CEOs can learn from job hoppers about personal responsibility

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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.

This is not a judgment on whether people should have kids. It’s fine to choose not to have kids. This is a judgment on whether people with kids should be CEOs of large companies.

I have already laid out the argument that 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.

I have also laid out the argument that men who have these top jobs can get there because they have a wife at home, running their personal life. Women get stuck in their ascent up the corporate ladder on the day their first child is born. Because women end up taking care of the kids. Women do not choose to compartmentalize kids and work the way men at the top of the ladder do.

Eve Tahmincioglu recently published a book based on interviews with CEOs: From the Sandbox to the Corner Office. She says that usually, “the wife is handling the marriage and the family. She is the one who keeps it all together.” Most of the female CEOs that Tahmincioglu interviewed did not have kids, and Tahmincioglu says they attributed their success to their lack of children because the demands of a CEO are not compatible with taking care of kids.

Meanwhile, let’s take the job hopper. The job hopper does not stay at the same company forever. So while the climber gets his identity from a corporation, the job hopper takes full responsibility for forging his own identity. The job hopper focuses on the time in between jobs to gain increased flexibility. He can make himself available to take care of a sick relative, to fly overseas to adopt a baby, and to travel when a spouse is relocated. A job hopper can take on loads of responsibility to create family stability because a job hopper is flexible.

Additionally, a job hopper can find passion in work more easily, because job hopping keeps ideas fresh and learning curves high. So whereas many ladder climbers work more than sixty hours a week to get that workplace adrenaline rush. Job hoppers can get the rush by starting something new. No need to give up family in order to get a rush from work.

This means that a job hopper can have fulfilling work and take a hefty load of responsibility for adult life. There will be time to buy birthday presents for nieces. There will be time to plan surprise parties instead of delegating it to an assistant or a spouse. There will be time to worry about household issues and marital issues and all the things someone who works 100 hours a week has no time to be responsible for.

The corporate climber, meanwhile, is isolated from the complications of real life. For example, business is full of measurable goals, acknowledgements for success, teambuilding, constant ranking, and societal pats on the back with big paychecks.

Home life has none of this. We still do not know what really makes a good parent. There are no measurable goals for getting through a day with the in-laws so there is no reward system for it either. There is no way to measure who is a good family member. There is no definition of successful spouse. Home life is murky and difficult. Work life is structured and predictable.

People who create careers that allow them to assume large levels of authority in their personal life are living as responsible adults. People who concentrate on work and delegate maintenance of all other aspects of their personal life are not truly living as adults.

Adult life is difficult, challenging and full of ways to actively give our hearts to others. The world will be a better place when careers do not shield people from taking responsibility, but instead, facilitate it.

23 replies
  1. Eric
    Eric says:

    As always… the hard truth is presented to us by Penelope and she gives us her take on having children, climbing the corporate ladder and job hopping…. and yes I agree there are no measurable benchmark for being a good spouse, parent, son/daughter in law, we try our best and hope for the best at the same time. Once again, if we are contented with what we have, do we really need to be a CEO to have a fulfilling life? Is work an excuse for us to shy away from the difficulties of home life… Sometimes… I think so…

  2. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:

    I whole-heartily agree. Success is relative to each individual. Some measure it by job title, some by money, some by assets, and other’s by their family. Regardless of how you measure it, all forms of success also represent some kind of sacrifice. Maybe it’s not having children so that one can have a successful career. Maybe it’s not having a high profile career in order to have more family time. The reality is that you can be excellent at everything – something has got to give. In the end, you can’t have it all and you need to decide what’s really important to you.

  3. Nitant
    Nitant says:

    I would like to provide a counter view to this.I am fortunate enough to know a few CEO’s who spend quality time with their kids and family irrespective of the fact that they work mad hours.We need to respect their way of life and the balance they follow because someone has to do their job if they dont.So why not them.Therefore i feel its unfair to generalize such a topic.

    * * * * *
    Thank you for writing this counter view so that I can go on a TIRADE about the phrase “quality time.”

    This is a parent centric view of family time. Kids do not want quality time, they want time. Every study of parenting is about spending ANY time, not quality time. Where did you get the idea that quality time trumps quantity time? Please show me one study on the face of the earth. It is a parent’s job to be a quality parent as much as they can be. And it’s a parent’s job to be present. To say that you can get out of being present by being a good parent is an incredible cop-out.

    Check out the front page of the New York Times today. Another study, to add to the pile of studies that shows that the quality of care is irrelevant. It’s the parent’s presence or absence that matters.

    If all people refused to take care of a company at the expense of taking care of their family obligations, then the demands of corporate life would change.


