With This Ring…I Move to the Corner Office

How critical is your relationship to your career? The first of a new column series from Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr.

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.

It’s a common question from virtually any job candidate: What are the company’s prospects for career advancement? Similarly, employees will often ask managers how they can best develop their skills and reach their potential. And every time, I’m tempted to respond with one answer: It depends on who your partner is.

Of course, no one is going to say that. But in autobiography after autobiography of leading executives, especially by women, you become aware of how important the decision really has become (or always was). In her own book, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In and Option B, says whether or not you have a life partner and who that partner is are “the most important career” decisions in a career path. “If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life,” she writes, “you’re going to go further.”

Beyond sharing the ups and downs and endless responsibilities of personal life, how does your choice of a partner influence your career trajectory? A recent survey comparing gender attitudes asked young people whether they agreed that having a male breadwinner and a female homemaker was the ideal household arrangement. The majority of respondents disagreed. However, many more women (72%) disagreed than men (55%). Twenty years earlier, in 1994, the gap was less pronounced. On the same survey question, 85% of women disagreed and 83% of men disagreed. Are young people reverting to more traditional beliefs? And what does this mean for your career?

Beliefs shape behavior in subtle or overt ways. Just because a man believes it’s best to have a male breadwinner and female homemaker does not necessarily mean that he will insist that his wife not work. However, the belief may lead to different expectations about who stays home with a sick child or whether or not he will consider relocating for his spouse’s job if it means disrupting his own. Getting clarity and alignment on core beliefs before life presents difficult career trade-offs is key to choosing a partner who will support your career advancement.

After my wedding ceremony 17 years ago, my aunt came up to me and asked, “What does egalitarian mean?” My husband and I had written our own vows in which we promised to be partners, committed to an egalitarian relationship. That may not sound romantic, and I don’t think I realized how the word “egalitarian” might stand out to our guests, but if I could propose a general revision to standard vows, they might sound something like this: “In sickness and in health/For richer or for poorer/Through promotions and sabbaticals…”

Of course, finding a partner whose beliefs on gender roles align with yours is no guarantee that you will both have successful, rewarding careers. And disagreeing with your spouse or realizing that values have changed doesn’t mean that you will end up divorced or without a way to make a meaningful contribution with your skills and talents. But being open about these core beliefs and finding a way to honor each other is a significant step toward supporting each other’s career ambitions.

Before we were married, my husband and I were clear that we were best friends, equal partners, and each other’s biggest fans. We were aligned on our core beliefs about gender equity. Looking back, if you asked me to point to one thing that helped me most in my career it would be him. And if you asked him the same question about his career, I think he would point right back at me.