When Ursula Burns became the CEO of Xerox in 2009, she was the first black woman to hold that position at any Fortune 500 company. That alone is notable, but even more so is that she managed to reach the pinnacle of her career while having young children at home.
I've never been a CEO, but I'm a parent, and I have a lot of respect for anyone who is able to pull off both. Of course, there are plenty of examples of people who reach the pinnacle of their careers at the expense of their families. Plenty of leaders burn out because they never figure out how to fit together the various parts of their lives.
In an interview with CNBC, Burns shared how she did it and made what many people would consider a controversial statement about work-life balance:
I would not be able to be CEO of the company unless I outsourced the caring for my kids. I was not a believer that you had to go to all your kids' games. I just don't understand what that's all about.
I think one reason the statement was controversial is that Burns talked about how she "outsourced" caring for her kids. We tend to think of outsourcing as something you do when you don't have the bandwidth or expertise to do something. I don't think that's exactly what Burns means.
I'm not sure that "outsourcing" is the way most people would describe it, but just because they wouldn't say it out loud doesn't mean Burns is wrong. It's also worth mentioning that she also added that when she was appointed CEO, her husband retired early to stay home with their children.
I think there are two things that are true about what Burns said. Both are important lessons for every leader and parent.
The first is that everyone, to some extent, outsources the care of their kids. As I already mentioned, we just don't usually call it that. For example, most of us outsource their day-to-day education to schools.
Burns didn't say she didn't participate in raising her children, or that she didn't care about them. She simply said that there were times when she had to choose between her career and being at individual events in the lives of her family. In those times, there were other people who stepped in to help.
I think--as an aside--it's important to stop here and clarify that there's a difference between being present in someone's life and being present at every event. Yes, one of the most obvious ways to be present is to show up, but not every event is equal. They just aren't, and being honest about that is an important piece of creating balance in your life.
The second truth is that "you can't have it all" is a dangerous and false dichotomy. Yet, somewhere along the way, most of us became convinced that we have to choose between our family and our career.
What does it even mean to "have it all?" Are we saying you've only made it in life if you meet some standard the world defines as success while maintaining the picture of a perfect family?
Can we be honest for a minute? I don't make it to every one of my kids' games, and I'm not a CEO of anything. Even on days when I'm not working, there's no way I'm going to make it to everything for the simple reason that we have four children who play sports, often at the same time. As much as we'd like them not to, the law of physics still applies to parents---we just can't be in more than one place at a time.
I don't think Burns is arguing you should pursue your career at the expense of your children, or your family. I think she's suggesting something every leader needs to hear: Stop setting unrealistic expectations for yourself.
Somewhere along the way, someone convinced us that if you aren't at every game, every practice, every school event, every parent-teacher conference, and every performance, you've failed as a parent. Except, what if making choices to advance your career really is the best thing for your family? What if that's how you provide opportunities for your children to thrive?
The choices Burns made most certainly provided opportunities for her family that they wouldn't have otherwise had. Not only should you stop setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, stop defining success in your career--and your family, for that matter--based on what other people think.
Look, Burns didn't say that she didn't attend any of her kids' games, or that she ignored her children completely so she could climb the corporate ladder. She said that life requires making choices about what is most important.
Sometimes that means you're going to need help with different areas of your life. Sometimes the thing you'll need help with will be your kids. That doesn't make you a bad parent. It means you're doing the best you can.
At the same time, sometimes you'll find yourself saying no to career demands because you'll decide it really is important to be at something your kids are doing. The point is to evaluate the kind of life you want for yourself and your family and prioritize accordingly. Just know it's okay if it means missing a few soccer games.