Edited by Julia Hanna and Dan Morrell
Above: Josh Escher, hard at work as father Peter supervises. (photo by Michael Hanson)
The phrase “work-life balance”—that mythical equilibrium between career and family responsibilities—has been firmly embedded in the collective consciousness since the 1990s. Its currency only grew with the 2012 publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic Monthly article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” followed by Sheryl Sandberg’s (MBA 1995) 2013 book, Lean In.
This conversation was born out of a cultural shift: According to Pew Research, nearly half of two-parent families in the United States with children reported both parents working full-time in 2015—up from less than a third in 1970.
For some, there has been a tangible impact on their professional lives, with 30 percent of the Pew survey respondents reporting that being a working parent made career advancement more difficult. A 2013 survey of HBS alumni explored this question in greater detail, finding that a majority of both men and women had made at least one accommodation to integrate their professional and family lives, including everything from choosing to travel less for work to making a lateral career move.
There are benefits to being a working parent, of course—not only for family income and personal fulfillment but also potentially for children’s choices as adults. Research by Kathleen McGinn, Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration, has found that women raised by mothers who were employed tend to be more successful in the workplace than those raised by mothers who weren’t employed. Men whose mothers were employed spend more time caring for family members.
“There’s a lot of parental guilt about having both parents working outside the home,” McGinn says. “But this research shows that being raised by mothers and fathers who work both inside and outside the home gives children a signal that contributions at home and at work are equally valuable, for both men and women.”
Still, the changes and choices necessary to integrate work and family aren’t always easy to plan for: The HBS survey found that 83 percent of alumnae expected to successfully combine their jobs and their personal lives, while only 47 percent said their expectations matched with the reality; 86 percent of men had expectations of success, with 70 percent saying it matched with reality.
So what does that reality look like? To further understand the families behind the statistics, we asked alumni to offer stories from their successes and struggles—their doubts, their decisions, and their daily routines.
“I returned at Booz Allen Hamilton fresh out of HBS, where I had committed a minimum of two years in exchange for partial sponsorship of my degree. The hours were intense. I also had this amazing new baby at home, and I was still nursing. So I asked for permission during my first few months to travel on consulting engagements with a newborn and a babysitter. Booz was not only accommodating but also, looking back, didn’t lower its expectations for me. Generally, my experience has led me to conclude there is no formulaic approach that will work for all. Rather, I hope more women will speak up, even if they believe their suggestions or needs may be unconventional.”
—Ahalya Nava (MBA 2002), private investor, senior executive
“First, my wife and I felt our top priority was to decide where we wanted to live and then look for a job, as opposed to letting my work drag us around the country. Second, I have elected to travel less than I could or probably should. Third, I almost never work late or on weekends. I’ve found that if you work efficiently during the day, you can “just leave” at 5:30 or 6. These are pretty simple things, but over the years the effect of being home for dinner and to see the kids added up.”
—Alan Saldich (MBA 1994), advisor, Panzura
“I have downshifted at certain points in my career but only in hours, never in responsibilities. My advice is to always take the promotion or new job and then figure out how to make it work. Once you have the job, you can redefine it as needed. Women in particular often operate from a place of fear, but it’s much more rewarding to operate from a place of strength. Be unapologetic about protecting your time with your family. You’ll make mistakes, but over time you will hone the ability to know what to attend and what to miss.”
—Eva Heyman (MBA 2002), EVP, chief commercial officer, Kadmon Corporation
“We have found a balance that works most of the time: My husband does the morning drop-off, and I do the afternoon pickup, although it’s a precarious balance that is easily thrown off by a child getting sick or an elderly parent needing help. In other words, it works as long as the stars and moon are aligned. After a nine-year break, I’ve gone back to work. My foot is still lightly on the gas pedal, but I have consciously chosen not to accelerate until more is worked out. I will say that proximity of work to home has been a key success element for us, as time is constantly a scarce resource.”
