Suzy Welch, a professor at the NYU Stern School of Business, said that young workers, such as those who are Gen-Z, are unlikely to be corporate CEOs if they currently choose remote jobs.
"The young people who choose to have that life that go into work maybe one or two days a week or never, and work entirely remotely, they may have a version of success that is not our version of success," insisted Welch.
"It's all about how you define success. They're probably not going to become CEOs, but maybe that's not what they want."
Are CEOs always rise and grinders?
Welch’s remarks shed light on a few interesting ideas. Firstly, it highlights the fact that society – either correctly or not – perceives business founders and CEOs as being relentless workers, who prioritise the ‘grind’, even above their own wellbeing. It indicates that perhaps, once and for all, this perception needs to be eradicated, as there are certainly many leaders who don’t fit into this traditional ideal of what the leader of a company looks like.
It also brings rise to questions around whether remote work is conducive to ‘better’ work and greater levels of productivity. Of course, this debate has been going on for months, especially as many huge companies mandate their employees to return to the office in the name of productivity. Despite this, research shows truth in both sides of the argument – that both remote and in-office work has its own set of positive and negative attributes.
Finally, this statement is ultimately a born out of hustle culture – a mentality conducive to burnout and poor mental health, despite it being associated with success – which young people are currently rejecting because they are choosing to prioritise their own mental wellbeing above everything else.
Gen Z are set to make up a quarter of the workforce by 2025, and soon this percentage will be higher. This generation could rewrite what it means to be a leader – maybe one day being a CEO won’t mean an excessive work schedule and poor work-life balance.
Does a leader really have to compromise on their wellbeing to be successful?
Elon Musk famously said: “Nobody ever changes the world in a 40-hour week”. Working relentlessly can certainly bring success to a person, but shifting ideas about both what success is, and how to achieve it, is changing perceptions of what it means to be a flourishing professional, or indeed, CEO.
Farley Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder at Manageable, believes that Welch’s perception is based on a misguided link between work ethic and being present in-person. He says: “This flexible working trend has contributed to better balance in people’s lives. Remote work has been linked to many benefits including increased productivity and wellbeing.
“So why should it be at the detriment of a successful career? I don’t think remote work is going to hamper careers in and of itself. And there’s often some unhelpful confusion between work ethic and workplace; someone in the office isn’t necessarily learning nor working, they’re just present at the company’s expense! Someone at home might be doing twice the work without all the distractions, but they can still fit in some important personal stuff which makes their lives easier and boosts motivation to do even better work.
“The critical factor in our view is how much remoteness is optimal and this should vary depending on the stage of career and the type of work. Early on in our careers, we benefit hugely from building our networks ideally across companies and sectors, being coached and mentored, and learning informally ‘on the job’. All of these require being around colleagues and this is far better in-person but technology can still enable this remotely. As we become more autonomous, and perhaps more specialised in our work, we can benefit from ‘quiet time’ and for most, this is definitely not when they’re in the office. We will need a mix because we gradually become mentors to (or managers of) others.”
Ultimately, the statement from Welch is ingrained in a debate between remote and in-person work, but it conjures up a myriad of other questions around what is required to be a CEO or leader, what unhealthy standards and expectations we have for this role, and the toxic compromises we expect of being someone who is ‘successful’. Remote work shouldn’t automatically be dubbed as a model for the lazy or unproductive. Instead, it should be viewed as an option to enable employees to maximise their wellbeing and autonomy in the workplace – there's no reason why this shouldn’t be associated with a great leader.