Last August, Max Schireson, the CEO of MongoDB, announced his resignation in a refreshingly honest blog post explaining that he wanted to spend more time with his family. Despite the fact that Schireson’s decision appears at face value to be the obviously correct choice, his announcement was quickly propagated from tech circles to the mainstream media, and served to rekindle various ongoing debates over work-life balance, gender equity, competitiveness in the global economy, and the role of class privilege in the top echelon of corporate power structures. While it’s a little unfair to Mr. Schireson to overload what is essentially a private decision with a heap of weighty social issues, as a public figure he is surely used to such attention and since these are very important issues, it is still valid to use his example to discuss them in these contexts.
The first question I would like to address is why the announcement raised such a stir. Reactions in the media have been, like all of the comments on his blog, almost universally congratulatory. This is not in itself surprising because it would be politically impossible for anyone–whether a colleague, journalist, financial analyst, or board member–to pose an overtly anti-family stance or suggest that he suck it up, hire a housekeeper and ask his wife to quit her job. What makes Schireson’s blog post newsworthy is that people in his position rarely make the choice he did. Despite our cultural insistence on being family-first, why does this not happen more often? How many executives, bankers, lawyers, and others who are atrociously well compensated and have already surpassed their “number” many times over, choose to stay trapped in the demands of a profession that simply has no room for or cause to care about family?
Our system simply could not exist if this were not true. If men, upon reaching these positions of power, were to repudiate their lot in large numbers, opting for a more meaningful life of self-control rather than subjecting themselves and everyone around them to a system of impersonal money-moving, would not our entire engine of capitalist progress implode onto its own debris? Despite our ostensibly family-friendly culture, the reality is that this is not true–our system demands that men, especially those in power, delegate their family responsibilities. If more men made the decision that Schireson did, it would threaten the establishment by subverting their order of things and their power not only over us but also of others like them. The establishment maintains this order by enforcing covert anti-family expectations that are sexist and debasing to both men and women. Schireson’s decision sends a bad message to both other executives and to workers, and as such the establishment will need to punish him–an inevitability that Schireson himself acknowledges.
Power, privilege, ideology
To a very large extent it is not possible for those in such power positions to so easily cast them aside. Their entire existence depends on remaining firmly in the game. They owe everything they have to the system that enriched them, and if they turn their backs and refuse to play along, they might lose it all. The rich and powerful may not actually believe this to be true, but they certainly need to act like it if they want to keep their friends. To reach this level you may have already decided it is worth the sacrifice. It’s also important to note that reaching this level there is a long process of being vetted. If you don’t accept the fantasy, believing in the totality of the ideology, then you won’t have made it very far to begin with. There is a self-selection process and an external selection process. Men are “groomed” for these positions. Once you learn your lines, it’s easy to continue playing the part. Those who exhibit any doubt are usually culled from the line-up at early stages. Schireson writes:
I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role. Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday?
This concern underlines Schireson’s expectation that the establishment will need to condemn him for sending a bad message, not only to other CEOs but also to workers. On one hand, Schireson’s decision is threatening because if other executives get the same idea, it could destabilize our entire economic system. Whether or not you think this fear is truly warranted–and I for one find it preposterous–the fact remains that it will be peddled as truth among those in power as a way of stigmatizing those who dare to question the established order. So for a man of his stature to come out publicly and argue that the system is simply not working for him and that he has found and chosen a better way, this represents a dangerous act of rebellion which will need to be duly punished.
Along similar lines, Schireson needs to be punished for sending a bad message to workers. If ordinary people begin to realize that not even the bosses are willing to subject themselves to the totality of corporate enslavement, then why should they? If the captains of industry are fleeing the system once they have amassed enough wealth to live comfortably, how will they continue to perpetuate the fiction that a decent honest day’s hard work is a good enough aspiration for all of us ordinary plebes? Again, this is dangerous thinking, and the system cannot allow ordinary people to be inspired by such lines of thought.
There is also an obvious class element to this story. If it weren’t immediately apparent, Schireson is one of a very small elite rich enough to actually be able to quit his job. Thus, it is difficult to feel much empathy for his condition. His compensation, along with his wife’s, most definitely insulates him from any serious financial worry and I’m sure he has a very nice house in Palo Alto. He won’t be destitute anytime soon, and could probably not work another day in his life and still be fine.
How many of us plebes would like to do the same but will never have the financial resources to do so? But it’s precisely because he is capable of doing so – and actually did – that the establishment has to condemn such behavior. The bosses are supposed to set an example that you must be fully committed to the job. That’s how they “earn” their massive pay. If they didn’t do that it would show others what a joke the whole system is and how those in power simply use it to their advantage without believing any of the ideology they insist on cramming down everyone else’s throats.
