My years of working with leaders of big companies have taught me that it’s not easy to have a big successful career. A lot of things need to go right to become a senior leader. In addition to being good at your job(s) and valuable, you have to have a boss (or bosses) who recognize your talent, and who want to support your development. You must have the opportunity to get the experiences you need to get ready for bigger jobs. This often means that other people must retire, get moved to a new job, or leave the company. So, most successful careers are the result of a lot of hard work, and at least some good luck.
But one of the most important but least talked about things that people with big jobs need is a great support system, usually in the form of a spouse or significant person in one’s life.
In my work doing succession planning for companies, especially helping future CEOs and helping Boards of Directors decide who is ready for the top job, I have found this over and over in my work. There have even been times when a Board considered the support that a candidate has at home as something worth considering in their deliberations. I know that Boards ask questions like, “Will the spouse be okay with him going to Europe every other week with two young kids at home?”
While that may not seem fair, the Board’s job is to pick the person who can best do the job, and all other things being equal, that’s often going to be the candidate with the best support system.
As I work with CEO candidates, I always have him or her spend time with their spouse discussing what running the company will mean for their life. In large and public companies, there are many demands on a CEO that are new to someone who has not previously been at the helm. These can be especially taxing at first, and often keep him/her away from the family even more than usual (and most senior executives have had highly demanding careers even before they move into the C-suite). Then there is the stress of being the person who is ultimately accountable for the performance of the business in the eyes of the investors and shareholders, the Board of Directors, and the company’s employees.
A recent Harvard Business Review reviewed research on all employees and found the same thing. The author noted, “People put more time in at work when their intimate relationships are going well because the absence of drama at home gives them greater emotional, cognitive, and physical vigor to bring to the workplace.”
I’m often surprised by how often the people I coach don’t consider the support they have at home as an important dimension of their career and how often they don’t have a plan for building and keeping the love and support that they truly need. This comes up in my coaching when I begin to ask questions about my clients’ home life and my clients often become uncomfortable and say, “I didn’t know we were going to talk about my personal life.” Most of my clients are then thrilled to have an opportunity to talk about how they can be a better spouse and parent and how all parts of their life fit together.
But that’s not to say that the people with whom I work are necessarily very good at it. It’s often new territory for my clients to evaluate the current state of the important relationships in their life. So, this work often starts slow, with my clients spending some time with their spouses and kids checking in, updating their understanding of their family’s needs, and finding out what they think and how they feel about my client’s career.
Spouses and children often feel great pride in their parent’s or spouse’s success, and for some spouses and children, it even becomes an important aspect of their own identity (My mom the CEO or my husband’s successful career with Name Brand Company). But just because they are proud doesn’t mean they don’t have other feelings about the long hours or the travel schedule. These are often things that go unspoken until my clients make the effort to better understand what their success is like for their family.
One of my rules of thumb for busy workers is that they are just better when they have a plan. Get a successful professional a plan and they can accomplish almost anything they set their mind to. But you can’t make a good plan until you know how you can make things better, and so the first step is finding out how you can keep things good or make them better. Armed with this information I work with my clients to make a plan to ensure the career that they’ve worked so hard to make successful, is successful for all of the important people in their life.
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