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Seeking Flexibility in the C-Suite

A new survey finds executives placing more value on work/life balance when making career decisions. While addressing the work/life issue can be difficult, HR must be careful to present a culture that's as competitive and challenging as it is progressive and accommodating.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
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It turns out that executives crave flexibility and work/life balance too.

Take Max Schireson, for example. The soon-to-be former CEO of Palo Alto, Calif.-based MongoDB made recent headlines after announcing on his blog that he would be stepping down from the top post at the billion-dollar software firm in September, to spend more time with his wife and three kids, ages 14, 12 and nine.

In his blog, Schireson wondered what sort of repercussions the decision may have on his career.

"I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role," he wrote. "Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. … Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have [a] meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so."

We may not start to see more executives walking away from the C-suite altogether, but a new survey suggests leaders like Schireson are certainly putting more emphasis on flexibility and work/life balance when considering career moves.   

The Association of Executive Search Consultants' 2014 BlueSteps Work-Life Balance Report finds 81 percent of 571 senior-level execs saying work/life balance is a critical factor in their decision to accept a new position, with executives placing the highest value on flexible work schedules and telecommuting in terms of non-financial employer benefits. 

Forty-nine percent of respondents replied "maybe" when asked if they would refuse a promotion or new job offer if it negatively affected their preferred work/life balance ratio, with another 31 percent answering "yes" to the same question.

The survey also found a fair number of executives putting work/life balance ratio on par with compensation.

While 63 percent said they wouldn't consider working fewer hours if it meant a proportionate decrease in earnings, 57 percent indicated their work/life balance ratio was as important as their potential earnings, with 28 percent saying it was more important.

Michael Marzano, an Atlanta-based principal in EY's human capital practice, finds these figures "entirely inconsistent" with his experience working with large firms and their senior leaders.

While many executives seek a satisfactory work/life balance, "I've rarely seen them saying it's most critical" in terms of whether they accept new positions, he says.

"If I'm a candidate for a senior position, I'm much more concerned about the organization's commitment to and budgeting for my [potential] function, the initiatives that need to happen and so on," continues Marzano.

"Then I'm going to turn the conversation to work style more than work/life. What's the work style of the executive team? Do we meet weekly to discuss the status of projects? Is there an assumption that we're all here for certain hours? Those are the things I'm going to look to get granular on pretty quickly."

That said, organizations and HR leaders should be prepared to make flexible work arrangements part of the conversation, says Peter Felix, president of the New York-based AESC.

"With the development of mobile technology and the ability to be contactable away from the office, there is a natural tendency for executives to see how this may work to their advantage," says Felix.

From an organizational standpoint, "some corporations have concluded that -- for the right candidate -- [an executive] position can even be location neutral, since it involves traveling to multiple locations," he adds. "Thus, on both sides we are seeing a gradual transformation in attitude and needs. … This will continue, and as the war for talent heats up in the current economic upturn, sought-after executives will become more demanding on this issue."

Indeed, more executives are beginning to seek the same flexibility that other employees within the organization are afforded -- largely by technology, says Jay Meschke, president of Leawood, Kan.-based CBIZ Human Capital Services.

"It comes down to connectivity," says Meschke. "If you're going to enable C-suite executives to have flexibility [in when and where they work], they need to have satellite hook-ups, the latest smartphones, tablets, etc., on a moment-to-moment basis, so they don't have barriers in terms of time and place."

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For example, he says, "an executive may choose to work until 4 p.m. on a given day, and then go and coach his or her child's soccer or Little League game. But they're connected again at night."

While having this type of freedom is perhaps no less important to a senior-level leader than the average employee, addressing the work/life balance issue in the hiring process can be tricky for employer and executive alike. A candidate for a senior-level leadership position may not want to give the impression that he or she is averse to working the long and sometimes odd hours that come with the territory. The organization, meanwhile, must be careful to convey a culture that's as competitive and challenging as it is progressive and accommodating.

Employers and HR should be able to get that point across -- and find out how much an executive candidate values work/life balance -- in the course of routine interview conversation, says Meschke.

"When you're looking to hire someone at the executive level, the interview process gets down into some pretty granular things," he says. "You get to know the individual, you learn about his or her family. That kind of thing just kind of comes out in the exploratory side of the interview process."

Rarely, however, will a senior-level candidate "come in and specifically ask about work/life balance," says Meschke. "But, during the interview process, you may learn something about them and their family life that makes you think, 'We have to understand this is a part of this person's life, and factor that into the equation.' "

These types of outside interests and duties, he says, can range anywhere from caregiving responsibilities for an elderly parent to training for a triathlon.

Ultimately, however, most high performers -- certainly those coming into executive-level roles -- should already have a good feel for how to balance personal demands with the rigors of a top-level position, adds Meschke.

"They can have that flexibility and still understand and know how to work smart," he says. "You just have to make sure the tools are there to allow them to do that."

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