Balancing work and family life is never easy — especially in a work culture, like we have in Silicon Valley, that seems to value insane hours and lack of balance.

I always ask the executives I interview how they manage, particularly if I know they have children. Usually, the answer is some laughing acknowledgement that there is no balance. But sometimes, the answer surprises me.

Lew Cirne, the chief executive and founder of rising-star cloud company New Relic, is a father. He told me over lunch at SXSW this week that he leaves work around 5 p.m. and gets home in time to cook dinner for his family nearly every day.

He impressed me: It’s not often that you hear a CEO of a startup admit that he’s not spending 18 hours a day focused 100 percent on his company.

Cirne’s an unusual case, and he acknowledges that as the founder (he also founded one previous successful startup, which he sold to CA for $375 million in cash in 2006), he’s got the flexibility and the clout to set the terms and create the company culture he wants. Not everyone can do that.

He also takes a week off from CEO duties every six weeks or so to go on a coding retreat, during which he leaves the executive duties of his company in others’ hands and focuses entirely on programming. One of those retreats turned into a six-week sabbatical in late 2012, during which Cirne cooked up an entirely new database that’s capable of storing Hadoop-like quantities of data (terabytes of the stuff) and yet can return answers in “milliseconds,” Cirne said. That project has turned into Rubicon, New Relic’s big data product that’s in private beta testing.

So clearly, his atypical work schedule pays off with new product innovations — and a better family life for Cirne. But he says it pays off in another way: By setting a less hectic tone, he’s able to recruit more seasoned engineers than other Valley startups. He says that the average age of a New Relic employee is older than at other startups, but that’s because these employees are attracted to companies where they have a prayer of finding some family time. The bonus for New Relic is that these employees have a lot of experience.

Despite his approach, Cirne is no less modest than any CEO in his ambitions for New Relic, which he wants to take to a billion dollars in revenues and make into a “top five cloud company.”

Now, many CEOs and VCs who have families have told me that they often sign back on after the kids are in bed and spend a few hours working and dealing with email from 8 or 9 in the evening until midnight. (Khosla Ventures partner Andrew Chung, for instance.) In fact, this is the new executive work schedule in the tech sector: from early morning until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., a two- or three-hour break for family time, and then another stint from the kids’ bedtime until late at night. So it’s not like Cirne and his fellow startup execs with families are exactly slacking.

That may be one secret of Silicon Valley’s success: People who have their eyes on a bigger prize and are willing to put in long hours to make it happen.

But it also tips the scales in favor of those who are able to work longer, and it raises the overall expectation about how long a work day should be.

And if you don’t have a successful startup or two under your belt, it’s going to be a lot harder to set the terms of your own work-life balance.

We should also consider gender. Cirne can tell a reporter that he leaves work every day at 5 to cook dinner for his family — but what about a women who’s the CEO of a startup? Would it benefit her company’s PR strategy for people to know that she spends her evenings being a mom, changing diapers and reading storybooks to her kids? Would that hurt her chances of getting the next round of investment or of attracting the kinds of high-powered worker that expects full commitment from the executive suite?

My guess is that most women executives would never make this kind of schedule public. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer returned to work a week or two after giving birth. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote a whole book about the importance of women “leaning in” and giving more time and energy to work.

Still, we’re starting to see a reaction to Lean In with books like Overwhelmed, which chronicles the impossibility of balancing it all: Parenthood, work, personal life, leisure.

Maybe, in time, female executives will be just as free as Cirne is to set the terms for their own work-life balance. Maybe all of us, men and women, will find ways to carve out the space we need away from work — to unplug the phone and let the boss’s email go unanswered until tomorrow morning.

Maybe we’re all feeling a little overwhelmed. It may just be the price of trying to change the world. But I’m glad that a few CEOs are willing to take a slightly different approach.

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