It’s My Turn
HBR’s fictionalized case studies present dilemmas faced by leaders in real companies and offer solutions from experts. This one is based on the HBS Case Study “Elasto Therm: The Next Step” (case no. 813030-PDF-ENG), by Jim Sharpe and James Weber.
It seemed as if there was never a good time for Susie Gordon and Antonio Barile to talk. The couple—co-owners of a Milan-based manufacturing company, Bottoni, and the parents of two girls, aged two and three—had their hands full.
“My turn! I stir!” screamed Camilla, the younger daughter, after her sister, Lucia, grabbed the wooden spoon she’d been holding. Antonio was helping the girls make pancakes with the mix their grandmother had brought from the United States when she last visited. He took the spoon and returned it to Camilla. Lucia immediately fell onto the floor in tears.
Antonio tried to ignore her. “So you said there was something you wanted to discuss?” he said to Susie, who was pouring a cup of coffee.
“Yes, but maybe we should wait until later, when it’s quiet,” Susie said over Lucia’s wails.
“That could be a month from now,” Antonio said, smiling.
He grabbed a second wooden spoon from a drawer and handed it to Lucia, while Susie divided the batter into two bowls so that each girl could stir.
“So much for teaching them to share,” she said. She paused, then launched into the speech she’d been mulling over for months and had finally perfected in the shower that morning. “I guess I’ll just come right out and say it. I’m ready to go back to work. I’m feeling disconnected from the business, from our employees. I miss being in the thick of it. But it’s not just about me. I really do think the company’s at a stage where it could benefit from having an operations person running it. You’ve done a great job of hiring new managers, keeping our existing customers, and signing up new ones, but now we need to streamline our production and improve quality to meet their expectations. And the girls are at a good stage, too, much more manageable and fun than they were even six months ago. It’s a perfect time for their dad to take over.”
“What are you saying?”
“I want to trade—like we planned,” Susie answered.
“When?” Antonio said, turning his attention to the pans on the stove.
“I was thinking May 1st,” she said.
Antonio spun around. “That’s less than two weeks away!”
“Right, that seems like it would be enough transition time. I’m not a complete stranger to the business. Honestly, Antonio, why do you sound so surprised? This is the deal we made. I’d do some time at home with the kids, and then you would. And it’s been three years.”
“I’m three!” Lucia shouted.
“Sì, tesorina,” Antonio said. Indeed, he and Susie had planned this all out over a long dinner a few months before Lucia was born. They had just left their respective jobs at Siemens and taken ownership of Bottoni, a family-run maker of buttons, snaps, zippers, and other fasteners that supplied Italian clothing companies. They had used their own savings and taken on some bank debt, but no investors, so the company was all theirs.
It was the realization of a dream they’d had ever since their days together at Insead: to find an entrepreneurial opportunity that would let them move back to Italy, closer to Antonio’s family, and live a quieter life. And when they learned Susie was pregnant, they decided it would make perfect sense for Antonio to take the lead at Bottoni while Susie stayed home with their baby. He was a native speaker, understood the Italian work culture better, and had a background in sales. He could build the business, and Susie could lend her engineering expertise when necessary. Then, when Susie was ready—or when the company needed her—she would step in and take over as CEO. Antonio had liked the idea of taking some time off to be a stay-at-home dad. They were all smiles and laughter over dinner that night.
Now, standing in their kitchen, Antonio looked shell-shocked and Susie seemed annoyed. “Is there a problem?” she asked, starting to raise her voice.
“Amore,” Antonio said, “I’m not saying that I won’t do it. I just need to think it through. I know we’ve talked about it off and on, but it didn’t feel real until now. It would be such a big adjustment—for me, you, the girls, the employees—”
Antonio was interrupted by another scream. Camilla had stuck her spoon in Lucia’s bowl, and Lucia had retaliated by smearing batter in Camilla’s hair.
“Lucia Barile!” Susie said. “Time out.”
“Let’s talk about this later?” Antonio said, scooping Camilla off the floor.
“OK,” Susie said, “but soon.”
