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Does it profit a man to have career success at the sacrifice of his family?

The passages below are taken from Michael A Zigarelli’s book “Management by Proverbs,” published in 1999 by Moody Press.

 

     “I’ve struggled with this for a long time,” said Brenda Barnes, a twenty-two-year veteran employee of PepsiCo, the parent company of Pepsi-Cola. Brenda, the mother of three children, ages seven, eight, and ten, had spent more than half her life climbing the corporate ladder. Now, nearing the top wrung, she held the titles of president and CEO of Pepsi’s North American division. At age forty-three, Brenda was among the highest-ranking women in corporate America, controlling an operation that reported about $1.4 billion in annual profits, and drawing a paycheck of nearly $2 million a year.1

     But her ascension and impressive stature came at a significant price. To be a central player in top management required regular dinner meetings and a hectic travel schedule. Most workdays spanned an exhausting sixteen hours---from 3:30 A.M. to 7:30 P.M.---affording her only a few daily minutes with her family. Brenda was missing most of her sons’ football games. She saw school plays only via videotape. And when a child’s birthday fell on a weekday, Mom was conspicuously absent.

     Brenda’s long struggle illustrates a tension that all working parents experience to various degrees. We seek to offer 100 percent to both work life and family life, but seldom succeed. Inevitably, something suffers, and often it is our family: our spouse and/or the children. The family gets short shrift, dominated by the seemingly urgent needs of the workplace.

     Conventional wisdom suggests that the work-family tension is caused by business realities that are simply beyond our control. Consider the nature of managerial and professional positions. Some require travel; there’s no way around it. Many require long hours for deadlines and pressing projects. And in an increasingly competitive environment, one is often compelled to stay at work into the dinner hour, regardless of one’s personal situation. After all, who can really tell a prospective client: “Sorry, you can keep your $50,000 because I promised to meet my kid’s teacher this afternoon”? Some positions even require weekend work if one has any aspiration of advancing. That’s the inescapable corporate norm.

     Even when a profit motive does not exist, there are similar pressures to trade off family for work. Ask any charity director who’s soliciting contributions full-time just to keep the charity afloat. Or inquire with a church pastor about the last time he worked a mere forty-hour week. I assure you, it was prior to seminary.

     So this is what it’s come to at the turn of the millennium: Our culture has now evolved to a point where career success (or sometimes just career maintenance) demands more personal commitment and flexibility on our part than ever before. The culprit, we reason, is the nature of business, these unalterable realities. The casualty is our family time.

 

PROVERBS’ UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM

     So says the conventional wisdom. And occasionally it has some merit. Proverbs, however, offers a less fatalistic perspective. It suggests that the work-family dilemma may often be more a function of things internal to ourselves than of situations beyond our control. It does not point to others, such as an overtaxing boss or demanding employees or deadlines, but to our own ambition, our pride, and, in some cases, our greed.

 

Ask Why

     Accordingly, Proverbs’ unconventional wisdom calls us to be introspective, regularly and candidly scrutinizing why we’re pursuing this particular career path, why we’re working so many hours, and why we’re taking so many responsibilities. Is the reason something elemental like job security, or are there some nefarious motivators underlying it? Is the reason simply the need to put food on the table and save for the kids’ college, or is it more the pursuit of luxuries, a title, prestige, and power?

     Proverbs 23:4—5 assist us in distinguishing our legitimate from illegitimate reasons for working long hours:

     “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.”(NIV)

 

     The first admonition is reasonably straightforward. The pursuit of riches is not worthy of our limited time and energy. But riches does not refer solely to money. Throughout the Old Testament, the word translated here as rich and riches also carries the connotation of accumulation or enrichment. The broader implication? We should not wear ourselves out to accumulate possessions or to enrich ourselves with power, adulation, or other ego fodder. Rather, we are to pursue a different path.

