Work relationships: Be a better executive mate

A new consulting company teaches couples how to excel at helping their high-powered partners excel.

Two decades ago when Colette Young, a classical pianist, married a successful executive, she didn’t know what to expect. But she found out quickly that a lot would be expected of her. Having little experience with the corporate world, she looked to other executive spouses for guidance on everything from simple matters, like what to wear to an event, to the heavier philosophical issues, such as how she should support and encourage her husband while still maintaining her own identity and career. “Quite frankly, I couldn’t find the right person [to help me],” says Young, now 53. “There was a lot of trial and error.” What she learned is that a mate, male or female, can provide an enormous boost or be a complete drag on an executive’s career. “The role of an executive spouse,” she says, “is to be a team player.”

Last year, Young decided to turn the wisdom she’d accrued over 20 years as a high-performance spouse into a consulting business of her own. She started ExecuMate, a Dallas-based company designed to help executive spouses navigate their relationships — and by extension, help each other excel at work. To some, the idea will sound dangerously like a modern spin on “wife school,” but Young stresses that although she counsels individuals, her business is also aimed at young, high-powered couples looking to maximize their lives together — and their respective careers. Not surprisingly, only four of her current clients are men. But two of them, she notes, came to Young because they’ve chosen to put their wives’ careers ahead of their own.

In fact, people come calling for many reasons. Struggles involving travel, relocating to a new city, and time-management skills are common, she says. Most come to Young — whose husband, Larry Young, is now president and CEO of Dr Pepper Snapple Group — for advice on how to balance long work hours and family life. And business is taking off. In addition to one-on-one clients — sessions begin at about $300 an hour — she’s given a handful of speeches and seminars to the tune of $3,000 to $5,000 per event. “ExecuMate helps you save time,” she says. “I’m just offering the tools that have worked for me.”

One of the biggest challenges executive spouses face is coping with anger and resentment stemming from the demands of their partner’s work. Too many late nights and last-minute trips and too much e-mailing at the dinner table can take its toll. Studies show it’s important to nip these things in the bud — not only for personal reasons, but for professional ones, too. According to a 2006 report on work-life balance from Minneapolis-based Life Innovations, “employees who enjoy relational health at home, in their marriage and among their peers, are more productive and make better leaders.”

Bryan Wempen of Tulsa, Okla., agrees a strong relationship makes for a better career. The 40-year-old vice-president has spoken numerous times with Young about achieving better work-life balance. Not only is he a busy guy, but his wife, Rosemary Sumner, is the president of her own company. He says Young has advised him to “shut everything off.” So, several times a week, he and his wife turn off their BlackBerries, computers and anything communication-related. “It removes stress and improves our quality of time together.” Not only that, he says, he believes his productivity at work has also improved: “The better your balance in life, the better your outlook and outcomes, by far.”

Julie George knows all about the challenges that come with marrying an executive. The 57-year-old has been married to Rick George, president and CEO of Calgary-based Suncor Energy, for 37 years. She says being married to a top executive is not without its ups and downs, but she refers to her husband as her “best friend.” Like Young, George believes a strong spouse can help propel an executive to the top. But she also believes one of the best services a spouse can provide is to remind him who he is. “A lot of times a CEO who is successful can be a little misguided in terms of developing a bigger ego because they don’t have loved ones to keep them in check,” says George. “Spouses seem to do that best.”