Monday, July 31, 2017

Leaving Your Family at Disneyland

I think I've mentioned Corner Office before -- an on-going series of interviews with CEOs of different companies and organizations that appears in The New York Times. I'm not a subscriber, but for some reason the RSS feed to the series just keeps working, plopping a new interview in my inbox every Monday morning.

I like them. They tend to reinforce things I already know about leadership, and sometimes they contain real nuggets of new-found wisdom. But every once in a while, I read something that makes my jaw drop practically to the floor.

So what are your best [interview] questions?

To understand their work ethic, I do ask this question: Would you be willing to leave your family at Disneyland to do something that was really important for the company?

Some people have said no, and I haven’t hired them.

This from an interview with Don Mal, the chief executive of Vena Solutions, a software firm, and my first reaction was one of horror. You refused to hire someone because they told you in an interview that they wouldn't leave their family at Disneyland to do something important for the company?

But then I read on...

It’s interesting because I did leave my wife and kids at Disneyland once. It was to close the biggest deal of our company’s history. I left for two days. It wasn’t like I was leaving them there for the whole vacation.

To me, it’s not so much a loyalty question. It’s more of just trying to understand their work ethic.

But I can imagine someone saying: “That’s outrageous. Vacations should be vacations.”

To which I would say: “Well, here’s the deal. I did it. I felt it was important, and I’ll tell you why. It advanced my career. It helped the company, and my wife was actually O.K. with it because I got a pretty big check to pay for our entire vacation because we closed the deal.”

And as I read on I realized, much to my own chagrin, that I had once done exactly the same kind of thing -- leaving a family vacation (not at Disneyland, but in Gatlinburg, Tennessee) for a few days to see to a work commitment in another city. And, unlike Don Mal, my reason for leaving was much less critical than the biggest deal in my company's history.

How do I explain such cognitive dissonance? Horrified at the prospect of actions I myself had taken?

I remember my wife driving me through the Tennessee countryside to the Knoxville airport, the kids back at the rental house with their aunts, uncles and cousins. Neither one of us were exactly happy about the circumstances, but neither of us were angry about it either. This, after all, is what I did for a living. Getting on airplanes and working for a few days in another city is what the job frequently required of me, and we both had come to understand and expect it. It was a little unusual to be leaving in the middle of a family vacation, but we had even rolled with that punch, simply packing a separate suitcase with business clothes and a second set of toiletries for the side trip.

Is it because I expect more of myself than I expect of the people who work for me? Or, if not more, than at least something different?

I'm the CEO. That's a different position with a different set of responsibilities. If I look at the state of play around something, and I decide that my presence is required, then I'd better figure out a way to get myself there, even if there is a long-planned family vacation that overlaps the same set of dates. That's the weird set of privileges/responsibilities that come with being the CEO. You can decide which meetings you do and do not attend -- no one is going to tell you otherwise, or compel you to attend something against your will -- but failing to show up at certain meetings can jeopardize the strategic objectives of your organization.

Does this same dynamic not apply to other positions in my organization? Not with regard to the same set of stakes, but within the context of each person's responsibility there are undoubtedly places they need to be and meetings they need to attend to see their responsibilities to their successful fulfillment. Should they not be just as committed to those objectives as I am to those of my organization? If there is a conflict between a family vacation and one of those responsibilities, is not the right answer the difficult reality of laving your family behind at Disneyland?

Yes. I think it is.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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