I was sitting across from the SVP of HR at Walmart a few years ago when he offered me his hand and a new sheet of paper with all the terms of my new promotion spelled out. I shook his hand and left his office doing mental cartwheels down the hall.
This was it!
More money, bigger team, fancier title, more interesting work.
And more actual work, too.
Because isn’t that how promotions usually work?
A few more meetings. A few more hours. A few more business trips. A bigger job isn’t just a bigger paycheck. It’s got more responsibility, too.
With the job offer in hand I popped my head into the office of one of my mentors at the company and said:
“Guess what! I got the big promotion.”
“Congratulations!” he said. “Are you going to accept it?”
His simple question caught me off guard.
“Well, it feels like a slam dunk,” I replied, with a bit of a confused look in my eyes, wondering what he was getting at. “Everything improves here — salary, benefits, title. Great for future employability, too. If I get turfed I have a nice “top line” on my resumé. A good benchmark for going somewhere else. I feel like I should sign this right now and head straight back to the SVP’s office.”
“Go ahead and sign it,” he said with smile. “But it’s a big job! You’ll be leading a large team and on the road a lot. So, before you hand it back in, make sure you take the contract home, share it with your wife, and write up another contract, too. A family contract. One between you and your partner. The company is changing all your terms, aren’t they? So make sure you revisit all your home terms, too.”
His message rang a bell.
All of us have contracts with our employers.
Very few of us have contracts with our partners.
We have detailed sheets of paper spelling out exactly what we’re supposed to do on the job. But we have no similar piece of paper for our families, do we?
Maybe it sounds a bit strange, but that night I went home and sat down with my wife Leslie and we thought writing up a family contract was a good idea. We spent a long time that night discussing and writing out the terms of the contract and it has four bullet points that we still use today.
Number of nights away
It breaks my heart to miss bath time. Combing my son’s wet hair. Reading books under the covers. Goodnight kisses. There are a finite number of these nights in our lives so it should hurt to miss them. The biggest thing for Leslie and I to discuss was how many nights I was going to be away per year. We came up with a number that worked for us and began tracking it. It was a number that was easy to break down per month so if I had a really busy month (say, a conference out of town or something) then I knew I had to say no to a business trip next month to make up for it. Can this hamper your career? Absolutely. But can business trips away hamper your family? Absolutely. Let’s not pretend you can have everything. Come up with a number that works for your family and stick with it.
We decided it was important for us to have one Family Day every weekend. What’s a Family Day? A full day with no cellphones, no extended family, no friends, nothing. Just me, my wife, our two little kids and zero interruptions all day. We had so many weekends blurring by in a smear of gymnastics, birthday parties and extended family dinners. Fun weekends! But no deep family time. Is this tough to do? Of course! Think about how many days you have with a sports practice or somebody’s big birthday. Those are beautiful things. But prioritizing one Family Day a weekend creates energy, helps you be choosy about what activities you’re signing up for and helps avoid saying a passive yes to every invitation.
This is a fun one. Once a week I get an NNO. Neil’s Night Out. Watch out, town! Seriously though, whatever I want to do that night, I do it. Dinner with a friend, live music by myself, spinning in circles in empty parking lots. It’s my night off. I can do whatever I want. What’s an LNO? That would be Leslie’s Night Out. She gets one a week, too. Energy is the priceless commodity here. It’s too easy to crash into Netflix comas on the couch once the kids are in bed. “Oh, look, we have only three Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidts left!” NNO/LNO helps us plan and prioritize ourselves and our other relationships, too. I feel like a great father and husband before and after I go away because I get energy from those nights. Plus, I get my own stories and experiences to bring back into the home while continuing to develop my life as an individual. The best part is there’s no guilt, since my wife has a night off, too. So in a way these two nights “pay for” each other. She can go to a yoga class, work on her pictures in a coffee shop, try my spinning parking lot thing, whatever. The two nights end up feeling like a gift to each other, which helps, though sometimes we do find we need to push each other to take them.
Number of vacation days per year
I know work contracts generally have a number of vacation days spelled out. But most of us aren’t taking real vacation. We either don’t take all our days or we work while we’re away. It’s also worth noting that most companies have policies where you can buy more vacation days or take unpaid personal days. What’s my point? My point is it’s nice that the company tells you what you get, but it’s more important you discuss and write down the number that works for your family and then plan it out. For me, this meant every year at Walmart I used the company policy to apply for an extra couple weeks of unpaid leave a year and took the 5 per cent annual hit to my salary. It was a worthwhile trade-off for the extra time together and I never noticed the funds that were being skimmed off the top.
That’s the contract I have with my partner.
We printed it up, signed it and keep it in a file.
The goal is to have a contract in a desk at home that creates a healthy tension with the contract you have in a desk at work.
Everybody will have different terms, of course. Maybe you include points about school drop-off and pickup or whether or not you work from home on weekends.
Now, I didn’t tell my work I had this contract. I didn’t wave it in their face and say, “Sorry, I can’t travel next week.” But the home contract helped me articulate my values, which enabled speedier decision-making and a better acceptance of the decisions I did make later on in my new role. I didn’t sweat every business trip. I simply counted them towards an annual number. Plus, if I cheated on one of the bullet points, I knew I had to make it up. If I travelled on a weekend (and missed Family Day) then we needed two Family Days next weekend. Good excuse for a road trip.
Now, as you think about a contract that works with you and your partner, let’s make sure we remember that the goal is never to be perfect.
It’s simply to be a little better than before.
I’d love to see your contract if you’re willing to share at firstname.lastname@example.org
Too hardcore? Check out this video on the power of the ‘quarterly relationship meeting’ instead:
An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company