Thursday, March 29, 2007

Child Neglect: Penelope Trunk on CEO's with kids

Penelope Trunk, that Brazen Careerist, had a provocative post the other day on "whether people with kids should be CEOs of large corporations." Penelope is apparently not one to mince words, and the words she's not mincing here are "no, they shouldn't."

Fortune 500 CEOs, like Howard Stringer, who work 100-hour weeks and have kids at home, are neglecting their kids. Not neglecting them like, that’s too bad. But neglecting them like, it’s totally irresponsible to have kids if you don’t want to spend any time with them.

In some sense, this is a double-non-apply for me, since I don't have children and, God knows, I'm never going to be CEO of a large corporation. But it's still a topic of great interest.

Penelope goes on to argue that the notion of "quality time" is a total crock, and that what kids really hunger for is "quantity time." Even without having kids of my own, I'm someone who has spent a fair amount of "quantity time" with kids. I think that Penelope is dead on. Sure, kids like to be going to the Big Apple Circus and F.A.O. Schwarz. But they also like playing Yahtze and Candy Land, watching Blues Clues, making cupcakes, coloring, doing kitchen experiments, running errands with you, and - ta-da - just yacking in your ear about every bit of whatever happened to them that day or is happening to them at that moment. Kids all need lolling around time, especially today's kids who are often so hyper-programmed.

(Years ago, I remember describing a typical summer's day of my childhood to a young friend. The day involved hanging out under a tree in someone's back yard playing Clue with my friends, running through the sprinkler, going to the drug store to buy a Popsicle, and generally trying to stay out of earshot of my mother so that she couldn't ask me to do anything. Every once in a while we'd hop on our bikes and ride around looking for kids who were on foot. We'd slow down as we rode past them, swipe one foot on the pavement, and holler "Pedestrian!" On a big ambitious day, we'd go blue-berrying. In the evening, all the kids in the neighborhood would convene for hide-and-seek, dodge ball, or donkey. When I was a kid there was, in fact, no notion of quality or quantity time with your parents. Most of your time was spent Lord of the Flies style: in the company of other kids. Talk about a lost world!

(Sophia's reaction to my humble, uneventful childhood summer: "That sounds wonderful!")

While Penelope doesn't frame her argument from an exclusively female perspective, she does point out that:

Climbing to the top of corporate America requires near complete abnegation of one’s personal life, not in a sacrificial way, but in a child-like way. In most cases, when there are children, there is a wife at home taking care of the executive’s life in the same way she takes care of the children’s lives.

If behind every great CEO there's someone making sure that there's toothpaste and clean underwear, that the orthodontist appointments are kept and the Girl Scout uniform still fits, I'd argue that this is equally true for anyone in an all-encompassing profession or life pursuit.

How many politicians with young kids could hold run for, let alone hold, high office if there wasn't a "shadow government" taking care of "everything else." How many great performers, athletes, or artists manage to get to the pinnacle of their careers without at least some prolonged period of mono-focus/me-focus. I'll bet there are damned few of them.

When I read the Ellman biography of James Joyce, I was struck not only with Joyce's ability to keep his writing going by exploiting his wife, Nora Barnicle, but by perhaps even more profoundly exploiting his younger brother, John Stanislaus, who had hoped for a writing career of his own but who, instead, pretty much sacrificed all to support the family genius. (One per family limit, I guess.) Joyce had two children, a daughter who suffered from mental illness (and who, I believe, spent her adult life largely institutionalized) and a son who I think was an alcoholic of scant accomplishment.

For the most part, in order to get to the top of whatever heap it is that you're climbing - Fortune 500 CEO, or genius artiste - it is likely to be done at some cost. For most that cost will be family life. I'm sure there are exceptions: someone who strikes it rich, or finds an endeavor where you can run the show or lead the pack on a part-time basis. Few. Far between.

And to circle back to Penelope, for the most part, the person standing behind every great Y is an X chromosome.

Few women get to be CEO's of major corporations. Fewer, still, do that and have children. (Of the two female CEOs I've known pretty well - both running public companies, one actually of pretty good size, if not quite Fortune 500 - both have children with husbands with back-burner careers.)

Is it because women instinctively get that you can't do both? Is it because even highly ambitious women - even if there were no roadblocks, no sexism, no glass ceilings - end up asking themselves "who wants it/who needs it"?

Kids aside. I'd also guess that few CEO's (X or Y) have much of a work-life balance in general. To get to that level of top, work has to become life. Golf because it's good for getting ahead in business, not because you necessarily want to chase a little white ball around a big green course. Put in a guest appearance at the company's Volunteer Day, pick up a photo-op rake and clean some trash out of an inner-city sandbox, pat the head of a grateful little inner-city kid. Make sure your executive assistant knows your anniversary and the kids' birthdays.

Anyway, go give the Brazen Careerist a read. She writes about interesting topics and she doesn't nibble around the edges of them at all.


This post is included in the Carnival of Careers in Middle Age. This carnival is hosted by Wesley Hein of LifeTwo, a site is dedicated to us middle-agers. It covers a wide range of topics and is definitely worth a Boomer look.


penelope said...

Hi, Maureen,

It's interstisng to hear your take on this topic. I like your first-hand observations and also your wide-reaching perspective. Your examples, like James Joyce and the photo-op rake are really good.


Allison said...

I intervied with Mrs. Spindel and paid my respective $1,000 "consultation fee" and she told me I was not thin enough to be matched by her! I was completely offended and horrified as I am 5'7 and 119 lbs. She then told me if I was still interested I had to die my hair brown as men thought blondes were "easy" and lose 10 lbs.! I high tailed it out of there and chalked it up to her insecurities as she is elderly and overweight herself!

Maureen Rogers said...

The above cmoment applies to this post on a matchmaker: