NEW YORK (FORTUNE) -
A revolt of top talent is brewing across corporate America, say dozens of top executives, consultants and researchers, suggesting that it's time to reenergize the stale "work-life" debate -- by starting at the top.
And it's not just women who are complaining; in an exclusive new survey, high-powered men tell Fortune that they want to get a life, too. "Men are willing to talk about these things in ways that were inconceivable less than ten years ago," says Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks.
The survey is clear on another point: The problem won't be solved just by working smarter or tinkering at the margins to add flexibility. Instead, delivering better business performance while improving lives means rethinking the way work gets done and how consuming senior jobs need to be.
It's a lesson corporate America needs to learn before an entire generation of senior talent melts down or decides to stay home. The 60-hour weeks once thought to be the path to glory are now practically considered part-time. Spouses, kids, friends, prayer, sleep -- time for things critical to human flourishing is being squeezed by longer hours at the top.
Says Bill George, a self-described 60-hour man who ran medical-device leader Medtronic for a decade and who now serves on the boards of Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil, and Novartis: "It didn't use to be this intense. It got much worse starting 15 years ago, when we went to this 80-hour week."
Top executives are increasingly strung out, he and others say. Service firms in consulting, law and investment banking have built 80-hour weeks into their businesses. If it keeps up, the toll could make itself felt not only on companies but on the nation, eroding productivity growth in an era when global competition has never been more intense.
Not everyone thinks there is cause for concern -- or room to maneuver. Costco CEO Jim Sinegal runs a fast-paced company with an enviably low turnover rate among senior employees. He says his top managers no longer work seven days a week the way people did when he was young, which is progress enough. Retailing is too competitive to shrink senior time-on-task further, he adds (and wisecracks, "I would love to sell that concept to our competitors").
But while some CEOs assert that every time a top job opens up, a phalanx of "24/7" people is waiting in line to take it, most companies cite a shortage of talented leaders as one of their biggest constraints. Rethinking senior jobs and careers can help solve that, says Jeanie Duck of the Boston Consulting Group, who specializes in organizational change.
"It's a myth that companies are filled with highly capable people who are willing to work 24/7," she says. "It's not true. The companies that crack this will have their pick of talented people."
What will it take to make headway on this agenda? Business leaders need to do four things. First, quit defining the desire for doable jobs as a "women's issue." Men want this too, as the FORTUNE poll shows. Second, start viewing efforts to humanize senior jobs as a competitive advantage and business necessity, not as one-time accommodations for the CEOs' pets. Third, realize that progress is actually possible; there are examples to show that work at the top can be retooled. Finally, make it safe within companies and firms to talk about these things.
"Businesses need to be 24/7," says Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy. "Individuals don't."
Here are three top-level executives who figured it out:
- Peter Chernin didn't set out to pioneer the human-sized job, but he's responsible for an accidental breakthrough at NewsCorp -- one job, two presidents with a commitment to working together and the freedom to take care of family responsibilities.
- At the Los Angeles Times, Dean Baquet divided his managing editor job among three people. Here's how it worked out.
- Ernst & Young senior partner Gregg Slager, with 4- and 6-year-old boys at home, often found himself wondering whether his sacrifices were worth it. So he changed the workweek for his whole team.
To read the full article from FORTUNE, click here.