CEOs With Kids: 4 Ways to Correct the Parenting Balance

Last Updated Mar 17, 2010 9:52 AM EDT

In my conversations with CEOs, one of the hardest issues for them to confront isn't their newest business strategy or which market they should enter next or who they should name to succeed them. Instead, it's their regret about the toll their careers have taken on their children. It's hard to hear, too, as I spend a lot of time on the road as a consultant away from my own family.

It usually starts with the predictable rationalizations: it's necessary for the business; it's a sacrifice they've consciously chosen to make; they've turned parenting over to their spouses, who are so much better at it anyway; they can make it up to their kids later on. Of course, there's a degree of truth in all these factors, which is what makes them such great rationalizations.

Regret is complicated. A big part of it is the guilt they feel when then see the grown-up consequences of their absence. They watch their adult kids having marital trouble, jumping from job to job, or simply complaining that their dad was never around. Another part is the feeling of lost opportunity -- a nostalgia for how things could have been. Sometimes this is prompted by seeing how their children are such devoted and available parents themselves, in part making up for the kind of parenting they didn't get from their dad. (Most of the time this is about fathers, but women CEOs have to deal with a similar set of issues.)

Some of the CEOs I talk to feel terribly guilty about this and try to make up for it by spending lots time with their families during retirement, or by being doting grandparents. Others take a more "tough love" approach and don't try to make amends beyond an acknowledgment of the truth. Some shower their offspring with money, as if that will undo the past.

But some really have managed to be successful as CEOs and as parents. What can we learn from them? Contrary to popular wisdom, being a good father doesn't have to detract from being a good CEO. In fact the best CEOs are the ones who take a benevolent paternal (or maternal) attitude toward their employees and set an example at work for how to be a good parent at home. There's no formula for getting it right, but consider the following four suggestions:

1. Above all, stop offering rationalizations. They may make you feel better, but they're not helping your kids at all. The only way to resolve an inner struggle is to acknowledge that it exists in the first place. Sometimes just accepting the fact that your absences have consequences will be enough to cause subtle but meaningful changes in behavior.

2. Don't act like a CEO at home. It may serve you well at work, but it really isn't very attractive or constructive with your family.

3. Be honest about your schedule. If you can't carve out more time for your family during the work week, then tell them that openly and devote yourself to them on the weekends or during vacations.

4. Take pride in your priorities. When I'm assessing a CEO or a potential CEO, the only cell-phone call I like to see them take during our meeting is a call from their spouse or kids. It says something important about their priorities.

  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.