Smart Moves: Spouses who make a career out of marriage

Company wives are finding their voices, says Joanna Parfitt
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The Independent Online
If it is true that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach then it follows that this culinary genius, usually a woman, may also have the skills necessary to find a way into his mind. One woman who has successfully transferred her professional and instinctive skills and qualities into her husband's workplace is Fiona Warner.

For more than a decade she has chosen to sacrifice her own career, which was with Saatchi and Saatchi, to accompany Miles and their three boys round the world while he climbs the ladder with Schlumberger-Wireline, an oil-services company.

Miles and Fiona work as a team, and when Miles's career took him into personnel in the Paris Head Office, Fiona seized her opportunity to make things happen not only for the other expatriate spouses but for employees too.

"We had lived in more than 10 different countries in 10 years, our children were young and we really wanted some stability for them for a few years. When this job came up we agreed with the proviso that it would be longer term this time," she says, adding that more than one director feared her attitude would jeopardise Miles's career. Today, the company's Action 2000 policy takes family needs into account and all employees have career orientation reviews every five years to which spouses are invited. Fiona would like to think she had something to do with this.

Fiona is far removed from the archetypal picture of the company wife dishing up haute cuisine for business dinners. She is more likely to be putting the cost of her babysitter down on company expenses so she can have lunch with a company director. Almost nine months pregnant with their fourth child, Fiona seems unlikely to cease her campaign of re-educating the decision-makers.

"Miles and I talk endlessly when we are at home about company issues and much of it goes back into the office with him the next day. People who communicate well on a domestic level do so at work too," she says.

"Good communication is fundamental," Fiona continues. "Many men still feel they have to be macho, and so, when their boss suggests they might like to go to Nigeria, for example, they agree, despite knowing full well that their wives will be furious. There are countless examples of husbands blithely embarking on a two-week business trip without telling their bosses that their wives are due to give birth."

Once she arrived in Paris, Fiona was elected president of the Schlumberger spouses' association, which now has more than 7,000 volunteers. During her term she was instrumental in establishing a worldwide support service, largely through the company intranet, its magazine and locally held meetings. Information on career opportunities, location, education, employees and their families is now at everyone's fingertips free of charge. She has ensured that messages filter back to the decision-makers in head office.

Her enthusiasms have not gone unrecognised. She has been invited to speak later this year at the UN on the virtual unique sustainable community that transcends all time zones.

After two years, Fiona has stepped down from the presidency and now takes her belief in wife power directly to the office. "I just collar each of the directors in turn and ask if I can have a short meeting," she says. "Then we have a chat about problem areas such as health and safety, the environment, stress and caffeine levels. If the spouses are informed about these issues then they have the power to effect change in their own families. It is more effective for a wife to add an extra nag about drinking too much coffee to her list, than for the husband to receive an email on the subject."

She goes on to cite two recent examples: a house fire in Doha, Qatar, prompted local spouses to increase awareness of fire safety through their newsletter; in Bogota, Colombia, spouses have campaigned for their own security guards who can be called from the mobile phones with which they have been provided. "Wives, once educated and informed, have tremendous power," claims Fiona. Head office personnel now listen to her and can see the positive effects of her beliefs and actions.