—Amy Ho (MBA 1999), program manager, Strategic Decisions Group
Diane and Peter Escher (both MBA 2009)
Children: Hazel (4); Josh (2)
Diane and Peter both work for startups in downtown Seattle, commuting to different floors of the same building. Diane is business development director at on-demand moving and delivery app Dolly, and Peter is creative and brand director at PitchBook, which he likens to a “Bloomberg for the private capital markets.”
Peter Escher reads to Josh while Diane Escher tackles toothbrushing duty as part of the bedtime routine. (photo by Michael Hanson)
Diane: We are in the trenches, but we find ways to laugh about it—whether it’s a lice outbreak or one of us forgetting Josh’s shoes when we drop him off at school. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. But being parents continues to be the most rewarding accomplishment as well as a daily challenge—sometimes in the silliest ways.
There is guilt. I feel it every day. And it’s deep and maternal. But I refuse to let that guilt defeat me. I know that if I off-ramp, I wouldn’t be happy. And I know that my kids would feel that. We remind ourselves that it’s about quality of time and not necessarily quantity of time. If I can inspire curiosity in my kids and read to them every day, I call that a win.
Peter: The first thing I’ve learned is that you have to be intentional by using calendars and Outlook or Google docs to stay on top of everything. Whether it’s an investment club in the evening for Diane or an early morning meeting for me, we need those tools to stay organized. The second thing is to allow yourself some grace, because it’s a hard thing you’re doing, and if you focus on the guilt, you’ll frustrate yourself. One of the things that gives perspective is our sense that if Hazel and Josh were looking back at this moment, they would appreciate what we’re trying to do and laud it versus feeling like something was taken from them: They would see their parents managing people and striving to accomplish things. I believe all those things that matter to us would matter to them if they were grown up. Maybe I’m delusional, but I think that helps ease some of the guilt.
“Right before graduation I married Laura, a career diplomat, letting love and passion rule without realizing I was on the verge of professional suicide. Her job had no flexibility and, worse, would require relocating anywhere around the globe, multiple times, with short notice. Work-life balance became irrelevant to us. Instead, as a family we adopted what I’d best summarize as “strategic equality,” making my wife’s career the central pivot around which everything else was fair game. I went for flexibility over pay and took risks impossible for primary breadwinners; the kids learned independence early on. So here we are, 25 years after graduation. We’ve lived in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Sweden, Brazil, and now Malaysia (our sons are grown). My conclusion is that it is possible for men to give their partners career priority and raise children without disintegrating. It makes for a wild and fun ride.”
—Craig Leon (MBA 1991), Asia research director, Institutional Investor and documentary filmmaker, Future History Films
“I personally embrace a work-life integration mentality, and as a leader I encourage my team to do the same. The majority are men and women with families in all different stages. Some have small children, budding high school athletes, or aging parents, while others are just married or are recent grads who want to travel and gain global experience before they start families. The bottom line is life happens, and if you miss it because you had to be ‘in the office,’ you can never get that time back. In 2016, with technological advancement, there is no excuse to miss it.”
—Al Chiaradonna (MBA 1997), SVP, global private banks, SEI Investments
“When I think of work-life balance I think of a seesaw at the playground—if it is balanced then the two children on either end are just dangling. There is no energy. And when it is balanced each side is in the middle or average. I have no desire to be an average mom, average wife, or average CEO. I find that I can accomplish more, and at a higher quality, by optimizing rather than balancing my time. When I am with my child, I give him 100 percent attention, and in a few short minutes he is off to another activity. Likewise, I arrive at a board meeting well prepared and make it known that the other members have my undivided attention for the next two hours. Optimizing requires saying no so you can focus your time and attention on the things that are important to you.”
—Lara Hodgson (MBA 1998), cofounder, president, and CEO, NOWaccount Network
Cynthia and Phil Black (MBA 2002)
Children: Croix and Colgan (14); Kiefer (11); Dexter (7)
A former Navy SEAL, Phil briefly returned to Goldman Sachs after graduation before choosing a new career path as a firefighter in San Diego. He also runs an online mentoring program for high school students, PrepWell Academy, which focuses on developing real-world skills and guidance during the college admissions process.
