WR 27 | Working Dads

Today’s work environment is rampant with resignations, burnout, and demands for greater inclusivity from historically marginalized workers. With everything going on, it might seem counterintuitive to talk about what’s happening with working dads – male executives with family obligations. But we should not disregard the fact that working men are still part of this whole ecosystem we live to uphold. In this episode, lisa interviews Mark Mccartney about why we must include working men in conversations about workplace equity. Listen in as they explore how gendered roles at home and the workplace don’t do anyone any favours.

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Working Dads with Mark Mccartney

Mark, it’s great to have you as a guest. You and I have had a couple of conversations about work, the meaning of work and the kind of work that you do. Tell me a little bit about how you got interested in working dads, given who you are and your professional background?

It’s great to be on the show. Thank you for having me. First of all, I am a dad, so I feel daily the struggle between balancing work and home-life. The expectations have changed so much in both areas, the performance of work and at home as a working parent. I got interested in this when I was working with leaders one-to-one coaching. They would begin to talk about their identity, not only at work but also outside work. I’m sure we will explore this a bit more. There’s growing resistance to thinking about our career in terms of, “Does that mean sacrificing a life outside work?”

We probably both need that in the next generation of leaders, who I hope and I can certainly feel, have a different set of values and are not prepared to pay the same price. I suppose, we have a very clear identity of what a working mom is but we are in the foothills of what it means to be a working dad and what kind of expectations are working outside work we have as a society.

You are making me think about my upbringing, my father who was born in the ‘30s, started his working life in the ‘50s and very much identified with the breadwinner identity. For him and other men that I have known, and not only older men, but… when either they lose their work or they retire, this sense of identity because it hasn’t been developed in terms of things outside of work, is a bit of a struggle.

People need both sides of life in order to do well at work.

That’s important with what we are going through at the moment, this fluidity of identities. My wife is the main earner, the economic provider. I say to my kids, “I didn’t see my dad very much when I was young.” They find that very surprising. I’m very optimistic because of the fluidity that we are experiencing at the moment.

Starting this conversation, I’m reflecting on this going back quite a few years. It was my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary and we were all going around the table. My two brothers and I talked about things we remembered from our childhood. A couple of times, there were things we remembered that my father wasn’t even aware of. When it came to him, he said, “If I were to have regret when I think about my life, it’s that I wasn’t there for many of the things that were important to each of you.” That underscores why this important focus is on fathers who also earn a living. We were talking about working dads. As you are talking with men, what are the key concerns or complaints that you hear from men in terms of their role as fathers and being employed?

The main concern and one that’s become even more of a concern during the crisis or the pandemic is those men are overworking in fairly toxic environments, where they are constantly managing themselves instead of keeping home life as far away from work as possible. This is a real challenge because it doesn’t resolve better performance at work.

We need both sides of life to do well at work. That’s what’s causing the real pain and probably because people are feeling understandably insecure that this can be even more triggering like, “I’m worried about my job. I need to be present, be on all the Zoom calls and work late at night. Sadly, even though I’m working from home, the office door might be closed quite a lot of the day.”

WR 27 | Working Dads

Working Dads: There’s a growing resistance to thinking about a career in terms of sacrificing a life outside work.

I have done lots of webinars on this topic. I’m still struck by the number of working moms who say, “I leave my partner or husband to work and I take care of everything else.” It’s quite shocking how the systems are quite robust, even though they are beginning to crack that those roles are still quite embedded.

These ideas and biases that we have about women and men when it comes to roles, we see it in the discrepancy of pay and at the beginning of the lockdown with many women taking on, in addition to working from home, homeschooling. There are lots of challenges here. You can talk about this either personally or with some of the people you speak with but what is the impact if you are talking about overworking, toxic environments, does this have on health, mental health and outside of that?

We see this massive move towards people leaving their jobs and asking themselves, “Is it worth working all these hours if it means I can’t have a life outside work,” and organizations that have a purpose and a meaning beyond quarterly profits. I can think of one particular person I’m coaching who has left a large global law firm but he was working all the time. He had a great salary but he’s got three kids. He never sees them. He told me that he needs to make a change and then he has made a change. It transforms dissatisfaction at work and satisfaction outside work as well. This is the trend. It’s a questioning of this kind of conventional work culture.

Would you say that this is driven in part generationally?

Is it worth working all the hours if it means you can’t have a life outside work?

