Another CEO Chooses Fatherhood: PIMCO’s Mohamed El-Erian

When PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian was confronted by his daughter with a list of milestones and important family events he missed, he reconsidered his life and career goals and decided to step down. Here’s his story, and why it represents another indicator that work-family balance is a dads’ issue, too.

Former PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian prioritized family over career
Former PIMCO CEO Mohamed El-Erian prioritized family over career (creative commons: Flickr)

Hopefully, as companies give more attention to the importance of work-life balance, more and more people will be in a better position to decide and act more holistically on what’s important to them -Mohamed El-Erian

About a month ago, Max Schireson stepped down as CEO of booming internet database company MongoDB. CEOs step aside for a variety of reasons, but Schireson’s was noteworthy- he publicly declared his decision as one he made so he could be a more involved father, and he also used this opportunity to speak to the larger issue of the work-family challenges faced by dads. I reported on this story when it broke and also interviewed him for the Wall Street Journal about his reflections on the decision a few weeks afterwards.

One consistent theme in the feedback I received from these pieces was that many fathers make similar decisions but we don’t hear much about their choices. While it is true that there is a weird “wall of silence” around fathers’ issues, I thought Schireson’s decision and the resultant media attention was very helpful to the cause.

Well, it turns out even among CEOs, Schireson isn’t alone. On Wednesday, Mohamed El-Erian, the former CEO of the PIMCO investment fund* (and #63 most powerful person in global finance) revealed that he stepped down because he realized his work-family balance was all work and no family and he wanted to correct it.

In his own words (from his essay in Worth Magazine)

About a year ago, I asked my daughter several times to do something – brush her teeth, I think it was—with no success. I reminded her that it was not so long ago that she would have immediately responded, and I wouldn’t have had to ask her multiple times; she would have known from my tone of voice that I was serious.

She asked me to wait a minute, went to her room and came back with a piece of paper. It was a list that she had compiled of her important events and activities that I had missed due to work commitments.

Talk about a wake-up call. The list contained 22 items, from her first day at school and first soccer match of the season to a parent-teacher meeting and a Halloween parade. And the school year wasn’t yet over.

I felt awful and got defensive: I had a good excuse for each missed event! Travel, important meetings, an urgent phone call, sudden to-dos… But it dawned on me that I was missing an infinitely more important point. As much as I could rationalize it—as I had rationalized it—my work-life balance had gotten way out of whack, and the imbalance was hurting my very special relationship with my daughter. I was not making nearly enough time for her.

Of course, I was experiencing what many, if not the majority of working parents experience: Work-life imbalance is prevalent in America and is one of our greatest challenges. It is particularly tough on the more vulnerable members of our population, including single parents and lower-income families. And, inevitably, children.

Work-life balance was an initiative that we had been devoting more time to at PIMCO. But that knowledge did little to dampen this very personal wake-up call. And it is one of the main reasons why I decided to make a major professional change.

Earlier this year I left behind the privilege and intellectual stimulation of working with extremely talented colleagues and friends at PIMCO and instead opted for a portfolio of part-time jobs that requires a lot less travel and offers a ton more flexibility—enough, I hope, to allow me to experience with my daughter more of those big and little moments that make up each day.

So far, it’s been the right decision for me.

I now alternate with my wife in waking up our daughter every morning, preparing her breakfast and driving her to school. I’m also around much more often to pick her up after school and take her to activities. She and I are doing a lot of wonderful talking and sharing. We’ve even planned a holiday together, just the two of us.

While CEOs stepping down for family reasons represents progress of a sort, it would be better if dads could stay on their career path (or a reasonably facsimile of that career) and also have time for full family involvement. However, this would require more reasonable work demands, more supportive workplaces, and foresight on the part of dads in establishing and maintaining a balance of priorities. In fact, El-Erian admits that a middle path may have been a better solution than choosing all-in for work vs. all-in for family:

I would’ve done a lot of things differently. Was there a way of not going 100 miles an hour and maybe going 50 miles an hour? To be perfectly honest, I didn’t explore that option. I never explored it. (Reuters/NY Post)

Perhaps if he had, he could have led by example and advocated for change from his powerful position- much like Mark Weinberger, the CEO of EY, is doing.

Finally, much like Schireson, El-Erian recognizes that while his decision may cost him millions in future earnings, his financial situation made his decision far easier than the choices that confront most working parents.

I’m the first to recognize that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to structure my life in this way. And I’m so grateful that this is providing me greater opportunity to experience key moments in my daughter’s life before they’re all too quickly gone. Unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury.

But, hopefully, as companies give more attention to the importance of work-life balance, more and more people will be in a better position to decide and act more holistically on what’s important to them.

That is the goal. Thank you, Mohamed, for joining the cause.

What do you think about El-Erian’s decision? Any experiences to share? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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* full discosure, I have some investments with PIMCO, but have no inside information or relationship with anyone working there.

Thanks to Jonathan Ervine of Dad’s the Way I Like It for the tip.

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