Why the new “C-Level” isn’t what we think it is

How mindfulness and intention, in work and life, are more important than ever

By Eddie Nguyen, Leadership Coach
(previously Vice President, Customer Success at Optimizely)


We’ve all been there: admiring someone from afar, and wondering how they manage to do everything and “have it all.” Sometimes they appear in glossy, celebrity magazines. Occasionally, they are our friends and colleagues.

A few months ago, I was exchanging text messages with an old friend. On the surface, it seemed as if she was one of these people. She was one of the youngest, most accomplished executives in her industry. She had a beautiful family, and a dream home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Having known each other since middle school, she felt comfortable speaking candidly with me. She lamented the fact that while everything appeared perfect in her life, she felt like an unsatisfactory C-level mother, wife, friend and daughter. When she got around to focusing on personal goals, her achievement levels felt equally unsatisfying. We joked that executives had let a new “C-level” into the boardroom. For some of us, it became clear that having a C-level executive role at work imminently led to the feeling of earning a “C” in all other areas. As in the “C” grade you get in school. The feeling I walked away with after that conversation (yes, texting counts!) was both sobering and discouraging. I kissed my boys on the forehead that night and cried. I suck!

It seems as though, at long last, our burdens are over. Software giants such as Google and Netflix have started to provide longer paid family leave. LinkedIn now offers discretionary time off (DTO) for their US based employees. Even CEOs of top-performing startups, have spoken up about providing workplaces that are conducive to parenting and work-life balance. We’re seeing unprecedented changes in the workplace, from companies providing flexible work-from-home options, and the creation of better boundaries between what they expect from employees on and off the job.

Despite these changes, I can see with increasing consistency, how exhausted and overwhelmed working parents are. The relentless work demands take a toll on their health, happiness and family life. That also affects their morale and their ability to think creatively and reflectively. The people who can compete and succeed in this culture are an ever-narrower slice of American society: largely working professionals who are healthy and wealthy enough to focus on themselves and their careers. This competitive, fast-paced environment prompts us to take on and do more than we ever have before.

Roads taken

Leading Silicon Valley executives have made headlines recently by deciding to commit to parenting full-time. In some cases, they’ve stepped down from their CEO role all together. Others, such as Marissa Mayer, built a nursery in her workplace. Such examples have led us to believe that we need the freedom, granted by wealth and accomplishment, to make these bold choices.

Where’s the middle ground?

Many of us are not CEOs. In fact, the vast majority of us don’t have the luxury of leaving our careers. Often, we are the breadwinners in single-income households. We live in a state of acquiescence that we will feel “C-level” in our personal lives, whether on a consistent or occasional basis.

On the other end of the spectrum, some of us might find that what was once a manageable and enjoyable work-personal-family balance can no longer be sustained. We leave our careers behind, “find something else,” in hopes that we can be the parent, child, friend or partner that we had once set out to be.

And then there are some individuals who find work so rewarding that they wouldn’t leave their careers even if they had that option. Many take great care and pride at solving big problems and making an impact in their respective areas at work; fast-paced environments offered by such workplaces help them fulfill their potential. At the same time, they are deeply at odds with feeling like they have fallen short of their responsibilities to their friends, family and themselves.

Every person and situation is different. It begs the question, What is the prescription for those who want a meaningful and rewarding professional life, while also having a quality personal and family life?

Creating a roadmap for all aspects of life

It begins with creating a work environment which allows us to regularly refuel and renew yourself, both on and off the job. This process will make you more capable of bringing the best of yourself to work. Energy is our most precious resource. In physics, energy is literally defined as “the capacity to do work.” Higher demand in the absence of sufficient rest and renewal means less energy. Less energy means less capacity.

As people transition from young adults (typically college) to adulthood (working professional) they generally take one of two approaches; they are either structured and very intentional about their paths including the type of job and where they want to work; or they wing it, drifting from job to job spontaneously.

For those who started out with all the ambition in the world find themselves in a place they never expected to be. They mapped out all the milestones from college graduation onward: first apartment, landing an awesome job, getting the awesome promotions to follow, finding a partner, buying a house, having children. The list goes on. Soon enough they find themselves living a life bloated with material belongings, stressful and long work days, a packed calendar of social commitments, and financial burdens to boot.

To a lesser degree, those who prefer to be spontaneous and free have also woken up one day to find that what worked for them in the past no longer serves them. Taking the time to choose the feelings that that they desire most — spontaneity and freedom — is the state to which they should return.

Whether you fall into the former or latter category, there are two distinct steps in achieving your desired life.

Reassess your values

Take time to evaluate what you truly want your life to be. Some may find that climbing the corporate ladder are no longer dreams of theirs, once they are clear on their values. Having too much stuff or too many commitments, requires constant maintenance, which takes time. Once you are clear on your values, you can assess what serves you in your current life, and imminently what doesn’t.

Develop an intentional plan for how you want to live

The next step is setting up an intentional plan for how you want to be with your partner, family, friends and personal hobbies (much like the “structured” approach taken when transitioning from young adulthood to adulthood). For some, this means saying no to relationships, events, objects and experiences that do not support you in living your most desired life.

After taking a step back, analyzing your life, and discovering what was most important to you, you might intentionally create a life that you love. A life in which you feel like you’ve earned an “A-grade” in everything.