There’s a huge generational difference. I need to say when I’m coaching people in their 30s, those that will be taking over, there’s a recognition in work and life feeding each other. They’re not always in conflict, particularly because the workplace has changed so much. We are moving much more frequently between different organizations.

There’s a lot more fluidity. That’s another dynamic I’m noticing amongst those that are becoming dads. I don’t know why exactly but I’m coaching quite a few dads that have just become dads. That time they take out to think about, “What kind of career do I want? What am I prepared to sacrifice for that career,” has changed.

We have all been in a culture in which being devoted to your job is seen as a very legitimate way to live your life. The comment I often hear when I ask people how they are, they say that they are busy. This can excuse anything, “I’m sorry I can’t because I’m busy.” We have allowed work to become a reason why we can’t do other things in life. When you talk about this shifting, that’s an important shift.

You said something about men managing themselves. What I’m struck by was when we talk about burnout, taking on too many responsibilities, working in the evening or long hours, fear of losing our jobs. Often, it’s put on individuals like, “You can’t handle your stress because you’re not taking enough time for yourself. You should be focusing on sleeping enough and exercising.” What’s your response when we put this on the workers’, employees’ or working dads’ backs?

It’s a very good point, and we can often feel that it’s us. This is why I’m not a great fan of the word resilience, because it is putting up with things in some ways and coping with it. Organizationally, particularly those cultures that I have already talked about, are overworking cultures. The way to get on in that culture is to work long hours to be seen to be taking more. In those kinds of cultures, it pushes many of us towards burnout and general dissatisfaction with our job. As we know, that’s not a culture that can be described as a high-performance culture.

WR 27 | Working Dads

Working Dads: Men who are working in fairly toxic environments constantly try to manage themselves and keep home life as far away from work as possible.

That is a real problem but there are lots of great organizations out there that are doing a lot to attract whether it’s working parents, anyone with caring responsibilities outside of work, of which there is many. All of us, at some point, probably have that. Those smart organizations are trying to create environments whereby you can work. What do we mean by working? I’m sure you hear this all the time, people who are the busiest we have said but what are they busy doing? Often busy managing themselves or their reputation, on Zoom calls, many of which people describe as pointless, email inboxes, all the kind of stuff that keeps us busy.

I’m recalling a male colleague who said something to me early on in the pandemic. There was some work event that happened or something had to happen at the last minute. My friend said, “I’m sorry. I can’t make it. I have to go home to be with my kids.” His boss, also a man, said, “Can’t your wife take care of that?”

We started this conversation talking about some traditional gender roles, but I’m curious, what would you suggest to a working dad who receives that kind of comment from somebody above them in the organization that expectation is there that their partner at home will be the one that takes care of anything in the domestic sphere?

I could summarize it in two words: get out! If that’s the kind of culture you’re in, that’s the reality for many people and it’s not easy to change careers. This is a conversation I’m often having with working dads, “What kind of working style do I want? What kind of culture do I want to work in?” Many organizations are creating cultures where that conflict is not so apparent and stark.

This is naive but this is an experience that the whole planet has been through. That experience will shift the beliefs and values even amongst those that perhaps would be most resistant. It doesn’t matter whether you are a chief exec, you still would have been at home for some time. You still will see the clash between work and home life because it’s there right in front of you.

At the beginning of the pandemic, because people were on a video call, there was much said about children, pets and strange artwork. There was some interesting aspect of getting to know people outside of work because of what we were seeing in their lives. It also surfaced that we have designed much of our economic systems around the idea, and I’ll go back to the traditional male who goes to work, that the only way that you can do all of this is if you have somebody doing all house management on the side. There’s this mythology that we enter into the workplace in a “pure” way. There’s nothing encumbering us.

Children, pets, aging parents, leaking roofs, complicated family dynamics, the organization, in a way, if I were to take the voice of the organization, it says, “We don’t care about that. We want you to show up and be productive.” Given some of the things we have talked about, what we have seen and The Great Resignation, as we’re calling it here on the other side of the pond, would you say that this is going to shift in any kind of permanent way? Do you think that this is more temporary and, at some point, we’re going to go back or still struggle with a lot of these ideas that are quite biased and deeply entrenched?

I sometimes describe the word productive as an industrial mindset, “How do we increase productivity?” which seems very mechanistic. We moved into, who knows what kind of world, but we can all experience it changing rapidly. I would hope that those human capabilities, empathy, learning, the ability to adapt to situations are going to become so much more important. If someone works in an organization, which is brittle and it’s all about getting people back into the office, monitoring them, it’s masking something deeper, which is what kind of purposes that organization have? How is it creating meaning for the employees?