     Wisdom’s path is one of “restraint,” but not just a passive restraint. We are to be active and urgent. The New Revised Standard Version, for example, translates this as “be wise enough to desist”; the New American Standard Bible and King James Version tell us to cease from our own wisdom, our current consideration of chasing wealth and other riches.

     Beyond simply exercising restraint, then, the proverb’s author is alerting us to a tendency to make idols of career and accumulation, and he tells us to desist now. Do not follow the path that is innate to you, “thine own wisdom,” as it says in the King James Version. Resist the temptation. Even if you do find the enrichment for which you exhaust yourself, it will be fleeting, we are told in 23:5; it will ultimately “fly off.”

 

Watch Out for Personal Desire

     This point is critical. Following our own inclinations---the sinful nature that is inherent to the human condition---ultimately destroys us. It inhibits our relationship with God and erodes our relationship with our family. We see this same instruction even more clearly in Proverbs 5. In the midst of a long discourse on adultery and repeated warnings against pursuing our carnal lusts,

Solomon warned, “Drink water from your own cistern” and “rejoice in the wife of your youth” (verses 5:15, 18). The teaching is that it may seem natural to succumb to lust because of how you are designed. You will be tempted. But “cease and desist!” Show restraint, turn from your consideration of it, and rejoice in your family. Follow God’s path rather than your own.

     Thus, as we wrestle with balancing work and family, we should remember the innate, ever-present temptation to subordinate family needs to personal desires. It matters not whether those desires be power, or material objects, or bragging rights, or a level of affirmation not currently available at home. Proverbs challenges us to vigilantly resist the drift toward pursuing these riches at the expense of family.

     Notice that this is an internal issue. The tension we experience has little to do with the nature of business; rather, Proverbs implicates the sinful nature of man as the primary culprit. For any individual, the tension may be precipitated by a natural tendency to pursue one’s own definition of success rather than God’s definition. In this light, then, Proverbs invites us to consider whether any work-family imbalance can be remedied from within.

 

THE BENEFITS OF KEEPING FAMILY FIRST

 

The Benefits to the Family

     Elsewhere in Proverbs, we are apprised of the familial consequences of choosing between the paths of wisdom and folly. Here is a telling juxtaposition:

The righteous man leads a blameless life; blessed are his children after him. (Proverbs 20:7 NIV)

 

A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates bribes will live. (Proverbs 15:27 NIV)   

 

     In both verses, we see that how we live our lives affects the members of our household. There are many consequences of righteous living, and among them, as noted in Proverbs 20:7, is a blessing for our children. They are prime beneficiaries when we walk God’s path, when we faithfully do things like ranking family before career.

     But this outcome operates in the negative direction as well. The “greedy” man in 15:27, one who “profits illicitly” (NASB), one who is “greedy for unjust gain” (NRSV), brings trouble to his household. The linkage is explicit and inescapable. If we covet the big bucks and the corner office, and if we use every means at our disposal to get them, we run a tremendous risk back home. Whether we’re in the boardroom or on the assembly line, leading a company, leading a charity, or leading a revival, Proverbs’ message is the same. The path of folly is expensive beyond measure. Prioritize family over work.

 

The Benefits to the Organization

     Clearly, aligning personal priorities in this manner pays personal dividends. But what about its effect on the management system? For the organization, is there any value added when a boss thinks in terms of family first?

     One might speculate that a work group would be hamstrung by having a person at the top who embraces other priorities first. But in practice, this person will be more asset than liability for the group and the organization as a whole. Here’s why.

     From a strictly financial perspective, a family-sensitive manager serves not only employee needs but can meet long-term organizational objectives better than the traditional work-first manager can. The mushrooming corporate initiatives in this area powerfully testify to this truth. Many larger employers have seen the wisdom of including benefits like health and life insurance, employee assistance programs, dependent-care spending accounts, and college scholarships among their employee benefits. Others also have engaged in work redesign, developing flexible work arrangements, telecommuting, and job sharing as business policy-makers recognize the value of lowering tensions both in the employee’s work and family life.

