What Physicians Can Learn from an Executive on Work-Life Balance

June 12, 2012

Jack Welch’s talk reminded me that hard choices are involved in achieving success inside and outside of the medical practice.

Last month, I read about a program organized for a group of female executives at which Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, gave some advice, reportedly admonishing that there is no such thing as work-life balance, only work or life choices. If you want the corner office, you can’t pick up the kids from school. Not surprisingly, his advice was not well received.

There are many perspectives on this type of philosophy. One is, of course, that Jack Welch is a dinosaur and his out-of-date viewpoint no longer applies to the current work environment. Another is that he’s absolutely right, willing to point out a truism that is not popular. My perspective is that Jack Welch is a man dedicated to his work who happened to marry really, really well. Jack Welch single could not do what Jack Welch married did, in my opinion.

Now, he’s been married three times and his current wife, Suzy Welch, happens to write extensively on issues such as work-life balance, admitting to her own struggles with what to do when she still had work to do at the office but also had kids waiting for her at home with a worn-out babysitter.  Suzy Welch sat by his side during this session. Since she didn’t whack him on the head for being an idiot by spewing his words of wisdom, and since she also climbed the ladder, so to speak, she must have a perspective as well on what his words really mean.

My guess is that Suzy is extremely familiar with her husband’s philosophy, likely having experienced it in multiple iterations from not only her future spouse but her own bosses and coworkers over decades. Suzy, like many professional women and increasing numbers of professional men, duly notes this idea and then does what she needs to do to be true to her role as a kick-butt businesswoman and a mom and wife.

It is true that work-life balance boils down to choices. My guess is that at one point, an ambitious Jack Welch chose to dedicate himself to his job and achieving that corner office. In addition to making sure he had training and education and mentoring and was in the right place at the right time, he also chose a spouse who was able to support him and all of the details of his life - everything from remembering to send his mom flowers on her birthday to making sure he had clean underwear - who ultimately helped him be successful. I think it is more challenging for both men and women who lack a spouse who is pretty much solely dedicated to their husband or wife’s professional success and keeping the home fires burning. So, when Jack Welch talks about choices, I certainly hope he acknowledges some of the non-business choices he made that allowed his business success.

I also suspect that things were quite different for Suzy’s rise to the top. She certainly made many hard choices as well – both professionally and personally. However, I doubt she allowed anyone to dictate the terms of her success either.

I think both Jack Welch and his detractors are right - no matter what words you use, hard choices are involved in achieving both professional and personal success.  One of the choices, though, includes whether to allow Jack Welch’s view on what it takes to succeed to be your own.  

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