Mind of the Manager

What would you do if you were forced to choose between your business and your family?

Each of the past dozen years, I've toured the American business landscape, giving 60 to 75 speeches at all sorts of confabs and conferences. There is a moment toward the end of a talk when I sense the crowd is gearing up for the coda: the question-and-answer period, when people can ask me anything. In groups of men and women, people stick to business questions, asking why their quality program fizzled or what makes for a good mission statement or how to persuade their control freak of a boss to cut them some slack. But when my audience is mostly women, I don't have to guess what everybody wants to talk about. "I'm starting a business," or a new job, someone will say, "but I don't want to surrender my life to it. How can I balance everything to have it all?" From my perch up there onstage, I watch with growing alarm as a roomful of women get ready to download every smidgen of my winning strategy for success. If only I had one.

When I tell my all-businesswomen groups that there is no tidy formula and no such thing as real balance--only a series of ridiculously cruel and grinding choices--it comes as a crashing jolt. These women want a solid plan. Never mind that the chances of having it all are about as thin as a pinstripe, whether you're starting your own business or working for AT&T or raising a young family or (heaven help you) all three. And that's not counting your passion for riding horses or restoring a '57 Chevy or learning to speak Cantonese. A so-called balanced life is not software. You do not swiftly install it and skip out to lunch. We're talking stinko choices here. By the time a session like this one ends, most of the women look like ice sculptures. Clearly, this was not the response they had in mind.

The idea of having it all is a very pretty image, a picture of the supersuccessful woman who does everything and does it so well. She's the one that big-money advertisers targeted back in the mid-1970s when I was a first-year M.B.A. student at UCLA. Like every other woman I knew then, I couldn't get one particularly idiotic commercial jingle out of my mind: "I can bring home the bacon/Fry it up in a pan/And never ever let you forget/You're a man..." The product was a new perfume called Enjoli, and the sales pitch amounted to Madison Avenue's idea of a job description for the modern working woman. Silly as the campaign was, it roused a prickly anxiety that my friends and I felt in every bone and camouflaged with dress-for-success outfits.

That same commercial was still around in my second year of graduate school, but my life had taken a couple of new turns. I'd gotten married, written a book, and become stepmother to an eight-year-old boy, and I worked part-time. That was enough real life to convince me that the Enjoli people weren't simply foolish; they were out of their minds.

But it wasn't until I'd logged four years with Hewlett-Packard, and later started my own company, that I really understood that abundant analytical talent and a way with numbers are not nearly enough. Success is demanding. You have to be rambunctious, a "monomaniac with a mission," in Peter Drucker's perfect phrase, somebody who hustles like hell when chasing a goal and never stops until every barrier has been mowed down. You have to hang in long after someone else has given up. Your hair has to be on fire to build great companies or write great books or raise great kids.

I've learned that a love of work and a love of family, balanced so that one never injures the other, is only an illusion. It will not save you from hard choices, and it's not enough to stand up to most of what life throws at you. I know that because I once left my own sister's wedding to race to a hastily called business meeting about some crisis (not a life-and-death one) I no longer remember. When I worked for a business whose consulting engagements chewed up months at a time, I left my new husband and stepson and hopped a transcontinental plane to Pittsburgh (or Denver or Memphis) every Sunday morning and headed back again on Friday night, a bad dream of a schedule. And when I launched a company with my name on it, I hit a city a day for weeks at a stretch. You miss an awful lot of things that way, and I don't recommend it, but it's folly to think you can ever find a nice, snug compromise. There wasn't one then, and--although many companies have learned to be more family friendly--there isn't one now.

Recently, I heard a panel of four high-powered women talk about their lives and how they built their businesses. When they were asked what they would do if they were forced to choose between the business and their families, each in turn gave the same swift answer: my business. At first glance, that jaw-dropping reply is every bit as ghastly as it sounds. But after more than a dozen years of business meetings and countless panel discussions, I've never once heard such a question put to a panel of successful men, and I think I know why. Nobody needs to ask, because we already know the answer. Of course successful businessmen, for the good of their work, sometimes pass up their kids' baseball games and birthdays and science projects and other milestones: for them, that territory is terra firma. Lots of men grew up watching their fathers shoulder responsibility exactly that way. Women may hope there's a better approach, but there's no getting around it: somebody has to go to the last-minute meeting, and somebody dances at the wedding reception, and it's always a very, very hard call to decide which somebody you are.

"Of course," one woman who attended the infamous women's panel told me, "there are lots of divorces in our group." That's the reason many women decide to have children before their careers really get rolling. Otherwise, they say, they might have missed the moment, because later on they would be too deep in a work groove to break out of it without sparking a crisis.

The price of doing something you love is time, energy, attention, and focus--the very same time, energy, attention, and focus that could have gone toward enjoying your daughter's soccer game or designing a spiffy new computer system. I don't pretend it's easy: remember, I'm the one who pulled the disappearing act at my sister's wedding. But in spite of the barriers and struggles and disappointments, people who have made tough choices for the chance to build something great--well, as they'll tell you, it's still the best idea they ever had.

Nancy K. Austin, a writer and management consultant, cowrote A Passion for Excellence with Tom Peters.


For those of you struggling with the impossible task of balancing work and family, Nancy Austin recommends the following books:

Balancing Act: How Managers Can Integrate Successful Careers and Fulfilling Personal Lives, by Joan Kofodimos (Jossey-Bass, 800-956-7739, 1993, $27). An absolutely on-point guide, says Austin.

A Dog in Heat Is a Hot Dog: And Other Rules to Live By, by E. Jean Carroll (Pocket Books, 800-223-2336, 1996, $12). Says Austin, "Wonderful, totally charming, very, very funny--perfect when you seek relief from what is such a deadly serious subject."

Body and Soul, by Anita Roddick (Crown Publishing, 800-726-0600, 1991, $16). This is a classic, says Austin. "In case anybody thinks you can approach starting a business or holding a job in a measured, controlled, balanced way--just get this and read almost any page. Nobody ever does anything unless they are lit up with a cause or royally pissed off, as Roddick proves in this indispensable guide."

The Corporate Reference Guide to Work-Family Programs, from the Families and Work Institute (330 Seventh Ave., 14th floor, New York, NY 10001; 212-465-2044). Austin says it's the essential reference for company owners who wonder what their responsibility might be to their employees as far as "balance" is concerned. Its academic tone will be just dry enough to convince skeptics that this is an important, grown-up subject.

Published on: Apr 1, 1997