The Black family (including their dog, Rocky) take a watermelon break. (photo by Christina Gandolfo)
One day I came home from work, and the twins were stumbling around on the ground, and [Cynthia] said, “You don’t really look happy.” And I said, “You know, happiness is not really a choice right now. The choice is that we live in the Marina in San Francisco and we have health insurance and I work for Goldman Sachs—and people would give their left arm in this economy to have this job.” And she said, “Oh, just leave that job.” You could have knocked me over with a feather. She said, “You know we want this family to thrive, and it’s not going to thrive with you burned out and me looking into your eyes and seeing a blank stare.”
Every once in a while, I have a moment when I talk to a friend from HBS who I know has $40 million in the bank. And it does send a little shiver up my spine when we have another car blow up or another thing on the house that goes wrong. We’re not on the razor’s edge by any means, but...we go to reunions, and of course you know some classmates are pretty well off, and sometimes they’ll confide in me and say, “Man, you know, to be a firefighter and to be outside. I would trade a couple of years of doing what you’re doing.” And the same for me. I’m like, “Yeah, it would be nice to have some money in the bank, too.” So we have a good laugh about that. It’s a tough thing to have both.
I hear people all the time who are taken aback a bit by my background. There aren’t many HBS alumni who are firefighters or former SEALs. So when they find out, they say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Shouldn’t you be a senator?” But I’m settled where I am. And I hate to use the word “settled” because I never thought I’d use that word. But I feel good about it. I’m not just backing into it—it feels like the right thing to do, almost to the point where I believe more people should do it too.
“I’m not sure it works to juggle family and work obligations. As my husband and I care for two elderly adults with significant health issues, I have come to accept a feeling of loss much of the time. What helps? A clear sense of purpose, yoga, centering prayer, and a strong network of support. That support can be from friends who understand and share your values (for me, my church community) or from professionals (a dementia specialist case manager and an investment advisor and CPA who collaborate to get things done for me). What else helps? Focus and simplicity. Neither of us can be all things to all people. We cannot consider every, or even any, career moves. We try to declutter the physical, mental, and emotional baggage accumulated over our lives.”
—Beth Hardin (MBA 1985), vice chancellor for business affairs, UNC Charlotte
“My boss is excellent on many dimensions, but specifically when it comes to making a part-time/flexible schedule work, he gets it. Two things set him apart from most of the people I’ve worked for: His wife works, and they also have young children; and he worked part-time when his wife was finishing her residency. What’s been hard? Pride. I’m not always on the most high-profile projects or urgent requests. And as much as you try not to compare yourself with others (is that really even possible?), peers have been promoted ahead of me (ouch). I have been able to keep my ego intact by reminding myself that I’ve come closer to being the kind of wife, mom, friend, neighbor, and citizen I want to be by working part-time—and the daily circus is just a bit more manageable.”
—Anne Ristau (MBA 2005), sr. director, go-to-market strategic initiatives, EMC Corporation
“As I plan a career relaunch, it would be hard to feel ‘successful’ if my definition of it hadn’t evolved over the years. Marriage and having children were the first events to make me reflect on the meaning of success. But then my oldest child was diagnosed with leukemia. I lost my mother at too young an age to cancer. I was a key caregiver to my mother-in-law at the end of her life. These events meant putting my career on the back burner and focusing on family. And then my husband died of cancer last year.
While the grief I feel will always be part of me, I can honestly say that I am successful, no matter what ends up on my résumé. I have an amazing network of friends and family and am able to pursue work that will nourish my soul while putting my skills to the test. Most importantly, my children are happy. What more could I ask for?”
—Jennifer Bermant O’Brien (MBA 1996)
Guillaume and Wendy Perben (MBA 2002)
Children: Jasmine (6); Julien (4)
Wendy’s marketing career has involved travel all over the world. Now based in Switzerland, she and her husband have recently launched Unity in Glass Europe, which creates custom-made wedding sculptures.