But he will find another job, that much is certain. Being CEO for 4 years, he has undoubtedly built up a solid network of friends and compatriots and his good name and track record will certainly lead to a heap of job offers from which he can take his pick. This kind of networking that results from the exposure of being CEO is not something that is easily achievable for everyone else. Those nameless employees who actually built the product deserve every bit as much credit as the CEO, but being behind the scenes they have a lot more personal marketing to do in order to communicate this and find the next job.
So while it is not entirely possible for us all to relate to Schireson’s situation, we have all been subjected to these worries about what will happen if we choose family over career. The fact that even a highly successful man is anxious about being trapped by the system, that even with his amount of leverage, he cannot fully control his career on his own terms, is scary. The thought that he may be limiting himself by wanting to reclaim some of his time to devote to his family instead of the corporate machine is genuinely sickening. I am amazed that as the supposedly most advanced civilization the world has ever witnessed, we would think of this outcome as anything other than tragic and disgusting.
The Double Standard
One of the most compelling sentiments in Schireson’s blog post is a recognition of the double standard applied to men vs women:
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.
Friends and colleagues often ask my wife how she balances her job and motherhood. Somehow, the same people don’t ask me.
It’s so great that he’s asking these questions. And more of us should be. The fact that in 2015 it’s actually becoming more difficult for women to advance in their career is truly shameful. As median family incomes have stagnated since 1970, women’s participation in the labor force does not merely reflect increased freedom of choice but rather cold economic necessity. Yet despite this reality, the prevailing undercurrents of sexist reasoning continue to question the value of female employees, as if we are still living in some 1950s Leave it to Beaver suburban utopia in which the male bread-winner could provide a house, car, 2.3 kids, and household pet. It’s time we swept away this degradation of women’s contributions and realize that for our society to progress we need to encourage self-determination for everyone. How can we look to today’s corporate leaders with respect if they continue to hold these ancient prejudices?
This double standard while clearly damaging to women does more harm to us men than we realize. As is clearly evident in Schireson’s heartfelt examination of the difficulties that societal expectations place on his family life, the pressure to be “all-in” as a man, and the concomitant expectation that your wife should handle everything else which includes raising the kids, preparing meals, bathing, cleaning, shopping, household repairs, doctors appointments, school functions, to name a few, is terribly unfair. I can’t speak for the entire male race, but I married to have a life partner, not a personal assistant. Why should our wives automatically be responsible for all these matters? Even if we recognize that it’s unfair to them to expect them to do it all, it’s equally unfair to us as men to live and work in a society that expects us to not need or want to make time for it. If you think you’re so important and your time is so preciously valuable that you don’t even have time to clean your own toilet, challenge that assumption. But beyond that, don’t you want to be involved in the lives of your children in a meaningful way? To get to know them as human beings instead of possessions in your realm? By adhering to these backward ideals that women should take care of the kids and household while the men can devote themselves undisturbed to their jobs, we are sacrificing a seriously large chunk of what it means to be human. Ask yourself if that’s really what you want, how you want to live, and how you want to die.
Why can’t a family man be a CEO?
A decidedly unnerving piece of Schireson’s blog post concerns his admission that placing his family first is incompatible with the requirements of being CEO and that the company’s “needs” can only be met by someone unwilling to make his choice:
The future is bright and MongoDB deserves a leader who can be “all-in” and make the most of the opportunity.
Being a parent in corporate America, and even more so in the tech industry, is like being a pedestrian at a crosswalk. Sure, most drivers will yield to you, and when questioned by the police they will all say that they yield, but they really wish you weren’t there to get in their way, to make them come to a complete stop, to cause them to hesitate for just an instant. If you dare to look at them and follow the contempt in their eyes, glaring behind the 2 tons of metal that could kill you in an instant, it makes you feel like you should be grateful that they’re tolerating you. Parents feel this contemptuous gaze all the time, from colleagues as well as superiors. It tells you “don’t ask for anything more, you’re lucky we hired you, don’t make us suffer because you have kids, you’d better work twice as hard or we’ll shitcan you in a heartbeat.”
The establishment demands complete loyalty and Schireson acknowledges the fact that his departure may well be extremely damaging to his career. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, when asked to advise other fathers on how to negotiate work-life balance, Schireson cautions what will happen if you aren’t perceived as climbing the ladder fast enough:
There will absolutely be a stigma of not being ambitious or dedicated enough to one’s company and career.
