How To Marry a CEO (and Learn from Your Spouse)

IF OPPOSITES ATTRACT, Michael Fleisher and Connie Connors are exceptions to the rule. Connors is CEO of Connors Communications, a 16-year-old New York City public relations firm. Fleisher, her husband, also is a CEO-of Gartner Inc., a tech business consultancy in Stamford, CT. They met at a holiday party in New York City in December 1995 and married less than a year later. It’s a unique relationship that’s benefited them not just at home, but also in the corner office.

“CEOs generally have households of followers,” Fleisher, 36, says. “That’s not the case with us.”

Fleisher and Connors have had to learn how to trade leader-follower roles. Fleisher, for example, is in charge of home decorating-right down to the bath towels. “In the beginning of our relationship,” Connors, 43, says, “I tried to buy certain things [for the house], but mostly I got the €˜why did you buy that?’ look from Michael. So I just stopped.” Connors, meanwhile, is in charge of household operations, like planning their children’s activities.

The CEO couple also counsels each other on how to manage their technology-dependent businesses during the tech downturn. Fleisher’s $859 million firm helps businesses use technology more strategically. Connors Communications, meanwhile, is a $10.5 million firm that represents several technology companies and many former dot-coms.

When they turn to each other for advice and support they must each “take off the CEO hat,” says Connors. “I’m a born-and-bred entrepreneur, and it’s typical for me to say €˜it’s my way or the highway.'”

They must provide compassion rather than business-school rhetoric, Fleisher says. “We give each other constructive criticism all the time,” he says, adding that there are times when the other person just doesn’t want to hear it.

Connors explains, “While I wasn’t happy with Michael saying in November 1999 that 99 percent of all dot-coms would fail, I knew he was right.” At the time, Connors client base was predominantly dot-coms. “His most recent statement is that 50 percent of household [information technology] brands we know today will be gone in three years. We talk about these things; how it will affect our businesses and personal lives.”

Things have changed a good deal since a 1986 survey by The Wall Street Journal found that only 6 percent of CEO spouses worked. Two-income families are more the norm today, but duo-CEO families, where both husband and wife head up businesses, are pretty unusual. To keep up with family and work responsibilities, the Connors/Fleisher household, as they call it, stagger their travel schedules, share parenting duties for their two young sons, and prize family weekends.

Despite the scheduling acrobatics, Connors and Fleisher agree the benefits of having a spouse who relates to the rigors of being a CEO far outweigh the difficulties. They believe they enhance each other’s management skills. For example, Fleisher says his wife taught him how to better reach out to his employees following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

“Connie was able to share with her employees and connect with everyone,” he says. “I realized I had to do that with voice, not writing.”

They’ve also discovered how two otherwise disparate businesses-public relations and consulting-can dovetail. “Our clients all hire PR firms to access Gartner analysts,” Fleisher explains, “so having a perspective about how to make Gartner easier to access from a PR perspective has been very helpful.” Gartner representatives visited Connors Communications’ offices recently to explain how employees there can best work with Gartner.

In the end, the biggest challenge they face may be their greatest benefit. “As two CEOs,” Fleisher says, “you realize that when you come home, when you’re completely spent, that’s when you need to be there for each other.”

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