A half hour later, Antonio had showered and dressed and was driving his Fiat minivan to the Bottoni offices. He was thankful to be out of tantrum range and to have some quiet time to think.
Susie was right. They had an agreement. And he understood why she wanted him to honor it. She was a great manager, a great leader. He had loved watching her at Siemens—four promotions in four years. And there was no question that Bottoni could benefit from having her take a more hands-on role, especially with the customer base it had developed. The business was on stable footing.
But could he really follow through on their deal? Give up his job as CEO to become a stay-at-home dad?
He was already such an involved parent, far more so than his father had been or any of his friends were. He was always home by 5 PM, did all the grocery shopping and cooking, and made a point of never traveling on weekends.
And he was knocking it out of the park at work. He and Dante, the company’s sales manager, had secured several huge accounts in the past year. They were an amazing team, and although Dante genuinely liked and respected Susie, he’d made it clear that he regarded Antonio as his only boss. Antonio knew that most of the staff felt the same way.
Maybe they could split the workweek so they could both be home some days and at the office the others? Or find child care until both girls were in school?
He thought about his father, who had owned a business similar to Bottoni and had warned him many times about making promises to his wife that he couldn’t keep. At the time, Antonio thought his father was being a chauvinist and kept trying to explain that he was a different kind of Barile, one who truly wanted to be home with his kids. But his dad was right. He hadn’t thought through how trading with Susie would actually feel when the time came.
Susie was relieved to have a moment to herself. The girls were playing in the yard, peacefully for the time being. She sat down at the kitchen table and opened her laptop. Alessandra, Bottoni’s head of operations, had sent her some revised process sheets. They’d been talking about revamping the production line for the K1 fasteners. As Susie looked over the details, she couldn’t help feeling that this was what she’d earned an MBA to do. She certainly hadn’t gotten it so that she could mediate between two squabbling children and wash piles of dishes. She felt like a cliché for being disillusioned with the life of a homemaker, but her work was important to her, and she didn’t want to squeeze it into these stolen moments.
Bottoni needed her now, too. Alessandra, her closest confidante at work, told her so frequently. Antonio had expertly transitioned the business from the former owner, bringing in new managers, growing the customer base, increasing prices, and paying down debt. But it was time for the technical and detail-oriented leader to take over. She was ready to up their quality- and-efficiency game. There was no way that Antonio could do that.
And besides, they had made an agreement. They’d shaken on it—as business partners, not spouses. How could Antonio even think of reneging?
Of course, she understood that Lucia and Camilla could be tough. Who wouldn’t find it easier to be at the office, drinking coffee, talking with other adults, being productive, getting positive feedback? But Antonio was a great dad, much more energetic and easygoing than she was. And they’d agreed that the girls could benefit from real day-to-day quality time with both parents before they went off to school to be shaped by teachers and friends.
Lucia came running in, saying that she was hungry. It had been only an hour since breakfast, but Susie gave her an apple and sent her back outside. What was it her mother had said when she’d heard about the deal with Antonio? “Men can’t plan for next week—never mind years from now.” She’d urged Susie to stay at work, act like his equal from day one. Susie wasn’t second-guessing her decision to spend those early years with the girls; the time had been hugely important to her and to them. Yet maybe she was naive to think that it would be easy to step back into the company—and that Antonio wouldn’t have any problem stepping out.
Later that day, Antonio arrived at Varese Park, near the family’s home. He heard his daughters’ cries of “Papa! Papa!” before he saw the girls on the swing set. They both jumped off and ran to give him a hug. He found Susie on a nearby bench and was relieved to see her smiling.
“Now might be a better time to talk,” he said, as the girls ran back to the swings.
“I don’t know what there is to talk about,” Susie said, her smile disappearing. “I’ve been thinking about it all day, and we had an agreement. This trade is something we both wanted.”
“I’ve been thinking about it, too, and I’m not sure anymore. I don’t feel ready.”
“Of course, it seems scary. I get that. But so did moving to Italy, buying Bottoni, having kids. You always need me to nudge you into big decisions. So, here’s your push.”