Wow, at last we have an acknowledgment from someone who has seen it first hand, that those in power expect you to drop everything in order to emulate them. I think this qualifies as a toxic environment. This highlights the covert underlying sentiment that family is incompatible with career, you will always be questioned, judged, viewed as incapable of going “all-in” to serve the investor class. Just like the aggressive drivers who would rather clip you if you don’t get out of their way fast enough.
This underlying anti-family sentiment is exactly why Schireson’s announcement was so newsworthy. It just doesn’t happen as often as it should. If as a society we all recognize the truth of his position, if everyone publicly celebrates his decision, congratulating him on making the right choice, then why is it so unusual? Why did it receive so much attention in the press? The only explanation is that it actually goes against what is expected, what is demanded, and that exhibiting any desire to put your family first will lead to punishment.
There is no mention of the reasons for Schireson’s departure in the official press release – not even a reassuringly token gesture that the change in leadership, a move that typically elicits panic among flighty investors, is due to “family matters” and thus could not possibly reflect negatively on the company’s near-term revenue potential. The press release instead merely highlights the accomplishments of the incoming CEO, proudly heralding the fact that he is a man who has raised billions of dollars in his professional career. Whether he has raised any human beings is completely immaterial to the conversation. A man’s worth in this sphere must be characterized solely in quantitative terms as measured by investor value.
When my father died, I took on the task of cleaning out his home office. This was ostensibly to relieve my mom of the highly emotional undertaking of dismantling and disassembling the pieces of his life’s work, but I also wanted to do it as a way of getting closer to him, to see him in a different way. I came across a copy of his resume from the late 1970s when he was roughly the same age as I was when I was reading it. It was a remarkable insight into his life that I hadn’t been able to perceive through any other lens. I always saw him and knew who he was before or after work or on weekends, but had little visibility into what he did between 9 and 5 every day. It was also interesting to see how differently resumes were constructed in those “olden” times. It contained a great deal more narrative than I have ever seen in contemporary resumes, multiple pages and full paragraphs detailing his accomplishments, telling the story of his career in an age when people read more deeply than they do today. Now we are so trained to reduce our professional worth to a few key bullet point highlights of our years of work. We don’t expect anyone to actually spend more than 15 seconds reading them. And we certainly don’t expect to give away anything of real substance. In my dad’s resume, you could actually get a clear idea of what he did and who he was.
One of the more interesting aspects is that he included his family in the resume, at the top, along with his name, address, and military service record. He included my mom, my sister, and me, our names and ages. It was shocking, I’d never seen that before! Was that typical “back then”? But it didn’t look out of place in the context of everything else. This was who he was. How was he supposed to hide the fact or act as if it didn’t matter or didn’t impact his life and career? These things are not separable, so why isn’t more attention given to those aspects of our humanity that truly matter? This simple inclusion of his family in his professional resume was so painfully moving, it altered the way I was accustomed to thinking of how to market myself. So now I proudly call attention to my own son in my LinkedIn profile, since after all I view my role as his dad as central to my identity. I have no qualms about announcing to the world that being his dad is “The most rewarding project of my life”. If this public admission costs me an opportunity because someone thinks I won’t be “all-in”, then that to me is not an opportunity at all and I have lost nothing. If I have to get defensive because I’m a father, because I will always put my family above my job, am I threatening to my employer or future employer? I will always put my family first, and anyone I work for needs to accept that unconditionally. Should I omit what to me is the most precious fact of my life and instead focus on how much money I have raised? Fuck that.
Among those old-time mores from the Leave It to Beaver era, why didn’t we inherit this idea that men could have their families as an essential part of their professional identity? Instead we are left to struggle with this sexist attitude that women shouldn’t work and that men should be the primary bread-winners and that anything that threatens to get in the way of career advancement should be hidden, buried, carefully explained away as an inconsequential footnote that wouldn’t dare to prevent us from being totally committed to the job. Does my viewpoint here threaten to cost me millions of dollars someday? Will someone reading my profile see this and “disqualify” me from some future role because I won’t be perceived as able to go “all-in”?
Why can’t a CEO be a family man?
