The price you pay

One afternoon in the early '90s, I got a call from a producer at 60 Minutes. She wanted to schedule a date to talk about allegations of safety defects in Nissan products. I was the head of communications for Nissan USA at the time, and needless to say, we took this very seriously.

One afternoon in the early '90s, I got a call from a producer at 60 Minutes. She wanted to schedule a date to talk about allegations of safety defects in Nissan products. I was the head of communications for Nissan USA at the time, and needless to say, we took this very seriously. 

By 4pm I was in a conference room filled with lawyers, engineers, product managers, and dealer relations executives. We quickly decided we needed to hire some crisis experts, and by 6pm, I was booking a flight to New York for the next morning.

I then realized I had better call my wife. It was our third wedding anniversary that night. We had hired a babysitter and spent a small fortune on James Taylor concert tickets. It was going to be our first romantic evening out together since the birth of our son a few months earlier.

“Do you want us to leave the room?” one of my colleagues asked as I dialed home. “No,” I said, caught in the adrenaline of the crisis. “She'll understand.”

I told my wife that we were in the midst of a major crisis and that I not only had to miss the concert, but that I would be flying to New York in the morning.

At first there was simply silence on the line, and then she started crying. I politely excused myself and left the room to call back in privacy.

Over the years I have left vacations early, missed Little League games, turned up late to funerals, and forgotten birthdays because of one crisis or another. It comes with the territory, but not without a price.

A good friend of mine has been the CCO for a large global company for many years. He has two paintings in his office that his 6-year-old son drew, entitled Dad on Vacation.

The first shows his father feeding paper into a fax machine at a hotel in Jamaica, and the second shows him on the beach with a giant cellphone and a speech bubble coming out of his mouth that says “hello, boss.”

There is a cruel irony that the biggest jobs of our careers often coincide with the most-challenging stages of marriage and child rearing. So just as you step into a major leadership role at work, your kids are growing more demanding and your spouse needs you more than ever.

I liken this period in executive life to the stage of the Tour de France when the cyclists have to bike up the Pyrenees mountains. This climb is so steep that the French refer to it as hors catégorie: beyond categorization.

I now wonder how I ever did it. And as I watch my younger peers and colleagues grapple with this mountain stage of their careers, I wonder how they do it.

I wonder how they carry the demands of a CEO, shareholders, subordinates, staff, and endless travel, while simultaneously striving to be a good spouse, partner, parent, and friend.

And they also need to try to eat right, work out when they can, and navigate the brutal politics of the executive suite.

I have come to realize that the question is not actually how do they do it, but more realistically, what is the cost?

In the end, that's the question we all struggle with. What are the trade-offs? Do we make less money and have more time? Do we curb professional ambition and focus more on friends and family? Do we sleep more and exercise less? Do we decrease travel and risk a promotion?

I don't pretend to know the answers, but I do know that they are different for every individual. And I now understand how important it is to at least ask the questions.

Don Spetner has served as CCO for Nissan North America, Sun America, and Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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