The Perbens at their new business, Unity in Glass Europe. (photo by Darrin Vanselow/Getty)
When you’re young, you don’t imagine the tradeoffs that professional success might entail. You just think, “I’m going to get in there, and kick butt, and my boss is going to love me.” Things like international travel sound so glamorous at first too—but when the last flight out is canceled and you spend Valentine’s Day stuck in the Stockholm Airport Hilton, that picture changes a bit. As you go along, you find out more about your values...what you’re willing to do and what you’re not willing to do.
It’s definitely possible to work and have kids, but Guillaume and I decided that we would rather take a reduced income from one of us not working full-time so that there’s a sort of shock absorber built into the system to handle sick days, teacher meetings, school holidays, etc. At first we thought we’d trade off, but that was based on my assumption that he would get antsy staying home, and he didn’t. He loved it and did some consulting work on the side.
Which isn’t to say I don’t occasionally have these tugs along the way when I see people who have bigger houses and nicer cars. But then I think, “Yeah, but I’m happy with my life, so I can’t second-guess myself now, right?” I think it’s a very American struggle that Guillaume, who is French, doesn’t feel as strongly. All these articles about how money does not equal happiness that I read and find so fascinating—he looks at me like, “Well, yeah. Duh.”
Now we’re both working from home. After I was laid off from my last job a few months ago, we decided to start our own business. So far we’ve jumped in with both feet and are having a blast. I don’t know how long it will take before it feeds us, but I’ve really been reveling in the freedom to do only the things that I think are smart and necessary. And since we’ve had to cut back on daycare, I’m definitely spending more time with the kids these days. It’s a new phase for us.
“In my experience, there were several careers that were not family-friendly, and one that was very family-friendly. Here’s the sequence:
- Large firm consulting. An interesting professional experience which gave me exposure to a wide range of industries; however, the demands of the clients, and the firm itself, did not leave time for family and personal life. The fact that the personal services industry is based on billable hours, for your whole career, means that it will never become family-friendly. It is noteworthy, however, that I met my wife at the consulting firm.
- Small firm consulting. Upon leaving the large firm, my wife and I founded a small consulting firm. While we had more control over the nature of the business, we were still in the world of billable hours; therefore, the conflict of cash flow vs. family time was not resolved. Ultimately, I decided to join a startup operation, and my wife became head of strategic planning in a large bank.
- Private capital–funded startup. The startup was exciting, fast-paced, and intellectually challenging; however, the time requirements were demanding and the investors always had “ideas” for the management team to pursue. At one point, I took our then 10-month-old son to a weekend board meeting. It did not go well.
- Privately-held manufacturing company. Finally, in 1990, my wife and I purchased a controlling interest in a middle-market manufacturing company with a successful, proprietary product line. I served as president for the first 10 years, and then my wife took her turn and I became chairman. During the 26 years since the acquisition, we both have enjoyed the flexibility to raise our two sons, from coaching soccer to building haunted houses for Halloween to inviting the boys and their friends to be interns at the company. Now our eldest son serves as VP of sales and will soon take over as president. Our youngest son served as the company’s director of marketing and is now brand manager for a large, national product line. He’s interested in either starting or acquiring his own company when the opportunity presents itself; the family company will provide the capital for that strategy.
That’s it. Mission accomplished.”
—David Jacobs (MBA 1979), chairman, Anchor Audio
“Thirteen years ago, I felt like I had already experienced a lifetime of learning from successes and even more from failures. After HBS, I had held a variety of roles—in brand management with Fortune 500 leaders as well as executive teams of five technology companies. What would I do next?
Wanting to be more in the driver’s seat, I decided to start my own business. In looking back now, this turn of events allowed me to maximize the amount of time I could spend with my son and with my parents. Not that I was working any less—but I was working where and when I chose. I could pick up my son from school and be at all his cross-country meets, cook him dinner, and take him to see my parents.