I would like to close with a little thought experiment. What would I have liked to have seen Schireson say in his blog post last August? What if we all placed our real human values first and foremost without fear of reprisal or censure for going against the tacitly assumed dogma that our economic system demands that we play this silly game? Here is the kind of blog post that I would love to see from a powerful CEO. This would be a shining example of the kind of world I want to live and work in:
Hi everyone, this is Fake Max Schireson. As many of you must undoubtedly know, it is extremely difficult for working parents to maintain both a rewarding, fulfilling career and still devote time to the equally important joys, rewards, and responsibilities that come from being a parent and caregiver. As CEO of a wildly successful company built around an excellent and highly useful product, I have encountered many challenges in attempting to strike a work-life balance that meets both the needs of the company and of my family. Personally, I’ve reached a critical turning point and have been tempted to resign, handing over the reigns to someone else who can work with a more fanatical single-minded devotion upon which our investors bluntly insist. But I’ve decided against that route. I love this company, I love our product, our customers, and all of the highly valuable highly talented people who have made MongoDB what it is today. So I have decided that I will continue on as CEO, but as of today I’m announcing some important changes that I am certain will be well received by our employees, customers, and investors alike. With these changes I hope to usher in a new era in which we can sustain our exciting enterprise, continue to grow and support our customers, and set a new standard for how productive tech companies can thrive without sacrificing the health and happiness of our families, friends, and communities.
As of today, we are announcing a new family leave policy to make it easier for our employees to take necessary time off to care for family members when they’re in need. This includes newborn or adopted children as well as elder care. And this fully extends to domestic partnerships. As a society we must recognize that caring for ourselves, raising our children, and caring for our elderly relatives is deeply important. While other states have essential mandates requiring companies to allow time off for these essential matters, and they have a culture which encourages people to take time off work to manage these responsibilities, since we have no such support system in the US, we are going to lead the way by adopting progressive family leave policies that add real substance to the ideals of the American dream.
In addition, we are taking steps to address the rising health care costs for our employees. We have always been proud to offer highly competitive benefits packages, but today we are going one step further. In other advanced societies, health care is treated as an essential human right. Unfortunately, the lack of universal health care coverage in the United States places an extremely unfair burden on all of us. We don’t want our employees to have to worry about receiving the care they need for themselves and their loved ones. We recognize that everyone’s health is different and some people have greater needs than others, but at some point we will all be in need and to be a good corporate citizen it is paramount that we alleviate this burden so that our people can work without worry or fear of losing their health care coverage. Thus we are taking the unprecedented stance of ensuring lifetime health care coverage for all employees past, present, and future. You heard that right. Whether you stay with our company or leave, we guarantee that we will pay 100% of all your and your family’s health care needs for the rest of your life, or until you secure coverage from another forward-thinking company. We hope that these actions will set a new standard and that other companies will follow suit, as they must if they wish to remain competitive in an era where health care must be seen as an essential human right.
I will also take steps to empower our workforce and change the corporate culture to be more embracing of the needs of all our employees. The bottom line is that we want our employees to be as productive as possible. That means freeing them from worry and anxiety, paying them what they need to take care of themselves, their families, and their future. When our workforce is covered in this way, we know they will be more productive than if they feel they have to fend for themselves. When anxiety is relieved, the creativity of our talented workforce will shine through brighter than ever.
Among the many new initiatives we are announcing today, some of the highlights include the following:
- Free on-site day care
- Videoconferencing to reduce unnecessary travel
- Flexible work from home schedules and work hours
- Community outreach
- Mentorship and training programs
- Full tuition coverage for continuing education
- Full tuition coverage for higher education for all our employees’ children
- A real pension plan, just like they used to have in the 1970s
- Hiring policies and recruitment training to find the best people based on merit and talent, rather than homogenization resulting from managerial self-reproduction
Now I’m sure a lot of you may be wondering how we’re going to pay for all this. Quite simply, we can afford it. This company was built by our employees and they should receive the lion’s share of the spoils. If as an investor you start to cry that that this amounts to redistributing your wealth and giving it instead to our employees, you are free to invest in another company. But you won’t want to, because by structuring our firm in this way we will attract the best talent the industry has to offer, and with a happy, healthy, and highly engaged workforce, we are going to run circles around our competition. And soon enough, all our competitors are going to start doing the same thing. Today, nobody cries foul that we don’t have a 6-day workweek and 12-hour shifts like we did in the 1920s. And so in the near future, nobody will bat an eye that the initiatives I’ve outlined above will be par for the course.
And in reply to everyone who wants to know what car I drive? It’s not a Bimmer, it’s not a Tesla, it’s a safe, comfortable, family-friendly Subaru Forester. Oh, I do happen to own a Maclaren, but it’s a one-seater. And my favorite music? I’m currently listening to “Woman” by John Lennon, whatever song this is, and oh yes, Rage Against the Machine.
Finally I would like to thank Scott Czepiel for reading an earlier draft of what would have been a resignation letter and who convinced me that would have been the wrong thing to do.
Now that would truly have been a newsworthy press release. When my son is of working age I can only hope that in his world, there won’t be any need for this to be news, it will be business as usual. Hey, a family guy can dream, can’t he?