Career & Success

How Power Couples Balance Work, Life & Family

Four dual-career couples share their secrets for reducing the chaos in their demanding lives.

June 08, 2015

| by Theresa Johnston


Man and woman holding hands and walking

Sometimes, just finding the time to take a walk together can be challenging for couples managing dual careers and families. | Reuters/Gary Hershorn

The term “power couple” usually evokes images of wealth, charisma, and red-carpet glamour. But for many prominent couples, life in the dual-career lane can be anything but a smooth ride.

Consider Eva Sage-Gavin and Dennis Gavin. Over the course of their 25-year marriage — while she worked in high-level executive positions at Gap Inc., Sun Microsystems, and Disney, and he served as the executive director of several California law firms — the couple relocated 11 times. One unexpected transfer came just six weeks after their daughter was born. “We’ve moved up and down the coast between Southern California and Northern California four times for her career, and I’ve left four jobs,” Gavin told students attending a “Power Couples” workshop at Stanford Graduate School of Business on May 20. Fortunately, he says, “Each move paid off better than our original assumptions said that it would.”

Sponsored by Stanford GSB’s Women in Management group, the program featured eight speakers — four dual-career couples — including five Stanford GSB alumni. Several described the challenges of maintaining a loving relationship and chaos-free household when both partners work long hours and also may travel frequently. Here are some of their road-tested ideas for making such relationships work:

Define Your Roles

Without a doubt, you’ve got to define what is important to you as a family, and you’ve got to stick to it.
Eva Sage-Gavin

As a management consultant for Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company), Alex Conrad spent a good deal of her career on the road, while her husband, Parker Conrad, co-founded companies in the Bay Area — most recently Zenefits, a free human resources platform. Neither Alex nor Parker had much time to focus on home life. So, they worked out an arrangement early on: She would handle the tasks that could be done remotely, like paying the bills; he would take care of anything that needed to be done in person. “Just being explicit in advance about what your roles are is really helpful,” Alex says. “That way things don’t fall through the cracks.”

Put the Relationship First

Marriages require a lot of care and feeding, says Trae Vassallo, a former Kleiner Perkins partner who now serves as an independent investor, board member, and entrepreneurial advisor. Yet for many dual-career couples, “the relationship unfortunately is the thing that tends to get neglected,” she says. “Even if you have a call pending and a flight tomorrow morning, it’s important be fully present for your spouse.” Her husband, Steve Vassallo, a partner at Foundation Capital, agrees. “It’s like being in an airplane when the oxygen masks come down,” he says. “You’ve got make sure that that the relationship is healthy before you worry about other things.”

Outsource Whatever You Can

The Vassallos experimented with a variety of caretaking arrangements for their three young children before settling on hiring a nanny who also could serve as a domestic executive assistant. “A big turning point, for me, was when I realized that it was as cost-effective to hire a nanny in the Bay Area as it is to have two kids in full-time daycare,” Trae says. Besides helping with the children, their nanny does the grocery shopping, child-chauffeuring, and other routine errands. “By having logistical things taken care of on the home front, I feel like we’re able to spend real quality time with our kids,” she says.

Remember That the Laundry Really Can Wait

Another strategy the Conrads found helpful: Lower your “Martha Stewart” standards and live in a small apartment that doesn’t require a lot of upkeep. If the laundry isn’t folded promptly, it’s no big deal. “We don’t hold each other accountable for having a perfect life,” Alex says. “I don’t expect Parker to make dinner every night, and he doesn’t expect me to, either. It’s a norm that we figure it out on the fly.”

Keep Rituals

While they were dating and attending Stanford GSB, Lindsey Scrase and Theresa Hagel began taking long walks together in the campus foothills. The regular outings gave them the time and space to talk about big agenda issues in their lives — work-life balance, mental and physical health, finances, and relationships with family and friends — before they became problematic. Now married and living in San Francisco, they take walks in the city at least twice a month to check-in with each other on the bigger issues, says Hagel, who worked for the Boston Consulting Group before joining Collective Health, a digital health startup. Scrase, who leads a global online sales team within Google for Work, says the couple makes a point of cooking and eating dinner together frequently. That way, she says, “we force ourselves to decompress.”

Set Your Limits

When Hagel was returning to her job at the Boston Consulting Group after earning her MBA in 2012, she knew that her spouse would be traveling a lot, “so one of my nonnegotiables was that I didn’t want to be on the road all the time,” she recalls. Similarly, Eva Sage-Gavin turned down several lucrative job offers over the years so that her daughter, an only child, could grow up surrounded by uncles, aunts, and cousins in Northern California. “Without a doubt,” she says, “you’ve got to define what is important to you as a family, and you’ve got to stick to it.” Today Sage-Gavin serves as vice chairman of the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future Advisory Board, her husband is retired, and her daughter is a student at Santa Clara University.

Have Realistic Expectations

People often think they know exactly what they want in a future spouse, including good looks, brains, earning power, and the disposition to be a good parent. But Steve Vassallo cautions against over-optimization in that department. “I guarantee there are a bunch of [men] in this room who say, ‘I really want to marry someone who is a brilliant [career person],’ but then when they get married, they also want their spouse to have kids and be a supermom,” he says. It’s critical for dual-career couples to have an open dialogue about their expectations before marriage, he says, “because to switch down the line is pretty painful.”

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