#RethinkLeadership: Be Open about Work Life or Not?

hashtag-rethink-leadership-logo-v1Downplaying work-life responsibilities has been the norm for many leaders because the traditional leadership model has long rewarded those men and women who put work above all else.

indraOne of the nation’s top female corporate leaders, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, recently said publicly she wasn’t sure her two daughters would say she was a good mother. And Jon Stewart made it very clear that he hadn’t spent a lot of time with his family because of his job’s demands, joking about his decision to leave his popular cable show that: “I’m going to have dinner on a school night with my family, who I have heard from multiple sources are lovely people.”jon

Contrast this with recent news that Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg was expecting a baby, including a photo of the happy couple for all to see, and even a personal story about their struggle with miscarriages.  Clearly, Zuckerberg wants facebookto be seen as an involved parent — something that would have been unheard of just a few years ago from the top dog of a major company.

These leaders are sending very different messages about how work and family play out in their lives as leaders to the world, and most importantly to their employees.

But what’s the right approach?

To answer this and many other questions, Families and Work Institute is rethinking leadership with a study due out this Fall called Leadership in Today’s Economy that surveyed employees in the leadership pipeline at some of the biggest employers in the country.  As part of the Institute’s #ReinventLeadership initiative, launching today, we asked a panel of three experts — who served as the Next Generation Advisory Board to the study — the first of five questions that we hope will get us all pondering a different and better approach to how we support and grow leaders at all levels. We will ask the remaining questions and share our experts’ insights every week for the next five weeks.

Question #1:

What is one thing that leaders could do differently to create a culture where employees felt they could be open about their personal and family lives?

126e751Meredith Sadin, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy at the University of California, Berkeley/UCSF


Tom’s Shoes CEO, Blake Mycoskie, recently appeared on CNN via Skype to talk about parental leave; calling from his home only shortly after becoming a father. Despite Tom’s offering paid parental leave, he explained, he’d seen a lot of his employees decide not take it. This prompted him to take the full leave when his wife gave birth “to set an example.”

The notion of modeling behavior is not a new one in management – in fact, leaders themselves often learn through observing and imitating those more experienced than themselves. As such, it is critical that leaders model full participation in their own family-supportive policies in order to cultivate an open culture when it comes to employees’ personal and family life.

This openness is no small task. This kind of vulnerability is often difficult for high-achieving individuals, who may see sharing information about one’s personal life as unprofessional or “weak”. Additionally, this type of sharing can work very differently for women than it does for men – as men have been shown to be rewarded at work for fatherhood, while women are penalized on a multitude of outcomes from perceived competence to salary.

However, the recent spate of openness among top leaders in high visibility companies has not gone unnoticed. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, shared a very personal post about her grief for her late husband and its relationship to her own sense of motherhood. And, a few months later, her colleague, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, announced that he and his wife were going to have a baby. However, in his public post, he also shared his struggles.

In sharing their personal struggles with their employees (and the world), these leaders are modeling a more family supportive culture for their employees, but also doing so for so many other leaders in other companies. They are also reiterating that there is indeed, strength in vulnerability.

EReidErinrin Reid, a Peter Paul Career Development professor, and assistant professor of organizational behavior at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business

Given biases about people’s family lives that are salient and can be damaging in the workplace, I am actually not convinced that leaders should encourage employees to be open about their personal and family lives.

Put differently, the consequences for openness may differ for different people: for example, men who are known to be involved fathers may encounter harassment and discrimination.

That said, many of the personal- and family-related problems that employees encounter in relation to their work are heightened by the increased pressure to be constantly “on” and available for their work.

For this reason, leaders interested in helping employees lead full lives should work to lessen demands for total devotion and increase the predictability of people’s work schedules, through formal rules such as “no meetings after 5pm.”

1cd94e0Kunal Modi, management consultant who worked for Teach for America and the White House National Economic Council, and a contributing author to “Lean In for Graduates” 


Be open about your own experiences and encourage others to share theirs. Discussions about family at work should touch everyone, but are still too often stigmatized as “women’s issues”. As a result, many women—and not enough men—struggle with the idea of raising a family and often curtail their own ambitions or are passed over for stretch roles. Creating a workplace culture in which family issues are discussable and relevant to men and women alike starts at the top.

Share the good, the bad, and the ugly – spousal discussions, support networks, and sacrifices. Create forums for all employees to learn about the policies available to them, share their own stories, and ask questions – something as formal as a panel of colleagues and as simple as small group lunches.

Culture alone will not fund parental leave or ensure pay equity – but it’s a good place to start in creating a more open, equal and successful workplace for everyone.

Join us at the annual Symposium to be a part of the conversation that could redesign what leadership looks like.

When: Wednesday, September 30, 2015, 3:00-5:30 PM
Where: Gotham Hall, 1356 Broadway, NYC
Reserve your ticket now



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