“We have other options, though,” he said. He’d talked about it with Dante earlier, and they had come up with the idea that he and Susie would share the position, be co-CEOs.
Susie shook her head. “That might look good on paper,” she said, “but it would never work in reality. It would be too confusing. The staff would always be wondering who to go to, or even worse, they would just go to whoever they could get a better answer from. And where would the kids be in that scenario?”
“Lucia will be going to kindergarten soon enough, and for Camilla, what about that day care where Adalina’s kids go?” he suggested cautiously.
“No, no. That’s not fair. You don’t get to outsource parenting when it’s your responsibility,” she said. “We moved here and bought our own business so we could have a slower life, never have to work a 60-hour week again, and take time off to be with our kids without any career repercussions for either of us. You’re going to love being with the girls.”
“You obviously don’t.” Antonio regretted the words as soon as they came out of his mouth.
“Of course I do, but I also love working,” Susie snapped.
“So do I,” Antonio fired back.
They sat there for a moment, both stewing.
“So what do we do?” he said. “It’s clear we can’t both get what we want. Why don’t we ask the staff what they think? Or the girls?”
Susie knew better than to point out how ridiculous those suggestions were. Instead, she took his hand in hers.
“Honey,” she said, “this is up to us. And it’s my turn.”
They should share leadership. Asking Antonio to stay at home is impractical. It would be difficult for anyone, regardless of gender, to stay at home with the kids while his or her spouse is actively involved in work. Role sharing would be a challenge—but a lesser challenge than the current situation.Narayani A, junior manager, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories
Before they put the kids in day care or hire a nanny, Antonio should at least try being a stay-at-home dad. He may end up liking it, and the opportunity to be home with his young kids won’t come again. If after a month or two he still wants to return to being the CEO, then Susie can step to the side as COO.Jennifer Drai, director of project management services, International Facility Management Association
The bottom line is they had an agreement. To back out because Antonio has grown accustomed to the power and perks of being at work would destroy the marriage and damage the business. Antonio can join Susie in running the business in a year or so, when they work out what’s best for the business and can be less egotistical about titles.Robert J. Berger, president and founder, Internet Bandwidth Development
They should have laid out clear objectives for Antonio’s tenure as CEO and transitioned the leadership to Susie at some agreed-upon point in time. While Susie’s appeal to trade is not unwarranted, she should allow more than two weeks for a smooth transition. The organization needs more time to fully digest the leadership change.Will Yen, partner and CMO, Kenny & Company
Should Susie and Antonio trade roles as they’d planned?
The Experts Respond
Paola Carniglia is the commerce officer at OTIM, in Milan, Italy, a freight-forwarding company started by her grandfather.
Antonio is right to hesitate about Susie’s request. It’s not fair of her to ask him to see through an agreement they made three years ago. Nor should she ask him to stay home if that’s not what he wants to do. Instead, they should find a way they can both work.
They have complementary skills—sales expertise and operations know-how—that the business needs. Antonio can remain the face of the company, interacting with and acquiring customers. Susie can step in and help improve the operations and processes. Eventually, once she’s put in more time with the business, they can share its leadership, with him as CEO and her as president. It’s too risky to have Antonio step down now. He’s been running the company for three years. He’s hired people and built relationships with the staff and the customers, and people trust him. Sure, Susie has been somewhat involved, but realistically, she’s not ready to take over.
No one will suffer if they both work. In Italy kindergarten starts at age three, so the older girl can go to school soon, and the younger can go to day care. Yes, it will cost money, but if both parents are happy, it will be money well spent. Or they can rely on the grandparents to help with the kids. That’s why they moved to Italy in the first place—to be close to family.
If Susie forces Antonio to follow through on their agreement, their marriage is likely to suffer.
With the children well taken care of, Susie and Antonio can then divide up the week. Each of them can leave work early a few days a week to pick up the girls while the other stays late at the office. That will allow both of them quality time with the kids. I know that I don’t measure my relationship with my young son in terms of the hours we spend together. I focus on the quality of the time we have. In my experience, this works: My father worked 12 hours a day when I was young, and even if I had just a half hour or an hour with him at the end of the day, he was completely focused on me.
