Work-Life Balance When Both Spouses Are Corporate Leaders

Advocate for each other and celebrate each other’s successes. This may seem obvious to some, but people frequently overlook it. For example, when we attended each other’s business events, we’d assume different personas as appropriate. If Bram was attending one of Ilene’s business functions as her husband, he would go as “Mr. Gordon.” The idea was that his role was not talking about his work but about hers; same thing the other way around. It was not about being at the event with each other but for each other—check your ego at the door.

In fact, we were interviewed recently by an ex-McKinsey consultant now working in academia. His wife was also in academia, and she was getting an award. He had planned to do something work-related that night. And when he heard this rule, he changed his plan and decided to be there for her instead.

Take vacations with the kids, someplace where the entire family will have a great time. We took every one of our vacations with our kids. Occasionally, we went away alone, if we had a business meeting, but not on vacation. We loved Club Med for family vacations, because they were pioneers in terms of being kid-friendly and having built-in babysitting. Now, many hotels have kids’ clubs and such, but back then, it set Club Med apart.

Set a date night and keep it sacred. This is especially important when a couple travels a lot. In 40 years, the number of Saturday nights we’ve been apart is fewer than 10. Once Bram had to be at a partner meeting in Colorado Springs, and Ilene flew out there, even though spouses weren’t included. Of course, she didn’t attend any of the business meetings or functions, but we were together afterwards.

Communicate often, every day, and set priorities together. Ilene spent three years based in Paris, so we had to deal with the seven-hour time difference. But we figured out how to touch base about what was happening four or five times a day. Good, frequent communication is a big help for everybody, no matter what you’re doing, so you never have to catch up.

In fact, as Bram likes to say, never go into a “cold house.” He developed this routine when coming home from a business trip. As soon as he landed and climbed into the car, he’d call. We’d get engaged in the conversation, and it made the ride home go faster for him. He’d pull into the driveway as quietly as possible. And then, Ilene would ask a question, and Bram would say, “Do you mind if I come inside and answer that in person? I’ve been sitting here for 15 minutes.” So, he’d walk in and we’d have a good laugh. And we’d feel that we had already caught up.

Never go to bed angry or until the issues have been addressed, or set a time to address them. There’s conflict in any relationship. In case of two working spouses, there is more potential for conflict because work-life balance issues can add another layer of disagreements. Until we had all the rules, there was a lot of conflict. So Ilene would say, “I know we’re angry, let’s kiss and go to sleep and we’ll figure it out tomorrow.” But it was important to acknowledge that there was a conflict, not just go into another room. It gets you to resolve conflict as quickly as possible and not let it linger.

Never lose your sense of humor. This is critical for a healthy relationship. There will inevitably be rough times and various family crises, and nothing helps to see each other through these more than humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. You have to be able to poke fun at yourself and at each other. If you ever lose your sense of humor, then you know you’ve got to rebalance everything.

Read more: The Work-Life Balance Myth Could Be Closer Than You Think

1
2
3
Ilene S. Gordon served as CEO, president and chairman of Ingredion and was the 21st female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She now serves as an independent director of the board of Lockheed Martin and International Paper. Bram Bluestein is founder of Bluestein & Associates and a senior advisor at McNally Capital, after a 35-year career as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, A.T. Kearney and the Boston Consulting Group. Bram retired as a senior partner from both Booz Allen Hamilton and A.T. Kearney.