Corporate Chutes and Ladders

by Conor Friedersdorf

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Former General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jack Welch has some blunt words for women climbing the corporate ladder: you may have to choose between taking time off to raise children and reaching the corner office.

"There's no such thing as work-life balance," Mr. Welch told the Society for Human Resource Management's annual conference in New Orleans on June 28. "There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences."

Mr. Welch said those who take time off for family could be passed over for promotions if "you're not there in the clutch."

I am unsure whether Mr. Welch is speaking descriptively or prescriptively. Either way, I've got two responses:

1) Imagine that three people, all about 50 years old, are competing to be named CEO of a large company like General Electric -- one that pays a premium to compensate its top executive on the theory that singular talent at the top, drawn by necessity from a small pool of applicants, vastly increases corporate worth. Does it make sense that this decision would rest heavily on whether or not one of the applicants took a year off in her late twenties to care for her child? It makes perfect sense that the woman in question would be passed over for promotions that became available during her absence. Were Mr. Welch justifying a statistic showing that the average female CEO reaches the top at a slightly older age than the average male CEO, I'd buy into his theory.

But if what he's actually saying is that once you step off the corporate ladder it is impossible to get back on at the same rung, or to climb as fast once you do, I'd say that's a flaw in the corporate ladder, not a rational structure for penalizing employees who aren't "there in the clutch." Doesn't Mr. Welch's approach artificially limit the number of qualified applicants considered for top jobs where the applicant pool is already smaller than optimal? Doesn't it prevent some people with singular, extreme talent from ever being considered?

A similar sort of irrational behavior exists in corporate law and business consulting, where the time to join a prestigious firm is during recruiting season for your law school or MBA class. A job candidate who would have garnered offers from several top firms in that process might well find he can't get hired at any of those places if he applies after spending a year doing almost anything else. In my experience, folks who take conventional, highly codified steps toward success irrationally come to ascribe greater worth to those who follow the same path.

2) It is no coincidence that in our current corporate structure, a lot of CEOs and law partners lead miserable lives rife with lost friendships, dysfunctional relationships, divorces, alienated children, ludicrous attempts to use consumption as a stand in for actual happiness, etc. Perhaps if we stopped viewing these jobs as what we're aspiring to reach, and begin seeing them as fool's gold largely sought by folks with too narrow a conception of ambition, men and women who never reach the C suite would better count their blessings.