Can This Marriage Be Managed?

Two United execs say partners can use work principles to create a turnaround

Julie Bell and Donna Brown, executives at United Air Lines Inc. in Chicago, are each very happily married. That's how this story ends. It begins a few years ago, when Julie and Donna were contemplating divorcing their husbands and raising their children on their own. Instead, over the course of a long year, they managed to change their men and save their marriages, and they did so by behaving like executives at home. They stated their expectations in no uncertain terms, set goals (for the wayward men) with corporate precision, and measured the results. "It's like really good project management," says Donna. And somehow it worked.

For Julie and Donna, applying business principles to their marriages came naturally. They were women who had accomplished much professionally. Julie, now 32, is director of strategic sourcing; Donna, 42, is director of corporate human resources. They had confidence in their skills in the workplace. But they were miserable at home, and they blamed their husbands for ruining their family lives. Things got so bad that in the fall of 2001 Donna kicked out Dave, who was then home watching their two kids; Julie told Phillip, a cop, to leave in the spring of 2002.

It wasn't until 2004, after their husbands had become model partners and returned home, that Donna and Julie learned they had taken the same approach to their marital problems. Their boss, privy to the details of their private lives, had suggested they talk. Then she encouraged them to put together a book. The result is The Scorecard: How to Fix Your Man in One Year or Less, published on May 4, which they wrote with Judith Newman.

In the tradition of self-help books and management seminars, Julie and Donna offer a five-step program: set priorities, filter (is it a problem you can easily fix yourself?), analyze (how much cooperation are you likely to get?), plan the right approach, measure your progress. They describe their method as strategic (focusing on the root cause of a problem), not tactical (trying to fix the symptoms). And, as with any project, they suggest reassessing priorities from time to time.

When the two women presented their turnaround plans to Phillip and Dave, who were eager to reconcile, there was nonetheless a little of what executives would call pushback. And no wonder: Julie and Donna asked the men to rethink everything from their careers to their roles as fathers to their love lives. "We did start out being very demanding," Julie says. "As they showed us they were willing to change, we became softer." Donna tells of one test she gave Dave midway through the year. She had asked him to go into therapy to deal with what she thought was depression; he said they might benefit from marriage counseling. Instead of embracing the idea and making all the arrangements, she left it up to Dave to find a counselor, work out the insurance issues, hire a babysitter for the kids, and pick her up for each appointment. And, much to her surprise, he did.


One thing led to another, and soon Donna and Julie realized they had to conduct themselves differently, too. "Our work selves had been the best of us," says Donna. "Now, at home we're more like the people we are at work." She goes on to say: "I talk about managing communications all day at the office. You have to think about it or it will go wrong. How could I have been so idiotic at home? I left so much to chance." Julie puts it this way: "At work you are never accidentally successful. You can't be accidentally successful at home, either."

So far, they say, male colleagues have reacted to the notion of managing a marriage with curiosity, if not enthusiasm. Julie and Donna are sure that husbands everywhere will come around as they realize that, as Julie says, this approach "does away with the drama and emotional blackmail" common in many relationships. And that it works both ways.

Dave and Phillip, for example, have learned to use their wives' tactics right back at them. Recently, Donna says, she was getting increasingly anxious as she and Dave prepared to leave for a vacation with her parents. When she made a sarcastic comment about his efforts, he said: "Your to-do list isn't the same as mine. If you need help, let's talk about our priorities." To which Donna replied: "Are you using my tools on me? That's so sexy."

By Susan Berfield

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