Are You Paying Lip Service to the Work-Life Balance?


The statistics on paid time off in the U.S. are bewildering. In 2017, American workers didn’t take 704 million paid vacation days, according to Project: Time Off. That’s $62.2 billion in unpaid benefits, and a lot of neglected families.

You might think these data points would have CEOs everywhere chortling with glee. But it seems like they are chained to their desks, too. Witness the standard CEO memoir, which pays lip service to any semblance of a life outside of work.

In the 365 or so pages of Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, his chronicle of his years at the helm of IBM in the 1990s, Lou Gerstner, Jr. devoted a mere couple of sentences to his family. Apparently, they were aware he had been asked to take on the massive IBM turnaround. But he says he agreed to take the job during a recruiting meeting and then, went home to announce his decision. “My wife, who had been quite wary of the idea originally, supported my decision and was excited about it,” Gerstner writes, almost as an afterthought at the end of Chapter 1. If the rest of the book is any indication, he disappeared into the corporate maw immediately thereafter and didn’t pop back up in the living room until a decade later.

In the Photo:  F is for family- or is it Fortune? Lou Gerstner Jr seemingly chose the latter Photo Credit: Roberto Júnior

The similarly-lengthy memoir of Harold Burson, the co-founder of the one of the world’s largest PR agencies, is another case in point. Burson wrote a 10-page postscript titled “The Role of Family” in The Business of Persuasionthe memoir he published last year. “As I reflect on the sixty-plus years since the formation of Burson-Marsteller,” he says, “I have come to realize that, for more than fifty of those years, I deprived my family of my companionship almost half the time.” I can’t help but think this is a conservative estimate, because Burson notes that he invariably traveled during 45 or more weeks each year, including over 100 trips to Europe for 10-14 days at a clip, as well as trips to Asia for a minimum of two weeks each. Sadder yet, Burson devotes less space in the memoir to his wife, whom he admits contributed much to his career and the success of his company, than he does to his love for West Highland white terriers.

Of course, CEOs such as Gerstner and Burson are of an older generation whose standard version of work-life balance looked like Leave It to Beaver (which is the version on which I cut my teeth). But I suspect that Gen X and Millennial CEOs may not be any better.

In the Photo:  A new generation of business- will they behave any different? Photo Credit: Austin Distel

The clue—and the impetus behind this article—is a new book titled Take Off Your Shoes by Ben Feder. This book caught my eye because its author is a CEO who decided to take an 8-month “sabbatical” with his family in…wait for it…Bali.

To me, what’s noteworthy here is not that a wealthy executive took a time-out and went on an extended vacation with his wife and kids; it’s that every wealthy executive doesn’t do that. What’s weird is that what Feder did is so rare that it’s book-worthy.

Frankly, it was hard for me to read about the agonising doubts that Feder worked through to take an 8-month vacation without chucking his book across the room. But I have a congenital disorder: I was born without a work ethic. I was endowed, however, with a tiny bit of empathy, so I admit to the possibility that it must be difficult to walk away from a highly lucrative and powerful position.

In the Photo:  Ulun Danu Beratan Temple in Bali. A CEO’s paradise? Photo Credit: Dennis Rochel

In coming to his momentous decision to spend some time with his family, Feder considers his company, Take Two Interactive, the video game publisher, and his partners, the investor group that took control of the troubled company. He also thinks about the financial hit he will take for walking away—because it’s pretty clear that a CEO doesn’t get to come back from a sabbatical and pick up where he or she left off, like a college professor. In addition, Feder thinks about the future. Will he be able to rejoin his partners when he gets back? If not, will he be employable at the CEO level? Then, Feder weighs his work-life balance and he opts for life.

I’ll spare you all the eat-pray-love details of the sabbatical and cut to the chase: Feder returns to his career a different person than when he left. The CEO job at Take Two is long gone. He goes back to work with his investor-partners, but finds that the fit is no longer as comfortable as it once was, and he is eventually invited to leave. He coaches and mentors founder-CEOs and flops around a bit. And one day, he gets a call from Tencent, where he signs on as president of international partnerships in the global conglomerate’s games business.


In the Photo:  Choose life. Ben Feder gave up a C-level position to spend time with his family. Photo Credit: Danielle MacInnes

“Some of my earlier habits returned. I was traveling again, taking late phone calls, and missing dinners. But I realised that everyone needs to practice their trade,” writes Feder. “This is what I did. Yet, I did it with a new perspective—more mindfully, as a meditation teacher would say—with less angst and stress, and always with an eye on where I was going. Not in conflict with my family but always looking to dovetail our endeavours and our lives.”

Bravo, Ben Feder, bravo! May every CEO—and to the extent that we can afford it, all the rest of us working stiffs, too—learn from your example.

Oh, and as for those 705 million unused vacation days: I’m setting up an account at a popular crowd-funding site, where the people who don’t want them can donate them to me. I’ll put them to very good use. I promise.

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About the Author /

Theodore Kinni is a business writer and editor. He is a contributing editor at strategy+business and MIT Sloan Management Review.

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