GAME OF LIFE

The CEO of a $1 billion tech company is stepping down for the best possible reason

August 6, 2014
August 6, 2014

The “work-life balance” question is something women in the workplace (even the Fortune 500 CEOs) get asked all the time, but male executives almost never hear it. Certainly Max Schireson, the CEO of database company MongoDB (formerly 10gen) never did. But after asking himself the same question, he decided to step down from his job, for some pretty excellent reasons described in a blog post.

Schireson has three kids, ages 14, 12, and 9. They live in Palo Alto, California, while MongoDB is based in New York, and he wants to spend more time with them. His wife’s an accomplished professional (a doctor and professor at Stanford) and his schedule as a CEO demands a lot from her.

“I am forever in her debt for finding a way to keep the family working despite my crazy travel. I should not continue abusing that patience,” Schireson writes.

Schireson will remain vice chairman of the company, valued at over $1 billion, as Dev Ittycheria takes over. He will work “full time, but ‘normal full time’ and not ‘crazy full time’” in an attempt to find a role that’s engaging and important, but allows him to fulfill the responsibilities he’s decided to take on at home.

His post and decision highlights a culture of overwork and double standards for male and female leaders that aren’t challenged nearly enough.

“As a male CEO, I have been asked what kind of car I drive and what type of music I like, but never how I balance the demands of being both a dad and a CEO,” Schireson writes. Some of the details he reveals about the life of a CEO make it clear that there’s a massive tradeoff expected:

I am on pace to fly 300,000 miles this year, all the normal CEO travel plus commuting between Palo Alto and New York every 2-3 weeks. During that travel, I have missed a lot of family fun, perhaps more importantly, I was not with my kids when our puppy was hit by a car or when my son had (minor and successful, and of course unexpected) emergency surgery.

Some of Schireson’s conflicts are exacerbated by the fact that he lives and works on opposite coasts. But they still reveal a lot about the work culture that exists in many American companies, and the problems it can pose for families. There’s an expectation that people in leadership, or those who want to get there, work constantly and make choices that put work ahead of family. When that’s the default expectation, voicing concern or asking for any kind of exemption from the norm is a potentially disqualifying factor.

In a culture that glorifies overwork and rarely asks business leaders about its consequences, Schireson is an important example of someone making a difficult choice to seek more balance.

“I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role,” he writes. “Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have an meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so.”

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