  4. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Penelope, I love your point about home life being mucky and complicated, and as a result, much more difficult than corporate life with its clear stucture and defined targets. It’s so easy to feel dissatisfied with home life, as society as a whole seems to have taken a leaf out of work life to tell us that you’re not “achieving” if you’re not meeting measurable goals. Will this ever change? Do you think this new generation of job hoppers will be the ones to change it??

    Thanks again for putting words to my feelings of dis-ease!

    * * * * * *
    Yes. I think things are changing right now. That’s why I get so excited about the topics on this blog. It’s a great time to be focusing on workplace issues. The world is opening up to us.

  5. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    Another benefit of job-hopping: as an outsider to a corporate culture, your ideas/thoughts/recommendations can carry more weight, and be heard more than a voice (particularly a voice for change) from within the culture. That’s always been the business model for consultancies…it’s what I pay my advertising agency for…to tell the truth as a cultural outsider.

    Like Penelope says, it’s easier if you are a specialist, but it’s also easier as an outsider.

    Another thought: maybe the 60-hour weeks are a way of differentiating one’s voice: since not everyone chooses to work those insane hours, obviously the people who do choose to do that are the ones who know what they’re talking about.

    * * * * * *

    Great point, Jen. (Can I call you Jen? I always refer to you Jenflex, but in my head I think of you as Jen.) Anyway, I think you’re right that an outside voice has more weight. And maybe it should. It’s just like paying a therapist to tell you what’s wrong. It’s always easier to see someone else’s problems than to see our own.


  6. Captain
    Captain says:

    I agree with Penelope. We all make choices in life and priorities for each is different. The root of this article is ‘what do we compromise and commit to and are we content with those choices’. Seems CEOs compromise families and commit to a corporation. I wonder sometimes if contentment is out of reach for individuals who are driven by what I see as selfish gratification.

  7. Cara
    Cara says:

    Sometimes I wonder whether people forget that there are only 168 hours in a week! The family neglect issue isn’t limited to CEOs, obviously. I’ve worked in law firms where the partners also put in the crazy hours and neglect their families (no wonder so many of them are on their second and third wives). I can count on one hand the number of law firm partners I’ve worked with who had wives who worked outside the home. Nearly all of them had stay at home wives that took care of all the family stuff. What ticked me off was how they took their wives’ contributions for granted. They assumed that because I was single, I could devote as much time to work as they did. Um, yeah, who’s going to clean my home, do my shopping and cooking, meet with the plumber when the toilet stops working, pay the bills, etc.? They didn’t have to worry about any of that, thanks to their wives. I may not have the responsibility of kids, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have the responsilibites of a normal adult.

    * * * * * *

    Cara, thanks for raising the absurd double standard for people with and without children. Just becuase people don’t have chilren doesn’t mean their personal life isn’t important. It is well known that it’s easier to leave work to pick up a young child at school than to play a game of pickup basketball. 

    As people stop feeling compelled to rank work and personal life, and start blending them instead, then everyone’s personal life will complement everyone’s work, and we will not have to decide whose personal life matters more. Everyone’s personal life is at least as important as their work life.


  8. Lea
    Lea says:

    There are no measurable goals for getting through a day with the in-laws so there is no reward system for it either.

    Measurable goal: Surviving with your sanity intact (and without taking too many pills to get there).

    Reward system: Chocolate. Or perhaps really good sex. :)

    Facetiousness aside, I like the points you make here. When I started my journalism career, I dedicated myself to my job and the company that owned the newspapers I worked for. I climbed the ladder really quickly — I was in management by the time I was 26. And wow, was that a shock. I worked 60 and 70 hour weeks for months on end, which meant I was eating takeout or vending machine food and desperately trying to find time to do laundry. The rest of my management team was split by sex, two men and two women, and the men had wives at home who did take care of the rest of their lives. One of the women was single and worked the same hours I did, and the other woman had three children — one with special needs — and a husband in graduate school. She was great at her job, but she didn’t work the wild hours that we single women did. We were all frustrated with our hours, but the worst of it did hit us single women.

    After about four months, I knew that living like this was not for me. I put up with the hours and insanity for another five months, then snagged a reporting position in Richmond. My father and many of my friends were shocked. In their eyes, I had the perfect life: great job, great apartment, great salary, great future. But I was so incredibly miserable that none of it held value for me. That’s when I realized that my definition of “success” had nothing to do with salary, status or title and everything to do with being able to leave work at a reasonable hour every day and be in control of my leisure time.

    I have since adopted a motto: Success is when you get what you want; happiness is when you want what you get. My goal is to be happy. I won’t have money or professional presteige, but I will have time for my family and friends. I feel lucky that I learned this lesson early in my career and had time to benefit from the realization. This is a broad generalization, but I bet that most of those people working like mad to become CEOs haven’t figured this out.

  9. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I like this post, but think that job hopping needs some qualifications. I don’t believe it is universally good — it depends on the job hopper and how often they hop and why.

