Dual-Career Couples Demand Flexible Work

New generations of leaders require flexibility and mobility when considering a promotion.
By: | May 2, 2018 • 3 min read
flexible, mobile work opportunity

The American family of today looks much different than it did 20+ years ago.  More than half of families today have two full-time earners, which will become increasingly more common than single-earner households as millennials continue to graduate from college and look for careers (78 percent of millennial families are dual-career couples).

Other than the sad reality that two incomes are needed to scrape by in today’s world, dual-career couples often face additional challenges including paying for child care, work/life balance and promotions. Yes, promotions.

According to Jennifer Petriglieri, assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, high-potential, dual-career earners who are presented with career-enhancing opportunities are faced with a difficult decision and it’s by no fault of their own. Often, these promotion opportunities require a huge commitment from more time in the office or a move across country or to another country altogether.

The employee must speak with his or her partner before accepting, and this is where challenges arise.

“Although most companies deny having traditional career ladders, executives in midsize and large organizations are widely expected to cycle through a variety of divisions and functions enroute to the executive suite,” said Petriglieri. “This talent-development model usually involves multiple relocations. It originated in the early 1980s, before technology had opened the door to efficient, productive virtual work.”

Back in the ’80s, she added, talent wasn’t tied to any single location because spouses didn’t have competing careers, thus freeing up executives to accept a cross-country promotion and meet company demands. In today’s dynamic world where anything can change in the blink of an eye, organizations adhering to a rigid talent-management structure stand to lose key leaders.

Petriglieri has studied more than 200 dual-career couples at the executive level and conducted interviews with HR leaders at 32 large companies. She had heard numerous stories from executives who, after speaking with their spouses, tried to negotiate the terms of a promotion, only to be met with cold judgement and questioned about their loyalty. Some of the executives were even let go. This isn’t a sound recruitment and retention practice—without enabling employees at all levels mobility and flexibility, companies may soon begin to crumble.

“The crux of the problem is that companies tend to have fixed paths to leadership roles, with set tours of duty and long-held ideas about what ambition looks like,” said Petriglieri. “That creates rigid barriers for employees—and recruitment and retention challenges for their employers, many of whom are failing to consider the whole person when mapping out high potentials’ career trajectories.”

To reap the benefits of their investments in human capital, she said, organizations must adopt new strategies for managing and developing talent.

New approaches include focusing on what really matters when promoting or hiring talent, which are skills, networks and knowledge not location. Perhaps even more important, though, is ensuring the company culture embraces the idea of flexibility and mobility.

Petriglieri said that while companies may revise the talent-management strategies, leadership from earlier generations may only pay “lip service” to it and consciously or unconsciously discourage or punish others who partake in flexible, mobile work.

“First, they [companies] must educate senior leaders about contemporary talent and the best ways to attract and nurture it,” said Petriglieri. “The strongest examples I’ve seen set up the reverse mentoring in a bilateral way: The senior executive mentors a millennial on career and organizational matters, and the millennial mentors the executive on a range of current issues—sometimes technology and social media, but more often what motivates millennials and what their lives are like.”

If a company can successfully incorporate and embrace this new talent-management model of flexible, mobile work it will set itself up to attract and retain tomorrow’s leaders.

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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