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Talent managing dual-career couples

Stephen Chambers

In 1970, both parents worked full-time in just 31% of two-parent households in the United States. Today, it is almost 50%. But, perhaps more importantly, in the last 30 years, “assortative mating”, which is “the tendency of people with similar outlooks and levels of education and ambition to marry each other”, has increased by almost 25%.

The “dual-career couple” is now commonplace, and organisations who are unable to cater to the needs of these “employees who want to advance but also care deeply about their partners’ careers” are struggling to retain top leadership talent even when they have invested heavily in grooming them over a long period of time.


Most companies have rigid ideas about what the path to the executive suite should look like, and it inevitably includes multiple relocations. Petriglieri traces this paradigm back to the early 1980s, when most talent was “unbounded”, i.e. most potential leaders had partners who were willing to be full-time homemakers and technology hadn’t yet make virtual working possible.

“Times have changed, of course, but most talent-management programmes are still designed as if every couple had a dedicated homemaker and the internet didn’t exist,” she writes.

These traditional talent management programmes create two challenges:

1) The mobility challenge. Members of dual-career couples know they will be expected to move around on their way to the top, and they don’t mind, as long as it is done on their terms and doesn’t force them to choose between one partner’s career and the other’s.

Petriglieri gives the example of Craig and Melissa, a dual-career couple who moved on their own terms. Craig’s company wanted him to take a job in London, but the move didn’t suit Melissa, so he turned it down. Instead the couple chose a destination together, Dubai, and embarked on job searches at the same time. Melissa made an internal transfer, but Craig’s company weren’t keen and lost him to a rival firm.

This situation is made even worse when companies expect several moves in a short space of time. Approximately 40% of the companies studied expected their top talent to spend a maximum three years in a role before moving up. People who refuse to move are punished.

2) The flexibility challenge. Flexibilityis vital to dual-career couples. In their private lives they juggle household chores, childcare, etc, by sharing these duties, fitting them into their busy schedules in a way that suits both partners. When it comes to their working lives, companies struggle with the concept of flexible working.

Potential leaders are often judged not just on performance but also on how much time they spend in the office. People who seek flexibility often lose out. Research shows flexible working has numerous benefits, but a combination of inertia (“this is the way we have always done things”) and a desire from people at the top to see the new generation pay their dues as they did, prevents progress.


If you want to retain your top talent, you must rethink the route to leadership. You must ask yourself what is truly required to achieve growth and advancement and offer the flexibility demanded by members of dual-career couples. You can start by making two changes:

1) Recognise that what matters more than where. Make a list of the networks, experiences and skills future leaders must build up in order to progress, e.g. managing a business in crisis or handling a turnaround, and think about how they can attain them without having to change location.

“Shifting the focus from ‘where’ to ‘what’ opens a range of creative solutions, such as brief job swaps, short-term assignments in various organisations or units (sometimes called secondments) and commuter roles,” writes Petriglieri. You must also open yourself up to the idea of remote working for leadership candidates.

Potential leaders, and their partners, realise and accept a move is sometimes unavoidable. But companies too often assume that candidates’ partners are homemakers and tailor the support offered accordingly.

2) Remove cultural obstacles to flexibility. Changing your company’s policies is all very well but in order for them to work you must also change your company’s culture.

You must educate senior leaders in the best ways to attract and nurture contemporary talent. Consider setting up a “reverse mentoring” program, pairing senior leaders with talented millennials who can give them a better idea of the challenges they face. Even better, take a bilateral approach, so the younger employee learns from the elder statesperson as well.

“Someone who experiences ‘the other’s’ situation firsthand is much more likely to understand it and respond in a supportive way.”

When senior leaders realise that flexibility doesn’t lead to slacking off and a fall-off in results they will start to change their own ways of working and “signalling” will take care of the rest.


If you realise the need to adopt a new model of talent management, it will benefit both your company and those future leaders who are members of dual-career couples.

“When high-potentials see that it’s possible to grow and advance in their organisations without sacrificing their partners’ success, they’ll feel safer opening up about their mobility and flexibility challenges,” writes Petriglieri. “As a result their organisations will be able to plan better for the future and make the right kinds of investments in the right people. Everyone will come out ahead.”

Source Article: Talent Management And The Dual-Career Couple
Author(s): Jennifer Petriglieri