HOW IMPORTANT IS WORK LIFE BALANCE ?
May 12, 2014 20 Comments
“Balance activity with serenity,
wealth with simplicity,
persistence with innovation,
community with solitude,
familiarity with adventure,
constancy with change,
leading with following.”
– American author Jonathan Lockwood Huie
I have long believed that the only way to achieve work-life balance is to do something that you really love to do, so that the whole w-l-b question becomes irrelevant. However, my post retirement role over the last 8 years (external consultant/coach/advisor) has given me a somewhat different outside-in view of what drives senior people than I had when I was in the midst of it all. I have now come to realize that there is more to it than this alone, and that loving your job is the right starting point, but that it is not enough to keep some balance in your life.
I have no issue with people who want to devote themselves 24/7 to their work, as long as that is their goal, and they are fully aware that whilst they may have great personal career and financial success, they are likely to achieve very little else. I also have no problem with people at the other end of the scale who dedicate themselves to working as little as possible, not achieving much advancement in their career or from a monetary viewpoint, but who are determined to have as much free time as they can get in their life, as long as this is one of their key life goals that they have deliberately set for themselves.
The problem is that I keep coming across senior executives who are basically working 24/7 with only the occasional foray across the spoors of their family, or the scurry around a golf course, who bemoan their situation as being something that they want to change, but who feel that they can’t get off the treadmill. I have also quite recently had a number of close male friends who woke up one morning to find that their families had departed, much to their horror and surprise. Generally, his reaction was along the lines of “I was only working to provide the best for my family”, while her response was “I am living on my own, but with someone who occasionally turns up and interferes with my life, so I may as well live on my own without the interference.”
I have been fortunate to have been married to someone who while being incredibly tolerant of the demands of my career, was prepared on a regular basis to let me know in no uncertain terms that I was breaching what was acceptable behavior. This included the time that I was running the SAP Asia Pacific Region, but was also functioning as interim CEO of SAP Japan. After 3 months of commuting from Singapore to Tokyo every week on the Sunday night red-eye and coming home late Friday evening, she “suggested” that I should rapidly accelerate the identification of the permanent head of SAP Japan. I did. The problem was that I had been so focused on ensuring that my largest geographic unit did not suffer from a lack of leadership that I had put all my energy and focus into running that business rather than finding a replacement for the previous CEO. The next time was when the region had grown to over 3500 people with revenues over €1B and I felt that I had to be everywhere at once. This time our “serious conversation” helped to precipitate our move to Europe and the changing of my role within SAP, and the last such conversation led to my retirement in 2006.
However, apart from these business treadmill takeovers, which my much wiser partner could recognize faster than could I, and despite my total commitment to whatever role I was filling at the time, here are 3 key rules that helped me keep some balance in most of my life, beyond the key one of finding the work that can light up your heart.
Rule 1: Build your own definition of work-life balance. This w-l-b issue has become a hot topic and the amount of discussion/verbiage keeps accelerating. Some people will insist that the key is to become more efficient, like Steven Covey does in “The seven habits of highly effective people”, but while this may make you more productive, it ultimately will do little to change the hours that you work if you do not mould your own attitudes and behaviours. You need to determine what work-life balance means to you, and with those who share your non-work life, and build your plans and behaviours accordingly. There is no “one size fits all”.
Rule 2: Be honest about your life goals. If your goal is to make money, have prestige and power, and you don’t want to be alone, either find a partner who has the same goals or one who is already wealthy and powerful. If you want to breeze through life doing as little as is possible, just accept that it is unlikely that you will ever end up with a beachfront home in Malibu. However, if you truly want a great career and a rich family life you can achieve it if you really work at balancing both, but you need some regular sanity checks to ensure that the focus remains on both, as it is easy to let the career take over.
Rule 3: Accept that you are not so important that you have to be available 24/7: No matter how senior you are, no matter how Emperor-like your status, nobody has to be available all of the time. It is an illness to keep all your gadgets switched on all the time so you can continually check for emails, sms messages, twitter and the rest of the growing plethora of ways we can impinge on each other today, just so you can show the world how responsive you are. It really only shows how needy you are when it comes to wanting attention. People with balanced lives have their gadget habits well under control.
The ultimate reality is that your own work-life balance is totally up to you. Whatever balance you truly want it to be, you can make it happen. Only very few people living in a developed nation today have no control over their work life.
“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth.” –American singer/songwriter Patti Smith