    On job hopping allowing more time for family — that depends. Every time I’ve started a new job, it has required extra time and extra hours to get up to speed on projects and issues related to the new job. It also generates extra stress (as well as energy and excitement).

    Also, changing jobs requires adjustments from the family. Doing this too often is going to create instability as much as options.

    Job hopping in moderation is likely very compatible with family life, but in excess probably isn’t.

    Also, job hopping when you are recruited and therefore can negotiate family-friendly perks from a position of strength, is better than job hopping when you *need* a new job.

    In the first year at a company it can be harder to negotiate extra flexibility to deal with family issues. Once you’re indispensable, it’s easier.

  10. Lewis Green
    Lewis Green says:


    Thank you for this courageous post. I agree that whether the CEO is a man or a woman, and I have worked for both, children get the shaft. Nothing in our world is more important than our children. Sacrificing them for a job is self-absorbed, ego-driven and just plain wrong.

  11. Maureen Rogers
    Maureen Rogers says:

    Penelope – Great post dealing with an ever-timely, ever-provocative issue. One anecdote: when my sister was talking about her coming maternity leave, her boss actually told her “It sounds as if you’ll be putting the needs of your baby ahead of your career.” He was, of course, a senior excecutive with an at-home spouse.I’m sure every working mother has equally ghastly stories.

    On to clawing your way to the top of the heap: it’s not just CEO’s where the ascent is made possible by the supportive spouse behind the scene. Many years ago I read a biography of James Joyce that recounted how he was supported not just by his wife Nora, but by his brother who actually sacrificed his own career as a writer to support the family genius. The point is that, if anyone’s going to get to the top, they’re not likely doing it without someone else worrying about the stopped up toilet or whether little Johnny needs new shoes.

    Finally, with respect to job hopping. The term sounds pejorative to me, as in those folks who can’t last in any one place for very long. Free lancers and consultants are, by nature, job hoppers, so maybe we can rescue the term from its negative connotations.

    Anyway, interesting post and comments.So much to think about in there!

    * * * * * *

    Thanks for sharing the story of your sister’s maternity leave. It’s important to share those stories. We need to see how ubiquitous the problem is.

    Re job hopping. You’re right. Pejorative. I wish I had a better word. Will think about that.


  12. Dave
    Dave says:

    So say I take a crazy view for a second, just to be a Devil’s Advocate. Say I think parents don’t really matter much. Maybe I don’t think there’s such a think as *quality* time or *quantity* time.

    Instead, imagine I said that how you provide for your kids and the peers they hang out with matters far more than any parental care. Crazy, right?

    Yet, some recent research on parenting suggests that this is, in fact, the case. Is it counterintuitive? Yes. Will it stop obsessive parenting? No. Nevertheless, I figured I’d bring it up.

    This viewpoint is discussed at length in this Malcolm Gladwell article:

    It was further discussed in Freakonomics (a book much beloved by Malcolm Gladwell, as it turns out):

    The upshot? Sending your kids to boarding school is OK. Being CEO for 100 hours a week is OK. What’s not OK? Sending your kids to a bad school, living in a bad neighborhood, or letting them play with kids who always get in trouble.

    I know this viewpoint sounds pretty ridiculous, but I figured posting about it couldn’t hurt.

    * * * * * * *

    If you believe this, then why bother having kids?


  13. Meaghan
    Meaghan says:

    Loved this post, Penelope. No profound comment or insight to share — I just really think you nailed it. And, in a culture that constantly rewards “success, success, success,” your observations re: the murky landscape of home life are so honest.

  14. Evan Woolard
    Evan Woolard says:

    It seems all too often I read about a CEO who has trouble in (usually his) family life. While this concerns me, a much greater concern is how most of the country would prefer to be an athlete or a contestant on American Idol rather than be a CEO. Education needs to be more important in child’s lives and maybe the way to do that is through increased parental involvement.

    If anyone is interested in some excellent reading about the change in identity from “corporate climber” to “job hopper,” I would check out Richard Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class.” It provides real data on a new class of people who are not necessarily looking to be CEO’s but rather determined to find satisfaction in life, career, and where they live.

  15. Irene
    Irene says:

    Great point. We can’t escape reality. CEOs with kids are more attached to their work than their family. Their kids are the ones who suffer. It’s probably better if they didn’t have any if they couldn’t be there for them or better if they didn’t take the promotion if they couldn’t handle it.

  16. Mark
    Mark says:

    Penelope and Lea, thank you for making your lives public. You are an inspiration.

    For the next two months I will be working 75 hours a week at my job with a two hour commute. After that it will go back to a rotating shift. 6PM to 6AM for one week followed by 6AM to 6PM the next week. These are 48 hour weeks. With plenty of “opportunity” for more overtime.

