The Art of Taking Turns

Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr offers a dual career strategy for the power couple.

At a time when the world needs strong leadership, it’s all hands on deck. Yet data shows that women continue to be an underleveraged resource. In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, will explore the intersection of career, relationships, and gender and the impact on families, organizations, and society.

On long car rides my kids sometimes start belting out songs in a way only a parent can find both idyllic and a little exhausting. And as they hit their groove, I’ve noticed they get into a pattern of taking turns. One will set the baseline and hold down a steady rhythm while the other will flutter around, experimenting with different notes and sounds. Then they’ll transition and the experimenter starts providing a predictable safety net for the other to build upon. It’s a nice collaboration, at least until breaks down into cacophony.

What does this have to do with career development? Think about the advantages this type of collaboration and turn-taking can offer when it comes to a two-career couple. One person works while the other pursues a graduate degree; one person takes a full-time job with benefits while the other person starts a business; one person focuses on independent, flexible consulting work while the other person gets the first year in an ambitious new role under his or her belt.

Since the 1960s the percentage of couples where both partners work has increased from 47% to 66%. Couples with children under 18 years old saw an even steeper rise, from 25% to 60%. Economists and researchers have argued that this dual-income trend has been necessary for families to maintain their living standards and counteract inflation. Whether it’s a matter of survival or choice, it’s clear that turn-taking can certainly help with intense work demands and the learning curve of new, challenging positions.

And you don’t have to look very far to find some high-profile examples. U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said she and her late husband, Marty, set out as intellectual equals. The year they were married, Marty, an ROTC officer in the Army Reserve, was called up for active duty, and Ruth relocated with him. When it was time for graduate studies, the couple made a joint decision not to pursue business or medicine because those schools were not admitting women. Instead, they chose to pursue law together and were admitted to Harvard Law School.

After graduating, Marty joined a law firm in New York while Ruth was turned down by 14 law firms and became a law professor. When Ruth was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., Marty left his successful practice and tenured position at Columbia Law School and transferred to Georgetown. For some, this turn-taking may seem like a sacrifice. Ruth and Marty have said it was mutual. Marty insisted, “It’s not a sacrifice; it’s family.”

But that’s how it worked for them. Looking at other examples and research, a host of potential perks for couples emerge: 

  • Risk mitigation. Career growth (like any growth) requires some risk. Dual-career couples have built-in risk mitigation—one spouse can hold a steady job while the other spouse seizes an opportunity with a start-up or a role that may be a stretch. 
  • Funding for further education. Having two careers allows one partner to pause and hit the books. Advanced degrees propel career growth and open up job prospects.
  • Decreased stress on a single provider. Let’s be honest, it’s a lot to ask of one person to shoulder the burden of financial stability for an entire family. For dual-career couples, that burden is distributed.
  • The option of leaving a dysfunctional or toxic work environment. When both partners have careers, it offers more choices if a job situation becomes untenable. Having the option of walking away can increase a person’s willingness to confront the situation and not compromise their values.
  • Social and intellectual exchange. When both partners pursue career interests, professional networks expand and ideas flow. Even in cases where fields of expertise or industries are different, there can be surprising breakthroughs in intellectual dialogue between partners.

Like an improvisational duet, two people can set each other up for greater achievements by alternating between holding up the melody and harmonizing over the top. One providing some stability, the other taking some risks. Both feeling supported and neither carrying the load on their own. All the while, building their careers together.