Interview with Len Schlesinger

Len Schlesinger

Len Schlesinger is the President of Babson College. Prior to that, he was Vice Chairman and COO of Limited Brands, and Executive Vice President and COO at Au Bon Pain. He was also a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School for 20 years. He is the author or co-author of ten business books.

Len Schlesinger on the greatest misconception about entrepreneurship; what entrepreneurs often don’t take into account; the one rule he and his wife have; the notion of “acceptable loss”, and why work-life balance is not realistically achievable. 

Q:  Why do you think that the effects of an entrepreneurial business on families is not a topic addressed in business schools?

AIt’s a topic that gets discussed in panels and forums, at meals and coffee breaks, and at   EO and YPO meetings–but it never comes up inside the classroom.  From an academic standpoint, there’s been no systematic data collection related to this topic, so faculty don’t have much to offer about it. By putting this topic out there in your articles and your book, you are legitimizing more public conversation around it.

Q:  What do you think is the greatest misconception about entrepreneurship and families?

A:  What is most naïve about our discussions of entrepreneurship is that it is defined as a solo activity.  In reality, it isn’t.  There are key relationships–partners, family, and friends.  The notion that it is just the entrepreneur who is directly affected by a startup—the rewriting of the story that way to make it more interesting—is not only inaccurate but, quite honestly, ends up discouraging other people from launching businesses.  They feel, “I can’t be that hero, I can’t take the enormous risk that he or she incurred.”  Or, “I have a spouse and kids, and in order to do this I would have to sacrifice having any kind of relationship with them.”

One of the questions we raise in teaching entrepreneurship is, “What is your current reality—and that includes your family situation.” Your relationships are key.  To not attend to family in pursuit of an opportunity will create many problems.  It’s also a script for failure on the venture side or on the family side, and generally both.

Equally important is the conversation about kids.  For this population, neglecting this situation can become a real mess.

Q:  What do you mean by that?

AEntrepreneurs often don’t take into account their partners, spouse, or children.  They assume that growth and development of the relationships will just continue as in the past.  Also, they use vehicles like YPO to create—and I’m admittedly cynical about this—a manufactured and overly rosy version of their experiences as entrepreneurs that’s supposed to encourage aspiring entrepreneurs but has the opposite effect.

Q:  What’s an example?

A:  They’ll describe entrepreneurs as having open and informal life chats with their kids on a boat, for example—but the reality bears no resemblance to that. It’s a huge disconnect.  For most entrepreneurs, their level of attention to family matters is episodic at best.  But if you don’t think about your relationships consciously and deliberately, you are likely to damage them.

Q:  What do you see happening as a result, on a personal and on a business level?

AI think it hurts both, because your family relationships are going to be sub-optimal.  If you care about them at all, it’s likely to have a negative effect on your ability to execute on the business side as well.

I’ve been married for 39 years, and we have three reasonably well-adjusted children.  But I spent large amounts of my life on airplanes.  I say that my marriage has been twenty of the best years of my life, because the other twenty I’ve been on airplanes and doing work.

Q:  So how did you make your relationship and family life work?

A:  The issue is, how do you carve out time?  People think I’m going to do something great and I’m going to have a balanced life.  My response to that is, you’re either a million times better than me or you’re a fool.  When they ask me what I mean, I reply:  There’s no question in my mind that balance is achievable over a reasonable time frame, but the notion that you’re going to have balance in real time while attempting to do something extraordinary is just not realistic.  So every decision you make about how you are going to spend your time has a price.

The decision to do something significant by definition is going to take a much greater amount of time away from other aspects of your life than you expect.  Harboring the notion that this isn’t going to happen is totally unrealistic.  I’d much rather be clear about it:  it’s going to happen, so let’s be upfront about the expected duration, keep checking that it continues to be a good deal, and recognize that it’s neither balanced nor optimal, but that it is right for you and your family.

Q:  How does your wife handle your intense commitment to work?

A:  She understands me.  When I retired from Limited Brands, people asked my wife how she was going to handle my being home all the time.  We had three glorious months—traveling, seeing movies on weekday mornings, doing absolutely nothing.  After three months my wife said, “We’re spending too much time together.  You’re starting to get itchy.  Go do something.”

Q:  Talk to me about this issue of balance.

A:  If your goal is to achieve balance over a lifetime, then likely when you die you’ll have a whole portfolio of regrets.  If your goal is to achieve balance over a more reasonable amount of time, then say, “My year has got to have x amount of time doing this and y amount of time doing that, and it’s important that I carve out that time in the context of what I’m doing.”  This is eminently more achievable.  However, this is not realistic for an entrepreneur in the middle of a start-up.

In our house, we do have the rule that one time during the day—when we’re sitting down to eat— all the phones have to be off.  After the meal we turn them back on.  Smartphones have had a hugely disruptive effect on relationships.

Q:  if you were counseling a young entrepreneur—say say one of your kids approached you wanting to start a business—what would you counsel about achieving success in work and life?

A:  Number one:  you really need to have a strong commitment to do something.  The notion of exploring the potential of finding something you might desire is probably not the most effective way to spend your time.  If there IS something you want to do, then I have a framework I take from economics, called “Acceptable Loss.”  What are you willing to pay to play, in terms of time, money, opportunity costs, and reputational capital?  One of the most fundamental variables about what you are willing to pay to play is how you are going to deal with your relationships with partners, children, and friends.  How much of that are you willing to give up?

This might start as a rational analysis by the couple, but it usually doesn’t get re-visited except for when there’s an argument.  At each step you have an obligation to revisit the question about calculating what you’re willing to pay to play.

Q: Is that realistic when you’re in the middle of a venture?

A When you’re in the middle of a venture, how do you know when to stop?  One way is when you don’t want to do it anymore.  The other way is when what it costs to pay to play exceeds the value of what you’re getting from the enterprise.  That’s an eminently rational and easy conversation to have.  The entrepreneur usually won’t raise the question on his or her own, and typically has to get prompted by a partner who cares.

Q:  What do those entrepreneurs who’ve managed to maintain good family relationships have in common?

A They consciously spend time on their important relationships. The relationships that get in trouble and end up in therapy are when people pay someone to facilitate the conversation they should have had on their own.

Q: Do you see a role for this kind of conversation in a business or academic setting?

AAbsolutely.  There’s no question in my view that if you’re going to help people do significant things, you ought to be helping them with the personal issues and problems that are inevitably going to occur.   I would do this in a graduate school setting, for example, with students in an accelerated entrepreneurship program–those who are really committed to starting a business.  It’s yet another dose of reality in the process of framing not only their ventures, but how they want to structure their lives.