Dad CEO Memo: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

There’s so much that’s great about Max Schireson’s recent announcement that he is leaving his job as CEO of MongoDB in order to spend more time with his family. In particular:

  • He makes the excellent point that while female CEOs regularly face public scrutiny about whether they can balance their jobs with their families, male CEOs never seem to be asked similar questions.
  • He openly notes his desire to spend more time with his kids and better share the parenting load with his working wife.
  • He acknowledges that money isn’t everything, and that being an engaged parent as well as having a meaningful career are more important to him than the tens of millions of dollars he might be turning away by doing so.

It’s refreshing to hear these views from a male executive, which is why his sentiments are garnering so much positive media attention and have inspired scores of supportive comments on his blog. Schireson is making a strong contribution to the dialogue about men and work.

But I have to take issue with some of the responses to his decision, most especially the Washington Post’s rhetorical declaration, “The greatest memo about work-life balance ever?” and Fortune’s take that “When a top CEO quits to be a better dad it’s a giant leap forward for women execs.”

In fact, I think unfortunately Schireson’s decision to leave his position is a step backward for both work-life balance and for women execs. Suggesting that his departure from the role is a good move for the workplace at large sadly reinforces the idea that you cannot be an involved parent and a successful CEO at the same time—and that’s the very notion that has strongly contributed to the fact that women currently hold only 5.1 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.

Frankly, Schireson is fortunate that he made it to the level of CEO before making this choice—most women never get that chance: they opt out long before the c-suite over this very concern (they “leave before they leave,” according to Sheryl Sandberg). And if a woman had written a similar memo, she would likely be lambasted for reducing the ranks even further.

Most concerning to me is Schireson’s note that “MongoDB deserves a leader who can be ‘all-in’ and make the most of the opportunity.” While no doubt a comforting thought for MongoDB investors, this perspective is exactly what’s wrong with the American career ladder.

If the only way that a leader can be “all-in” is to dismiss everything else in their life other than work, how will we ever achieve gender equality in management? How will we ever get any diversity of thought at an executive roundtable? Must all CEOs forever be single and childless, or distant spouses and distant parents?

The reality is of course that given the way that work is structured today, without dramatic change we will continue to lose people like Schireson and the countless others who have made (or have had no choice but to make) similar decisions to take a demotion or opt out altogether in order to prioritize family over work. If Schireson’s successor Dev Ittycheria is married, or is a father, or has aging loved-ones, I’m already feeling heartbroken for him and his family.

What we desperately need is a workplace where highly qualified and successful individuals like Schireson, male or female, can opt in to a CEO position and opt in to their family at the same time. That means we need widespread work flexibility, we need to embrace vacations as a necessity for enhanced productivity (yes, gasp!, even for CEOs), and we need to find solutions to our overwork rather than resign ourselves to it.

For example, the crux of Schireson’s decision to leave seems to be largely based in his overwhelming travel schedule. He notes that he was on track to fly “300,000 miles this year, all the normal CEO travel plus commuting between Palo Alto and New York every 2–3 weeks.” That’s the equivalent of 25 entire days’ worth of time spent in flight. Surely there’s a more productive use of those 600 hours, and “normal CEO travel” is in fact not normal at all. MongoDB is a technology company! They shouldn’t be surprised to learn there are technology solutions that could keep their CEO closer to home.

Schireson’s decision is a great opportunity for a critical discussion about gender and work. But we can’t get too wrapped up in the benefits of what his departure signifies. Instead, we should be lamenting the fact that now it’s clear both men and women are publicly leaving the c-suite because the existing rules of the workplace are broken, when what we really need is for them to stay put and then help be part of the change—they are the leaders, after all.

I’m Emma Plumb and I’m Director of 1 Million for Work Flexibility, the first national initiative calling for a collective voice in support of work flexibility. If you agree that work needs fixing, join our movement and help spread the word.