When Executives Divorce

When Executives Divorce

A Florida paper recently reported that there would not be a final divorce decree granted to a 55-year-old executive, known throughout the state for his track record as a successful business leader. The executive didn’t change his mind about wanting a divorce. He just died—without warning, at the TEN YEAR mark of his costly, high-profile battle… before he was able to launch the next chapter of his life. The now-grown children were unavailable for comment.

Having advised hundreds of executives for over 20 years in matters related to business and personal change, I know this story is not an isolated instance. Countless executive divorces are messy, protracted, consuming, costly, and emotionally damaging to most everyone involved.

Ironically, however, the same strategies and skills that produce leadership success in business can be applied to the high stakes, personally defining life transition known as divorce. What often stands in the way is one’s inability to view divorce differently. Rather than seeing it as an ending to be managed, it should be seen as a relational change to be led. Divorcing executives who appreciate and understand the similarities between their work and their family leadership responsibilities are better able to guide their individual and family transformation more successfully.


How do many executives currently approach their divorces? Think of it this way: Can we imagine a board of directors or a group of stockholders being pleased with a business situation in which there was:

  • No clear and inspiring vision established or communicated (or even seen as necessary).
  • No accountability to certain goals and targets (as established by the leader with input from relevant others).
  • Aversion to, or dismissal of, critical feedback.
  • A conflict management approach characterized by emotional reactivity, overt and covert blaming, and passing the buck of responsibility.
  • Predominant focus on ‘winning’ in the short-term and insufficient attention paid to the long-term consequences of certain actions or agreements.
  • Repeated disregard or ignorance of what experts define as the needs/wants of some priority constituents (i.e., kids).
  • Not holding themselves privately and publicly accountable to world-class standards, regardless of specific circumstances or the behavior of others.

The best executives do not, and would not, approach their business challenges this way. And as it turns out, this approach doesn’t generate much better results during divorce. One of the most vulnerable constituencies during divorce is the children. Research has shown that the self-esteem and optimism of children, for example, suffers not from the FACT of a divorce in their family, but from HOW the divorce was handled. The more public, intense, and protracted the conflicts, the greater the emotional damage for the children.

For many executives, it’s not a matter of wanting to handle their divorces better. Frequently, they don’t seem to know HOW to do it better. It’s a very charged context in which to excel. There are several traumas going on concurrently: the ending of a relationship that was decreed to last forever, the breaking up of routines, possibly separating from children, not to mention forging a new personal life. And then, there is the issue of money. Divorces can be enormously expensive, especially when relational animosity combines with abundant financial resources.

To make things harder, there is a notable lack of information available about the most effective ‘operating principles’ for people interested in a world-class family transition. I know this firsthand because when I went through my own divorce years ago, I actively sought out guidelines on how to have a “great” divorce (i.e., better than ‘civil’). Specifically, a great divorce is one in which the partners end up strong friends, the children recover well from the change and develop positive relationship and life coping strategies, and the family knows how to function healthily and happily in the future even though a marriage has ended.

There was no map for me to follow. Nor was there much encouragement, by experts, colleagues, or friends that these goals could or should be targeted.

Through the numerous cases I have overseen, and my own experience, it is clear that there are patterns of mistakes and missed opportunities that hinder the divorce process. These include:

  • Thinking too small about what’s possible based on what we’ve heard or seen immediately around us (i.e., calibrating only with a friend’s experience versus identifying a world-class model).
  • Behaving and communicating more reactively than intentionally (especially during moments of conflict).
  • Not seeking out or valuing expert advice on how to manage tension and conflict skillfully.
  • Not requiring ourselves to do better at each stage and with every step, and being accountable for the ‘system’ results, independently of what others in the situation are doing or expecting for themselves.
  • Focusing more on ‘winning’ in the short term than on leading towards a healthy future for all involved.
  • Justifying what we DO based on how we FEEL.

Under almost any set of circumstances, going through a divorce is difficult. There will be predictable landmines. Fortunately, however, there are also proven strategies for long term success that come from the very world where many executives excel.


As with any change situation, figuring out WHAT you want to achieve comes before deciding on HOW. While no two people or circumstances are identical, there are some overriding goals that merit consideration. They include:

  1. To minimize whenever, wherever possible, the pain and hardship on everyone involved.
  2. To integrate a divorce into one’s whole life (emotionally, financially, socially, logistically, spiritually, professionally) in healthy ways.
  3. To learn and model how to do better jobs of: communicating; resolving issues; relating under duress; creating and managing change; loving.
  4. To initiate or participate in conversations about the future, or reflections about the past free of raised voices, verbal attacks, blaming, or the engendering of fear (i.e., fighting).
  5. To create a new, healthy, and happy ‘family’ configuration should children be involved (remember: divorce is a legal process that ends a marriage, not a parental relationship or a family).

Because divorce is such a complex and highly-charged situation, there is no pretense that there is a universally perfect solution that should apply to every situation. It does not exist. Yet, common sense will tell you that certain strategies will help ensure potent leadership in a profoundly changing relationship/family situation… just as they do in business.