     As much as we’d like to think that these trends are a function of a more enlightened, more ethical, and even more compassionate boardroom, much of the movement owes its impetus to the profit motive. “Family-friendly” work environments can be good for business. In fact, this notion is becoming so accepted that popular periodicals such as Business Week and Fortune, publications that target the traditional, profit-minded manager, are now generating biannual surveys to coronate the top family-friendly employers.

     So a linkage seems to exist between sensitivity to employee family concerns and organizational performance. But there’s an important element to remember here. Regardless of the extent of a company’s family-friendly policies, the value of family-sensitive management ultimately depends on how individual bosses respond to individual employee needs. This is why the boss who personally embraces the primacy of family is such an asset to the organization: He or she is more likely to genuinely satisfy those pressing employee concerns, thereby nurturing a covenant that engenders commitment, productivity, and long-term retention.

 

PUTTING FAMILY FIRST

     Putting family ahead of work requires both humility and faith. It is a selfless act that may entail the humble decision to relinquish some work responsibilities to pass up a promotion, or to step off the fast track. Even more radically, it might mean changing jobs altogether or possibly leaving the security of a salaried position to open up your own shop from home. For one who is already an entrepreneur, it might mean cutting back hours by taking on a partner. Note that a residual consequence in many of these scenarios will be accepting a pay cut in the faith that God will provide.

     Note also there are no cookie-cutter answers here. Prognoses will vary with individual circumstances. For Brenda Barnes, though, the struggle gave way to a decision that many adherents to the conventional wisdom would find unthinkable.

     “I’ve struggled with this for a long time,” she told Pepsi and the rest of the world. But “the time has come for me to devote 100 percent of my time to them.” The “them” in her statement was her husband and children. Brenda had elected to step down from her position as a captain of industry, to give up her seven-figure salary, and to suspend her professional career in favor of being a stay-at-home mom.

     Pepsi’s top brass pulled out all the stops to dissuade her. They offered a more flexible schedule, fewer responsibilities, less demanding jobs. Even their legendary former chairman Donald Kendall got involved. Pepsi had been grooming Brenda “for bigger things,” they said, and would do whatever it took to keep her.

     Brenda talked it over with her family. What would it take to strike a better balance? Among the possible resolutions, one of her children offered that she could keep working if she’d promise to be home for all of their birthdays. For Brenda, that clinched it. When your grade-school children are asking for just a few days of your time between now and when they leave for college, it’s time to make some tough choices, she concluded.2

     Other struggles have similarly culminated in relinquishing vast “riches” for the sake of family. In the 1990s, Robert Reich left his position as secretary of labor for family reasons; Peter Lynch, head of Fidelity’s hugely profitable Magellan Fund, did the same. Penny Hughes, another beverage executive, gave up her position as Coca-Cola president for Great Britain and Ireland, all for her baby.3

     The Book of Proverbs does not mandate that we, in the name of the family, must leave the workforce or find a new job. But it does remind us that the work-related choices we make are in fact choices, and that they will have a profound effect on our relationships at home. Moreover, it counsels us about how easy it is to make the wrong work-family choices, to surrender to the temptations of our nature. If we do so, we in effect sacrifice children and marriage at the altar of career success. To avoid this, Proverbs invites us to map our priorities to God’s priorities, fitting career into a nonnegotiable family schedule, rather than the other way round.(69-79)

 

NOTES

1. David Roeder, “CEO Picks Family Over Job,” Chicago Sun-Times, 25 September 1997, 3.

2. Dottie Enrico, “Pepsi Chief Trades Work for Family,” USA Today, 25 September 1997, 38.

3. Mrs. Hughes gave her reasons to English journalists; like her counterpart, Brenda Barnes at PepsiCo headquarters, Hughes desired greater involvement with her children. See James Bone and Joanna Bale, “Pepsi Chief Quits to Watch Her Boys Play Football,’ The Times of London, 25 September 1997, 1.

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