Some organizations are responding. To pick one out randomly, Deloitte and some of the big consultants, they are having to change because of their talent-intensive industries. They will have to provide different ways of working to get the best people because I don’t think the talented people will want to work in those kinds of organizations. There are many more opportunities out there.

I also would imagine as we know more about climate devastation, here in Canada, between fires and floods, there’s a bit of an apocalyptic sensibility going on. I’d like to end on this question. Much is going on. We have got a new variant that seems to be causing a lot of distress. We don’t know a lot about it. We have climate change, divisive politics all over the world, ongoing issues of racism, sexism and ableism. Why would it be important in all of this mix to also be having conversations about working dads? What does society gain by helping men balance their time and energy across their professional and personal lives?

Resilience is just putting up with things in some ways and coping with them. It pushes many people towards burnout and general dissatisfaction with their job.

Looking at this tiny segment of working dads, typically more senior roles, exposes a lot more about the whole system within which we are living and working. Years ago, The Economist had a feature on this topic and the first article that stayed with me said, “The world is still designed by men for men.” If that’s the case, which to some degree is, what does that mean for diversity and inclusion? Could it be that the number of women getting into very senior levels is in reverse at the moment? It could well be because they can’t spend all of their life working and probably don’t want to.

If you look at different stakeholders in society, if you have working dads, many of whom don’t identify necessarily as working dads because it’s a new idea and identity, but if there’s no change there because many of them are in very senior leadership roles, running organizations, it does filter down and create toxic cultures that are not fit for facing the challenges that we talked about or we are all facing as a planet. It’s a way into a broader systemic challenge.

It’s one other piece of a greater whole. Often, when I have worked with organizations on change projects and people are very well-intentioned, they’re like, “Here’s what we need to do.” They don’t see the systemic nature that if you implement this particular change, it’s going to have downstream effects on something else, which creates another problem. One of the things that I like about the work that you’re doing and this focus is that typically, men in many of the systems, whether it’s in the workplace, particularly in traditional work types of trades or those types of jobs, is it’s the man who needs to be creating the environment that’s welcoming.

Here’s my challenge often when I hear people want to break into more male-dominated professions. It’s great—that may be, whether it’s women, women of colour—or different types of people representing a broader diversity are challenging some of these things. But if the work environment itself in which the strong male figure, that guy who’s got all the decisions made, if that doesn’t also shift, then we are making it a lot harder to bring about the changes that many of us want. I would like you to bottom line it for me: If you could make a bold statement, a prediction or something that you think is important that needs to be said in this conversation, what would you offer to our readers?

WR 27 | Working Dads

Working Dads: As the world changes, human capabilities, empathy, and learning the ability to adapt to situations, are going to become so much more important.

To anyone reading out there who is either a working dad, working mom, wants kids, has kids, knows someone with kids… would be thinking in 2022, “Do I want to remain in this organization with this kind of culture?” Sit down for a few moments and think about, “What is truly important? What does that mean for the kind of work I want to do?”

I’m sure we’ll agree with this that work is important. It provides a huge purpose but there’s a much better type of work out there rather than putting in the hours being productive. If you are in a toxic environment where you have to hide life outside work, it is time to change and change as quickly as you can, because there are lots of opportunities out there and organizations wanting to attract talent.

Also, people like you who are helping men have that conversation with themselves and their families to start making those choices. Let us know how people can find you and hear more about your work.

There was an HBR book out in June 2022, which I’d recommend. It’s called Advice For Working Dads. I wrote a chapter in there. Take a look at that. You can get it through Audible. On LinkedIn as well, it’s @MarkMccartney and email me if that’s easier, Mark@ToFocus.co.uk.

It’s been a pleasure. You have brought my attention to something that was lurking in the corners around the work that we do and wanting more participation in the workplace. I feel in the work that you are doing, and the conversation that we have had, you are shining a light on something that we don’t often see is particularly obvious but it is part of the bigger puzzle. I greatly appreciate you being able to join me. Thank you very much.

Thanks for having me.

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About Mark Mccartney

WR 27 | Working DadsMark is a leadership coach who enables working dads in senior positions to thrive at work and home. He’s a member of Oxford University’s Saїd Business School and the host the The BIG JOB SMALL CHILDREN podcast.