Work-Life Balance When Both Spouses Are Corporate Leaders

Work-life balance is tough enough for dual-career families, but what about when both spouses are corporate leaders? One couple that made it work shares their secrets for success.

Non-competing careers. It’s very important to be able to celebrate each other’s success without any jealousy. This is easiest when you don’t have competing careers. One approach would be to work in complementary industries, like consulting and the corporate world, which is what we did. Another approach would be to work in completely different professions, so direct competition becomes impossible to gauge—say, business versus medicine or science. In our case, we chose the former, but it was easier not to compete because Bram is five years older, so he was always one level ahead.

Find a city where both careers can thrive. When we started dating, BCG was still a small firm with only a few offices. They were encouraging more people to go to Europe, and Bram had just returned from South Africa. So, we both put in for London. They were happy to get anybody who would get on an airplane and sell all their belongings and move there. So, we did. And that’s how we ended up in London together.

We’ve lived in Chicago for decades because it works for us both. It’s essential to live somewhere that presents equal opportunities for both partners. You want both careers to thrive. You don’t want either spouse to have to basically sacrifice career-wise because of the city in which you live. There have been times when one of us turned down a promotion that would have meant moving to a smaller city that was lacking in opportunities for the other spouse.

Build a great support system. We believe in outsourcing everything you can. Hire lots of help for the kids and household jobs. The choices we made won’t be right for everyone, and these days there are many more options available. But we recommend a nanny—we’ve watched a lot of people struggle with daycare and who’s picking the kids up.

Because Bram was a consultant and always traveling, Ilene called herself a single mother, and said, “We need a live-in nanny.” That way, she never had to worry about being home at 6 p.m. She could travel. She didn’t have to check with anybody. We found someone who lived in Monday through Friday. (A nanny needs weekends off or she’ll burn out. Also, we believe you can have only one set of parents at a time, and, on the weekends, we were the parents.)

We arranged to have a different sitter on weekends for our date night. She would stay over Friday night to Sunday morning and do chores like laundry, so we were free to run around with the kids during the day. Then, we were on our own Sunday.

Establish rules to ensure a work-life balance. Bram would often come home Friday night at 6 p.m. and say, “I have to leave Sunday at 4 p.m. to be at a client meeting Monday morning.” Ilene instinctively knew that the family needed 48 hours or two full days to have a real weekend.

And so, we put in this 48-hour rule: On weekends, you had to be home 48 hours before leaving on another business trip. If somebody was close to violating it, you’d have to ask the other person, “Do you mind?” Some of Bram’s clients used to set meetings Monday morning at 8 a.m., which would mean leaving Sunday night instead of catching an early flight Monday.

When they’d ask him to be there for an 8 a.m. meeting, he’d say, “You really don’t want to ask me to do that because then I’m going to violate the 48-hour rule,” and he’d explain what it stood for. Every one of them would at least say, “I can wait an extra hour, it’s not that important.” So, people respect it if you ask, if you explain it to them.

A lot of people complain about companies, the glass ceiling and the culture. But we were boldly going there. It seems millennials want companies to create a supportive environment. They don’t want to have to ask. We always asked, and everybody was supportive. If it works for the couple, then the company will support it.

Sunday nights became our family meeting nights. Every Sunday, we’d meet as a family and go over the plan for the week, who had what conference, who had what project. We’d cook dinner, and we’d all sit down. We’d plan the kids’ homework, so they wouldn’t end up having a big project due on Monday and start it on Sunday. They had to start it a month before. So, we would instill this planning, what are your projects, how are you going to plan for them? Of course, we always had a special dessert. The kids would go through the meeting and then get a cupcake, so they loved it. And that’s what they remember from it.

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