I miss my son now that he’s in college, but I know that I was able to spend as much time as possible with him before he became an adult. And while I am saddened that my parents have progressed to the nursing home of their retirement community, I cherish our memories of happy times together when they were more mobile. I realize that as a small business owner, working less may result in less business, but there will always be time to work more later on. Recently, I have realized this to be true as I dive deeply into more consulting and coaching assignments, more speaking engagements, and writing my book, which focuses on climbing the mountains of life. Choosing both quantity and quality of time with family is not a choice I would ever regret.”
—Grace Ueng (MBA 1991), founder & CEO, Savvy Growth
“If you make two things happen, no matter what, it will transform your life: 1) live close to school so your children can walk to and from it, and 2) live close to your office. If you do a calculation on the value of time spent traveling, you will find that it is a no-brainer in terms of quality of life and money saved over the time your children are in school. I know it’s not easy to do, but spend time researching and if necessary downgrade jobs or move to a different school—you will not regret it.”
—Shane Fitzpatrick (PMD 68, 1994), divisional executive director, sales & marketing, Barloworld Equipment
“Achieving a healthy work-life balance did indeed throw me a curveball. Admittedly, working an average of 100-plus hours a week as a young, hungry, single entrepreneur is barely tenable. Then, enter family life. My lovely wife has never been an entrepreneur and thus, despite our both working equally hard with respect to family and expectations, can’t relate to my catering to 14 time zones. I presume that I would feel the same in her shoes. So it’s the little things that enable us to crank out the last 1.6 miles of any marathon situation. For example, learn how to make incredible black truffle lobster and asparagus risotto instead of whipping out a credit card at some nice restaurant. Play sports you’re terrible at (that she loves). Pretend you care about a deposition or trial that your partner just won—or lost. But most of all, never end a call—from around the corner or across the world—without saying ‘I love you’ because that might just be the last time you talk. Plus, it puts a smile on my face every time.”
—Alexander P. Cole (OPM 37, 2008), CEO, Admiral Container HK Limited
“If time flies when you’re having fun, then I’ve had a really fun time since receiving my degree from HBS more than 40 years ago. I’m happy to share some examples of the choices and tradeoffs I’ve made along the way. Perhaps some of my insights will prove useful to younger alumni.
- For most folks, time will continue to be a scarce resource throughout life. There are only 24 hours in a day. So work to improve your time management skills every chance you get.
- List and prioritize what’s important to you in terms of family, career, and other parameters. Use this list as a guideline for making your inevitable time tradeoffs. Before our first child was born, I read up on child development and learned the special importance of the first several years. From that point on, I gave extra priority to spending quality time with our children whenever I was home and worked to minimize business travel.
- Find a life partner and colleagues with skills and schedules that are complementary to your own. My consulting career demanded a certain amount of travel, so it was important that my wife’s work allowed her to be home each night to take care of our children.
- Use hindsight to continually improve your foresight. This will be invaluable when assessing the costs and benefits of work-life choices, and protect you from much grief.
- Don’t confuse urgency with importance. A ringing phone seems urgent, but the call may be totally unimportant.
How do I choose what to do when facing scores of time demands each day? I typically start with a written to-do list, and then mentally apply my personal formula that multiplies the gain achieved in completing an item by the investment of time or money required to complete it by the probability that I’ll achieve the desired outcome. It’s not perfect, but it’s simple, fun, fast, and effective.”
—Roger Shamel (MBA 1974), president, Consulting Resources Corporation
“The foundation for “making it work” has been setting up priorities and sticking to them. Simply knowing that work is not number one has made decision making much clearer, if not always easy. While the demands of being an entrepreneur could keep me at work around the clock, priorities set up years ago dictate differently. Placing family as the top priority has led to many work-life choices, including the decision of no work in the evenings or on the weekends (not even to check email). This simple barrier has worked very well. While it may have resulted in a missed opportunity or two, the boundaries have led to a more efficient use of time, a sense of a balanced life, and better results at work. Basing daily decisions on long-term strategic objectives tends to result in better outcomes not only at work, but in life as well.”