    I have been working “there” for 12 years and have moved quickly up the seniority roster to one of the top ten positions. Pay and benefits are great.

    This job is highly stressful.

    The only way I keep myself from quitting is to promise myself that I will quit on the first of the month so that I can have another month of paid benefits.

    Inspired by PT’s column, I have recently started networking by looking up some of my old coworkers.
    We have a high turnover rate and these guys are intelligent, hard working, and are most certainly working somewhere!

    My daughter has just turned ten and I want to spend time with her before she grows up.

    I want to quit this job and work from home or close to home, or start a business in my small midwest town.

    I have fifteen years of retail experience, and have worked as a trainer, programmer,computer tech, salesman, and as amusement park game operator(!).

    I love working with computers, electronics, and people.

    I am a Linux zealot.

    I am 45.

    Degrees: BS in CS. AS Electronics.

    I am not in danger of losing my house. Daughter’s college tuition is probably there. Credit score: excellent. Available capital: 150K +/-. My wife is working flexible hours around my current schedule.

    Why is this post related to CEO’s and job hoppers? I want to start a business that maintains the benefits of being a job hopper!

    OK, people, tell me what to do for a career! Brazenly, if you will.

    Maybe we can call it “blognetting”.

    While I sometimes disagree with PT’s career advice,and usually disagree with her political opinions, I almost always agree with her family advice.


  17. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    A lot of the arguments in this article are based on the premise that women end up taking care of the kids. This isn’t true in my case and I suspect I’m not alone. For example last week my manager asked me to go to Japan this week. I went home to talk to my husband to see if he could handle both kids for a week. He was fine with that, but was a little worried because one kid is in a cast and her special needs are quite taxing. We finally came up with a creative solution. His parents live very close to the office in Japan where I need to work this week. I brought my 3-year-old to Japan with me and we’re staying with my in-laws. They’re watching my son during the day while I’m at work. The grandparents are thrilled to have time with their grandson and he’s revelling in their attention. My husband is taking care of our daughter back at home in China. I’m working in Japan as requested by my manager, and to make it even better she doesn’t have to cover the cost of a hotel for me. Everyone is happy. We do stuff like this all the time.

    It’s significant that my husband and I are each taking care of a kid this week. It’s more significant that when I talked to my husband about this the first time, it was *our* problem to resolve and not mine.

    * * * * * *


    This comment is a good example of why I like your blog so much — you give such clearly painted slices of your own life as examples of what’s going on for women in the corporate world.

    I like reading your comment about how you and your husband shifted things around for the week. My husband and I find ourselves shifting in this way a lot, and sometimes it feels like a ballet and I love my husband for being in sync with me. Other times it feels like a train wreck from two conductors who can’t read a calendar.

    But, I digress…. The point of the CEO thing that I wrote about is that at some point in the corporate ladder, the company has to be a higher priority than the family, and the competition is too stiff for the family to have any space.  That the routine you and your husband managed, for example, worked because you only needed it for a week. It doesn’t sound like that routine could go on long-term. I think as the responsiblities of corporate life get bigger and bigger, there is less room for compromising to accommodate other peoples’ schedules.


  18. John
    John says:

    I agree that it’s not the best idea to have CEOs with children. It’s either they work too much and forget about their family or they worry too much about their family that can’t concentrate on their work which affects their performance.

  19. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:


    I agree heartily with this post. In my own research on dads who balance prominent careers with being great fathers, I have found over and over again that most of them rely heavily on having wives that don’t work.

    In their favor, most of them do recognize the incredible value that their wives are providing, and also take advantage of their wives’ hard work to help the family spend more time together, rather than simply working longer hours, but it doesn’t change the fact that having a non-working spouse makes parenting much easier.

    Any dads who (like me) make it work with a working spouse, please contact me by all means–I’d love to interview you.

    In terms of CEOs who do manage to deliver for both their shareholders and their families, I love the example of Bill George, formerly the CEO and Chairman of Medtronic. You’ll find his inspirational words towards the end of one of my all-time most popular posts:

    Here’s what he said:

    “When my younger son graduated from high school, I felt very proud that I had never missed an important event in their lives due to business. Now at 30 and 27 1/2, my sons feel like very close friends: we talk over everything and have great times together. Both boys are very proud that I coached their soccer teams for a total of 13 years.

    At the end of the day, what is more important to you, your family or your money? One is a lasting legacy, the other just disappears when you die.

    You CAN have a successful career and a successful family life – you just have to work at balancing the two every day. More hours on the job do not make you a better executive or a better leader.”

    * * * * * *

    Chris, thanks for adding this link. It’s actually one of my favorite things I’ve read on your blog. Perfect addition to this post.


  20. cscap
    cscap says:

    The tragedy is that most executives are not very good at work or at home and they try to do too many things. This stretch them further.

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