As reported in The Wall Street Journal‘s The Juggle blog, Jack Welch was quoted at a recent SHRM conference as saying “There is no such thing as balance.” While his comments set off a firestorm of response, fundamentally, I believe he is correct–there is no balance. However, his explanation of “why” needs updating.
He’s right that we need to stop talking about “balance.” The sooner we discontinue thinking that there’s a right answer or “balance,” the quicker we will see that every one of us has a different work+life fit at different times in our lives. There isn’t one way to make work and life fit together. Only what works for us and the realities of our jobs.
But here’s where the “why” behind his argument needs to be updated:
Update #1: He, along with almost everyone else, is stuck in the land of the “all or nothing / CEO or stay at home parent” which is not where most of us live: Unfortunately, Jack Welch and many of those responding to his comments online are still stuck in the all-or-nothing, all work-or-no work dichotomy. This keeps us from seeing the many creative, flexible ways to manage our unique work+life fit that exist between the extreme all-work reality of a CEO like Jack Welch, or the no-work reality of a parent who chooses to leave the workforce for an extended period of time to care for their children. That doesn’t mean work-primary CEOs or life-primary stay-at-home parents are wrong. Their work+life fit choices work for them–but most of us live somewhere in the middle along that continuum.
Image how different this story would be if Jack Welch had responded to the question, “Look, I chose to become the CEO of GE therefore I had to give 100% of my time and attention to work. That was my choice; however, that isn’t the only way of managing work and life if your goal isn’t to become the CEO of a multi-national company.”
Update #2: It isn’t just about moms and women. To be fair, Jack Welch was being interviewed at the SHRM conference by Claire Shipman who just wrote a book Womenomics, therefore, chances are the conversation was about women which is why he answered it in that context. However, the fact of the matter is we need to stop talking about work+life issues as women’s issues. In today’s economy, we all–men and women–need to strategically manage our individual work+life fit choices day-to-day and at major life and career transitions such as partnering, parenthood, elder care, and retirement.
Update #3: It’s also about flexibly redefining success. Just as there’s no one right way to combine work and life, there is no longer one rigid, linear definition of success. Welch did reference the fact that if you take a career break “you may be passed over for a promotion,” and “that doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice career.” What he’s saying is there are many different ways to define success personally and professionally, at different times in our lives. Yes, you may choose to pull into the slower lane from the fast lane when passed over for a promotion but that doesn’t mean later when your circumstances change you won’t raise your hand and pull back into the fast lane (as you define it). Remember, Welch was a CEO; therefore, anything less than that would probably be a “nice” career to him, but a very successful career to everyone else.
Bottom line, it’s work+life fit, not balance. There is no right answer. It’s not all-or-nothing, either be a CEO or a stay at home parent. There are countless flexible, work+life fit options in between which is where most of us live. And that’s where we need to focus our discussion and problem-solving. It’s not just women, it is all of us at all stages of our lives. The sooner all of us, including Jack Welch, realize this, the faster we will begin to have a productive, up to date dialogue that moves us forward.
Thanks, Jack Welch, for keeping this important “there is no balance” debate on the radar screen. What do you think?
(Update: Since writing this post, I’ve learned that Jack Welch is recovering from a very serious spinal infection. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family for a full recovery.)