Strategy 1: Formulating your vision and operating principles: Get conscious and clear on what end state you want to create and how you want to behave as you accomplish your goals. What is your vision of a successful divorce for you and everyone involved? What do proven experts have to say about what will help and what will hinder arriving at your vision? How does that apply to what you individually need to do and what you need to lead or inspire others to do?

Record your vision and your ‘operating principles’ or values. As leaders with established mission and vision statements know, it helps to have something tangible to refer to in order to maintain focus, especially during the tougher times when it might be tempting to relapse into less intentional behaviors.

Strategy 2: Share your accountabilities: Announce and be accountable to the relevant people on what your standards of success will be. The key challenge for most people in divorce is the constructive managing of the intense emotions that are stimulated during divorce, including anger, fear, frustration, blame, shock, loneliness, anxiety, depression. Success depends largely on not reacting in regrettable ways to one’s own emotions or reacting off the reactions of others. As in business, pre-defined accountability with others helps keep everyone’s eyes on the prize.

Strategy 3: Arranging for support and challenge to ensure staying the course: Identify who you will consult at each and every phase to receive the two critical ingredients that enhance performance: support and challenge. And, as all top performers know, both skillful support and informed challenging are critical to sustaining motivation and getting the just-in-time feedback needed to navigate through areas of potential relapse and destruction (which are not infrequent while divorcing). In addition, having a “safe” (i.e., without danger to yourself or anyone else) place to express thoughts and feelings in an unedited way is key.

The Yeah Buts…

Even executives who are highly motivated to make their divorce experience a healthier one for themselves and their family may question the viability of this approach, as well as their capacity to execute it effectively. The most frequently posed concerns that I hear include:

Even executives who are highly motivated to make their divorce experience a healthier one for themselves and their family may question the viability of this approach, as well as their capacity to execute it effectively. The most frequently posed concerns that I hear include:

Divorce is much more complicated than these simple strategies can hope to direct.

How true. But as a demanding San Francisco State University professor tells his business students: If everyone fails, then it’s my fault. But if one of you earns an ‘A’ then we all know it’s possible, and your ‘F’ is no longer my fault. So be sure you’re working with, and not separate from, the classmate who will excel.

While many people still operate under the notion that divorce is a win/lose or lose/lose proposition, a number of individuals are achieving healthy and successful divorces (in both the short and long term). Those are the ones we can and should learn from.

As Michael Hammer concluded in his 2001 analysis of what business leaders need to do to dominate the decade, leadership challenges are “eternal and extraordinarily difficult,” But the best are applying a savvy combination of new ideas (i.e., there is no silver bullet idea in business as in relationships) to out-execute their competition. And those that strive at the outset to be the best have the most favorable chances of being successful. They hold firmly to their vision of doing what’s hard (but not impossible) and hold firmly to a ‘find a way’ mindset.

YOU don’t know WHO I have to deal with here!

As Jim Collins reported in his study of how some leaders brought companies from “good” to “great” results, the Level 5 (or top) leaders were found to more consistently (1) focus, not on their own ego needs, but on the greater good of the companies, or systems, that they led and (2) look ‘in the mirror’ (towards themselves) to apportion responsibility when things went badly and to look ‘out the window’ (towards others) when apportioning credit.

Many people worry that they won’t be able to affect a successful divorce because of the personality or behavior patterns of the other adult involved (THEY are frequently described as: recalcitrant, closed-minded, immature, self-centered). Indeed, many of these concerns represent the facts or perceptions that led to a divorce decision in the first place. The good news is that it only takes one person doing things more constructively to dramatically improve a relational dynamic (try having a fight with someone who won’t fight). And therein lies the obligation and opportunity of leaders—to walk into a sub-optimal state where perhaps only they see a preferable and attainable future. But because of their commitment, tenacity, and emotional discipline, they are able to hold relentlessly to that vision, in words and actions, and thus drive to a better outcome that only they first saw as possible.

Families are not businesses, and divorce is not ‘business as usual.’

This is exactly why the focus needs to be on universally recognized and proven leadership strategies and not the unique challenges of a particular context (i.e., families versus business in this case but it could be: profit versus non-profit; health care versus retail). And while it might be that context would undermine the success of these principles, that has not been found in either studies of family transitions nor in studies of business success stories. Finally, divorce is a crisis. And, just as we learned from Andrew Cuomo’s success as the governor of New York during the early months of the pandemic, leadership is about bringing a mission to the moment when it is most needed.

Could This Work for You?

The quickest way to discover whether this path has any value for you is to ask: Are you proud of your divorce, either the one you had or the one you are having? When I ask this question, I hear repeatedly: “No. But I didn’t know how to do it better.”

Divorces are, in essence, changes in relationships. Great leadership is about moving ourselves effectively with and through others to a new place. And whether or not this new place is of everyone’s choosing, there are ways to accomplish the transformation well, and ways to do it less well.

To have a great divorce, think about the strategies and skills that help you succeed in business—and use them. Once you understand and appreciate the similarities between the way you lead at work and the way you lead in a divorce, you will see that it is possible to have a divorce that has positive results for all those involved.

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