—Otso Tapani Fristrom (MBA 2008), managing partner, TerraNova Capital Advisors
“Much like parenting your own children, an aging parent makes you realize how much is out of your control. Often plans must be altered to adapt to the changing environment of disease and aging. I live 2,100 miles away and text messages with caregivers begin early in the morning and may take hours out of my day, even with a tremendous support system of care in place. No one prepared me for this life experience, the emotional toll, or the financial costs.
Because I had to create these networks for my father, grandfather, and grandmother, I began a company with the tools I learned at HBS to serve other families like ours. I am committed to providing the best experience of care, with the most compassion, dignity, and safety, in whatever setting is appropriate for the individual. It is important to me that each client is treated with the same respect that I desire for my own mother, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
My best advice for adult children of aging parents is to be present in each moment. Sometimes there is a glimpse of my mother as she would be today without her illness. Those moments are gifts to be savored. Other days, when she has read the same newspaper article aloud five times in an hour, it is heartbreaking. Trying to make reason out of the insanity of the disease is difficult. My advice is take good care of your personal health, get adequate sleep, exercise daily, and surround yourself with close friends who understand what you are experiencing. It’s a long grieving process and a sense of humor will get you through the ugly days.”
—Paula Smith Dermody (OPM 42, 2012), owner, Grace & Co.
“Having had kids early in my career, I can say it was hard. I chose to take time off for a few years to be with them, and was lucky to be in a position to do so. But eventually school bills caught up and I needed an income. I started a company and made sure that flexible hours were a company value. I dropped off the kids at school and hightailed it to work at 7:40, worked until 3:30, picked them up, and then returned to the office at 9:00 as often as possible.
I think you can balance work and kids well enough. The true challenge is finding enough time to care for yourself—because work is not enough for self-care and then finding time for your partner. Those two things are shorted regularly! New time-saving apps are helpful for us urbanites, as is great childcare—we were very lucky in that department. And again, a conscious awareness that you and your partner need time together, regularly. Find it or perish!”
—Ginger Thompson (MBA 1985), partner and cofounder, Qualia Associates
“The overarching theme of my time since graduating from HBS has been achieving work-life balance. After marrying fellow classmate Bob Glasspiegel, I stayed behind in Boston while he joined a startup in Hartford. After six months of making sure that the company was stable, with Bob splitting his time between Hartford and Boston, I started a job search as the “trailing spouse.” That work-life decision worked out—Bob thrived and is still with the company, and our marriage is also still going strong.
The next major work-life issue emerged once we started having children. We found a caretaker for our first child, and I went back to work full-time. Two years later, the decision was more difficult, but I was able to work out an arrangement with my employer to partially telecommute and to work to achieve results rather than clock time. The soul-searching arose again two years later, when I was pregnant with our third child and had been slightly pressured to transition to higher-level positions full-time, having completed all obvious middle-management, part-time projects. I reluctantly chose to be a full-time mom. The three years I spent at home were by far the most challenging and frustrating years of my life. (The two years at HBS pale in comparison.) When my youngest was about to enter preschool, I foresaw more free time; itching to exercise my mind and business skills, but still wanting to participate in my kids’ development, I began to search for part-time opportunities.
In the process, I found an employment agency that represented professionals seeking part-time positions. When I realized that my region of New England wasn’t covered, I offered to open up an office as a third principal in the firm. For the last 23 years, I’ve worked part-time out of my home with a local partner to service professionals just like us—moms, retirees, and in some cases dads who want to balance work and personal pursuits. For me, this was an amenable perfect storm, balancing career, family, and volunteerism, as I’ve also served as regional director for the Connecticut operation of a national nonprofit. Now, with our kids grown and everyone financially stable, the question is less how to balance work and life but whether to work at all. For the first time in my life, I have elevated my personal interests, which include activities with my husband, to my number one focus.”
—Susan Glasspiegel (MBA 1981), principal and codirector, Flexible Resources