Work/life balance at the top? Get real

Much is written about achieving a work/life balance, particularly in the context of attracting women to the upper echelons of corporate life. In the run up to the FT’s ranking of the top 50 women in world business, I have been asking some of the highest-achieving women in the world whether it is possible to “have it all”.

As an aside, the vast majority of women in the ranking have climbed the corporate ladder while bringing up a family. They may be super-achievers, but not at the expense of their desire to have children.

Sara Mathew, chief executive of Dun & Bradstreet, believes women need to do a better job of mentoring younger women coming up behind them, and that means confronting some bald truths.

She says:

“I’m asked how I balance my life and I go, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It’s a touchy subject so we don’t talk about the really reallys.”

It is not just women who have to make tough choices if they want to succeed, says Nancy McKinstry, chief executive of Dutch publisher Wolters Kluwer:

“I think … to get to the top of any organisation requires a tremendous amount of sacrifice – for men and women.”

Imperial Tobacco’s Alison Cooper argues that having something other than work in your life has benefits.

She tells me:

“I think it is important to try [to switch off] from a personal energy perspective and for what you do in the business. With two daughters you tend to get a bit diverted onto other things anyway.”

For Maggie Wilderotter, chief executive of Frontier Communications, it’s about separating work and non-work.

She explains:

“As a chief executive of a large public company you never really switch off. But I do compartmentalise. I work every day even when I’m on vacation, but if I work two hours, I’ve got 22 hours when I’m not working and if I’m on personal time I’m not worrying about emails. I’m good at being in the moment.”

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The 'Women at the Top' blog is part of a series of online and print publications that focuses on women's achievements in business. With up-to-date news and incisive analysis, the blog will provoke discussion on the role of the world's most prominent businesswomen.

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.