CEOs in love: How power couples make their lives work
It’s a been a “long time” since Megan Cunningham and Daniel Chait have had any time to binge watch Netflix together.
Planning their weeks as a couple, as parents and as founders and CEOs of their own companies often means a five-way conference call with the two of them, their assistants and their nanny. They also try to coordinate their frequent business trips so that one of them is always around for their 7-year-old son, Jack.
While they both try to focus on their home life during the weekends, it’s hard for work not to take up some space given that both spouses run ambitious enterprises. “It puts a strain on how much time you can devote to nonbusiness conversations,” said Cunningham, who runs Magnet Media Films, a branded content studio. Her husband heads up Greenhouse, a recruiting software company.
When it comes to ranking their priorities between work and home, Jack’s needs are always No. 1, Cunningham said. But their relationship and their companies vie for the No. 2 spot. “It’s a dynamic ranking. When something big is happening at his company or mine, then that becomes No. 2.”
Whether it’s two CEOs, two spouses in business with each other, or a couple where one partner achieves outsized success first, power couples have to strike a delicate balance to keep the peace at home and still support each other professionally.
And, of course, there’s always a risk two business superstars will knock heads over who has the final say in their personal lives.
“The more you move up, the more you’re accustomed to getting your own way and people deferring to you. And that can carry over into a marriage,” said Dr. Peter Pearson, cofounder of The Couples Institute in Silicon Valley.
Melinda Gates has spoken about the “crisis of self” she experienced as a stay-at-home mom in the shadow of her husband, Microsoft founder Bill Gates. She had to tell him at dinner parties not to talk over her or correct her because people already assumed he was the smartest guy in the room. She also decided to take a more public role in her work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which the couple cofounded and co-chair.
The hardest lesson is to realize no matter how powerful you are at work, the rules of relationships apply to you just like everybody else, said Dr. Michael McNulty, a master trainer in the Gottman Method of Relationship Therapy.
Those rules include accommodating each other’s energies and strengths.
Chait, for example, is happy to get dinner on the table because he loves to cook, while Cunningham gets her second wind after dinner and is happy to do the dishes. She defers to him on vacations because she’s such a road warrior on business trips. But he lets her make the call on which movies to see when they go to a film festival because she has a film background.
Two alphas in love do have some advantages on the relationship front. They can choose to tap into the creativity they’ve developed in their careers rather than being defensive or selfish when faced with inevitable conflicts in marriage, Pearson said. It helps, too, when the couple has consciously decided what kind of relationship they want and can focus on that bigger picture when tensions arise.
Another potential plus: They’re usually fine with getting feedback, McNulty said.
Witness Bill Gates. “He learned,” his wife told CNN’s Poppy Harlow. “I would give him feedback [about talking over me in public]. It took him a little while, and then he stopped doing it.”
Also on the upside, Chait and Cunningham said the communication skills they have learned as leaders have been a plus.
“You have to have the trust and energy of a large team, so you have to project those things. Trust and vulnerability translate really well at home,” Chait said.
Still, Cunningham notes, like any other couple, “We’re very much a work in progress. Our life is not an Instagram story. Sometimes it’s high-fiving at JFK as one of us is coming and the other’s going.”