I met Tom last night when I spoke to a group of accountants who had been with their firm less than four years. Tom was one of the leaders in charge of these new hires, and his presence confirmed his value to the firm. Only the most high-potential leaders are usually invited to attend these events.
He asked what my speech was about. I told him I would show the group how each employee could begin to strategically partner with the firm to manage their unique work+life “fit” throughout the transitions in their life and career. “That’s great,” he said, “because it’s a struggle for all of us including me.” And with that he opened his laptop and asked, “Want to see my son?” Tom showed me pictures of his adorable child. “That’s my boy,” he said with a huge smile on his face. Then he got serious. “You know, it’s so hard to find time with him, and to be a help to my wife who is home full-time but still needs support. When I get home most nights at 9:00 p.m., I’m not seeing my son at all, and my wife is going to bed because she’s so exhausted. I’m glad to see you’re here because I wonder sometimes if there’s a place for me at this firm because my family is so important to me.” “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “not again.”
Men Want Flexibility Too, But Feel Less Permission to Ask So They Leave
I see this often, in every field: High performing, hardworking, committed male employees under forty-five struggling to place boundaries around a demanding 24/7 work reality in order to find time for their families. And, like Tom, these young dads are questioning whether or not it’s even possible. Companies need to realize that many men think the only solution is to leave. This would be an unfortunate and unnecessary loss for both the employee and the organization, because it’s one that could be avoided by supporting flexibility.
Tom is exactly the type of employee organizations want to keep and promote. Yet the fact that he never sees his son is enough to make him think about leaving. And he works for a firm which is a leader in the area of flexibility and work+life. Imagine what it’s like for dads working in organizations that haven’t begun to support flexibility. The problem is that until now flexibility has been promoted primarily as a way to attract and retain women at the firm. The unintended consequence is that men like Tom don’t think it applies to them. But it does!
What does this mean for companies?
First, companies need to recognize there is a real difference between the priorities and values of Gen-X and Y dads and Baby Boomer dads. It doesn’t mean young fathers don’t want to work hard, or less. They simply want to work differently and flexibly, often seeing technology as a means of achieving their unique work+life fit goals. A recent article in USA Today (6/26/06) about the hands-on fathering style of Chief Justice John Roberts compared to past Justices is a perfect study of these generational contrasts that really do exist.
Companies need to educate male managers over forty-five to help them understand this difference. And prepare them to recognize and support the difference, even if it’s not how they did it when their kids were young. Because when push comes to shove, the generation under forty will more frequently choose their families over their work. (Generation and Gender Study) That is, unless they feel they’re encouraged to take advantage of flexibility to strategically achieve their work+life fit objectives.
Let’s look at a high-achieving dad who chose family over a prestigious job opportunity. Ram Emmanuel, congressman and leader in the Democratic National Committee, made news recently when he stepped down from his role as one of the group’s primary fundraisers and organizers. He’s credited with dramatically increasing the level of fundraising and success of Democrats in local elections across the county. But this required endless travel and too much time away from his three kids who obviously mean a great deal to him (The Hill, (6/21/06).
“Emanuel has spent much time on the road in the past year, raising money, recruiting candidates. (Nancy) Pelosi joked in a recent interview that she sees more of his children than he does. He typically carries a leather portfolio filled with his children’s letters, photos and drawings, an aide said”
What must organizations do?
Consistently and forcefully spread the message that flexibility is for everyone, not just working mothers. The best way to do this is to introduce the concept of flexibility at the beginning of the career of all employees, and then reinforce it periodically as a way to get the work done in today’s 24/7 world. This includes both informal, day-to-day flexibility and formal flexibility work arrangements.
Educate all employees about how to use flexibility. Show them how to strategically manage the boundaries around their work and life throughout all of their personal and professional transitions. And do it in a way that considers their needs as well as the needs of the business—these are not mutually exclusive goals. This includes large transitions, like parenthood, and smaller transitions, like periodically wanting to get to the gym. Same process applies to achieving different work+life ”fit” objectives.
Recognize the connection between more flexibility for dads, and meeting retention objectives for women. Supporting more flexibility for fathers gives mothers more choices during their own work+life fit transitions. To learn more about the concept of “Shared Care,” visit the site of the ThirdPath Institute which is studying models of shared care between caregivers (www.thirdpath.org).
Help managers facilitate conversations with employees in a way that ensures both the employee’s objectives and business objectives are met. Show managers that contrary to what they might believe, in today’s 24/7 work reality flexibility solves many of the vexing problems they face daily. Turnover, employee engagement, commitment, efficiency, innovation, and communication can all be improved with flexibility. Rather than adding to the workload, it can actually reduce the workload if done correctly.
What must dads do?
Educate themselves about how to create, negotiate, and implement work+life fit flexibility in a way that meets their needs and the needs of the business. The step-by-step process is clearly laid out in my book . Also, read about other dads who have made flexibility work for them personally and professionally.
A recent article in the Washington Post (6/21/06) did a terrific job of showcasing flexibility for fathers. The article looked at young fathers in demanding jobs at Ernst & Young, Booz Allen, and Sun Microsystems who have taken advantage of the flexibility offered by their organizations to strategically find the fit they need; and do it in a way that met their needs as well as the needs of the business. They prove that the two objectives are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing.
As I discussed in my blog, “Men—It’s Time to Come Out of the Flexibility Closet,” men often think they’re the only one who wants or needs flexibility. As a result, the men who have flexibility don’t admit it for fear of being judged, and the men who don’t have it don’t ask for fear of being judged. But guess what? Because men don’t say anything companies don’t know they want flexibility. So, like Tom, you sit and suffer, or, even leave a job you may essentially like. If you are thinking about leaving, ask! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
We—experts like me, organizations, the media, and most of all individual dads–need to do a better job letting all the dads like Tom understand how to use flexibility as a tool to achieve the work+life fit they need. Because they can.