers than EVER before! Any smart woman who WANTS to find a work-life balance CAN DO IT! (I’ve owned a successful business for over 16 years and have two, well-adjusted, high-achieving teens today……..Trust me, the work-life balance is there for the taking!) ” IF YOU BELIEVE IT, YOU CAN ACHIEVE IT ! “

    Mary Davis, Author, THE ENTREPRENEURIAL MOM  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 11:48 pm

  • I have a successful career (as defined by me) and I see my kiddo a lot. I spend a minimum of 5-6 hours a day with her, more waking hours than her daycare provider (she naps for 2-3 hours at daycare every day).

    It is totally possible. It just depends on 1) what career you choose and 2) how you define “success.”

    I feel like I am “having it all” and “doing it all.”

    I hate it when other people have the audacity to say that I’m not.

    Robyn  |  July 24th, 2009 at 9:47 am

  • I agree with Welch…..well said Nataly.

    Anonymous  |  July 24th, 2009 at 3:35 pm

  • What concerns me is the “trickle-down” effect where if work-life balance is not possible for a CEO, then nobody else gets to have any, either!

    SoftwareMom  |  July 24th, 2009 at 3:49 pm

  • This article is debunking work-life balance because of the name. I have counseled women for years and can certify that women can manage a family and still be creative and successful at work.
    Tell Jack Welch to read WOMENOMICS, the latest book that tells of women and the power that they have in the workplace.
    The authors are high powered women who have achieved it and they give specific points on how to do it.
    Jack Welch is old style managing and that is going the way of the dinosaur.

    Virginia Byrd  |  July 26th, 2009 at 8:12 pm

  • Why isn’t anyone talking about the fact that Jack Welsh didn’t raise concerns about men’s inability to balance work and family? People keep defining this as a woman’s problem, (which it certainly is for single mothers) but we should be thinking about it as a family problem. Men need to balance work and family as much as women.At least we should be moving in that direction. Check out the post on Welsh’s comments by a man on We also try to address this issue at Anne

    Anne  |  July 26th, 2009 at 9:41 pm

  • Nataly - I agree as well. My problem with his comments were that they were aimed at women. Not at the entire audience! Men make this choice as well - it is just presumed what choice they will make and they are not judged for it.

    Had his comments not be about and for women it would have been a great speech…but only speaking to 1 portion of the workforce (and the one that is poised to become the more dominant in the workforce very soon) negated many of his good points. It is a shame…

    leanneclc  |  July 27th, 2009 at 9:12 am