The one thing President Obama got wrong in his remarks at the close of yesterday’s buzz-filled White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility was when he started by saying that he would not be as good as his wife, who’d spoken earlier to open the half-day meeting. Perhaps he was just being kind, or coy. From where I sat as a participant, I’d say that they were equally inspired and inspiring. Both spoke with the kind of clarity and grasp that comes from personal reflection on real struggle. Both know well, from experience, what it means to try to make it all fit somehow — work, home, community, and your private self.
More than any particular policy initiative or new program announcement, yesterday’s session at the White House was a symbolic moment that signified, at last, a new era in which we are really talking and thinking differently about work and its relationship with the rest of our lives. The First Couple, relaxed and confident in their choices, spoke candidly about the difficulties they have faced in cultivating a successful marriage and family while pursuing careers about which they feel passionate.
As I looked around the room filled with 100 or so business leaders, government officials, policy advocates, union representatives, and researchers — and then again in one of the five small group sessions at which we shared best practices — I couldn’t help but notice that there were almost as many men present as women. When I first began addressing the matter of work and family in my Wharton School classroom in 1987, and soon thereafter organized roundtables and research on this issue, it was unusual for there to be more than one or two other guys in the room. More than one senior colleague told me to not waste my time on what they saw as a women’s issue that wasn’t of great import to business.
Yesterday, the President forcefully proclaimed how evidence shows that workplace flexibility is not just a special perk for women, but that it’s a critical part of a workplace that can help all of us: that increased flexibility doesn’t hurt your bottom line, it increases it; that work is what you do, not who you are; and that fathers need and want to be as much a part of their children’s lives as do mothers. Our chief executive was declaring to the business community that raising the next generation is the most important job we have, and that we’re going to make it easier for people to do it.
Our small group discussion focused on the importance of customizing solutions to fit local needs — that one size surely cannot fit all. Representatives of companies as diverse as J&J, Timberland, Dow Corning, PNC Bank, and Jet Blue shared stories of how they’re figuring it out. Instructive as these and other examples were, the hopeful idea that stayed with me as I left the meeting, and walked through the White House grounds admiring the cherry blossoms blooming on the warm sunny day that was the last of a rainy March (thank goodness!), was this: that we have arrived at a new juncture in the American story. Leadership in business isn’t just about business. It’s about life.