In Italy it’s very rare for a father to stay home. If Susie forces Antonio to follow through on their agreement, their marriage is likely to suffer. She will be stressed trying to keep up with work after being out of the loop for three years, and he will be depressed. Entrepreneurs, like myself, and like Susie and Antonio, need to work. I stayed home for two months with my son (even though many Italian women take a year off), but I was eager to get back to work. Of course, I have friends who are happy to stay home, but I wouldn’t be satisfied if I weren’t working.
Many couples face difficult career and life decisions. If either Susie or Antonio had to move to another city or country for a new position and the other spouse were forced to quit a beloved job to go, that would be hard. But they are not in such a tough spot. This should be an easy decision for them. They wanted to buy this company together, and they should run it together. Susie and Antonio can take a page from their own parenting handbook and learn to share.
Linda Katz and Mike Katz are married and co-own Molded Dimensions, a rubber and polyurethane parts manufacturer in Port Washington, Wisconsin.
We don’t see any reason that Antonio shouldn’t spend at least a year at home with the kids now that Susie is itching to go back to work. There are four constituencies in this case: Susie, Antonio, the kids, and the company. It’s clear that for three of them, the switch would be a positive move. Susie would get back into the game and could lend her expertise to the business at an important time. The daughters would benefit from being with their father and from seeing their mother as the breadwinner. Antonio has lent his strengths as a leader to the business for three years, but now it needs Susie.
The only one for whom it’s not clear whether this is a good thing is Antonio. But he and his wife had an agreement, and while circumstances change over time (we certainly don’t hold each other to every commitment we’ve made over the course of our marriage), it’s best for the company for Susie to take over, at least temporarily.
When we first bought Molded Dimensions, we decided that one of us, Linda, would stay home with the kids. After three years we switched roles, and Mike stayed home for a year. It was the best thing that ever happened to the company: The change in leadership shifted our focus from debt reduction to human resources, and the business is thriving today because of the moves made during that transformative year.
One of the risks that small businesses face is dependency on a sole leader. If something happens to that person, it can mean disaster for the company. Having two competent leaders who know the business well is a true advantage and one that Antonio should keep in mind as he navigates this decision with Susie.
Antonio has lent his strengths as a leader to the business for three years, but right now it needs Susie. It’s best for the company for her to take over.
It’s not entirely clear what Antonio’s hesitations are. Perhaps he’s worried that he’ll lose touch with the business, that he won’t be as good as Susie at managing their home life, or that he’ll be judged by his family, peers, and society for being a stay-at-home dad. All of those are valid concerns, especially the last one. But people are very supportive of stay-at-home fathers. We often tell the story of the birthday party Mike threw for our three-year-old during his turn at home. As our friends and relatives left, they each high-fived him for doing such a great job! Sure, it was a good party, but would a mother have gotten such a reaction? We can report that Linda certainly hasn’t ever been high-fived after any of the birthday parties she’s organized.
Before Susie and Antonio make any changes, we recommend that they draw up an exhaustive list of all their home and work responsibilities—everything from taking the kids to the doctor to doing employee performance reviews—and then divvy them up. We’ve done this several times, putting an L or an M next to each item, and it has saved us the hassle of constantly negotiating who’s doing what.
Susie and Antonio are in an enviable position—they own their company and have the freedom to arrange their work and home life however they wish. Over the 12 years we’ve run our business, we’ve been in different arrangements: each of us taking a turn at home, both of us working. Each situation worked well for us at the time. When Antonio stays home, he may struggle in the short term with his identity and with managing a household, but right now it’s the best thing for the company—and for his marriage.
Jim Sharpe is an entrepreneur in residence and was previously a senior lecturer, focused on small and medium-sized enterprises, at Harvard Business School.
James Weber is a senior researcher in the global research group at Harvard Business School.
It’s My Turn
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