HOW IMPORTANT IS WORK LIFE BALANCE ?

“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.

Author: KVDP, Shokunin, Aungkarns; CC BY-SA 3.0; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: KVDP, Shokunin, Aungkarns; CC BY-SA 3.0; via Wikimedia Commons


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.”

Author: Cobragym1; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Cobragym1; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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.

Author: Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup; CC BY-SA 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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.

Author: Jeremy Keith; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Jeremy Keith; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


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

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20 Responses to HOW IMPORTANT IS WORK LIFE BALANCE ?

  1. Very wise, Les, and thank you. I think we forget sometimes that we are in charge of the balance, and tend to think that it controls us.

    • leshayman says:

      Charlotte, I think that this is the key issue. Too many people feel that their work life balance is all externally driven, whilst I believe that it is about prioritising personal choice. Les

  2. Frank says:

    Hi Les, again a great write-up, and I think one of the most important issues we must address.
    It took me a while to understand life wasn’t “work” (and career) alone. What became vital/mandatory was health and family, and that lead to gym and serious triathlon events and family holidays (plus business holidays without them). Balance to me (as a Libran) has been attained by doing everything to excess and doing it with fun. And as you say, it is up to the individual. I found doing a bucket list helped too.
    Regards, Frank

    • leshayman says:

      Frank, balance in everything is key. I have a bucket list, but it is growing faster than I can handle as I find that there are so many interesting things to do. Les

  3. A great writeup, and one which I can see myself sharing with others I work with. I particularly liked your point about it not being necessary to always be available. I know some companies do demand that, but I’ve always said no to it, and it has worked for me. I think it helps to keep me sane to have genuine holidays.

    • leshayman says:

      Jennifer, I was always theoretically available 24/7 when I was in any senior role, I just regularly turned off my mobile phone and didn’t look at my email when I felt that it was important to turn off. People who worked for me always seemed to manage the situation without me, when I was not in contact. I would regularly spend 24 hours in an aeroplane travelling from Sydney to Germany, and people knew that I was not in available and had no issue with it, so I knew they could cope at other times without me as well.Les

  4. Holger says:

    Great article and great conclusions – no doubt. But I think that the discussed famous topic doesn’t address the issue. In my eyes it is not only work-life-balance. It just makes it easier to push everything to that topic. What has really changed over the last 20 to 30 years are the roles we have to live in. Compared to 30 years ago (actually the generation of my parents), today you have to be perfect in several roles. You are supposed to be great as professional, daddy, husband, lover, friend and so on. It’s not good enough just to be good in your job. In addition you have to do a lot of business travel (internationally), which eats up your time and you might have to commute to your workplace on a weekly basis (which is more and more a reality for a lot of people). So compared to 30 years ago far more hours are gone for these kind of activities. What has also changed is the fact, that once you don’t perform anymore for a while, you get kicked out of the role. That’s true for the job as well as for the other roles you have to fulfill (divorce rates in Germany are over 50% in the meantime). That all puts a lot of pressure on the people and that’s why this work life balance topic is so highly ranked. Also 30 years ago women started to work again – mainly for doing something nice. Today’s reality in most families is, that both have to work for financial reasons – and that again eats “work capacity at home” and adds more stress to families. The simple fact remains, that a day has just 24 hours and a week 7 days … but it’s hard to put everything into it. It is not just balancing work and life (and I agree, that shouldn’t be seen as opposite things) – it is balancing 5 or 6 or 7 aspects of life.

    • leshayman says:

      Holger … very well put. Most people are trying to balance more than 2 aspects of their life and that means they are being pulled from many sides. The problem is that the discussions that are happening on work life balance think that it can be resolved just by mandating, like the French and the 35 hour week. This doesn’t solve the problem. It is more about being able to define your life goals, how you define success, and regularly remembering and reminding yourself why these are important. Les

      • Holger says:

        My life goals? Well,
        1. the tax authorities and my bank manager think it is my job,
        2. my wife thinks it is the house slave and the gardener,
        3. my kids love me as their taxi driver
        4. ,,, and all I want is to be a great tennis professional and lover … 🙂

        And I agree, the french 35 hours week is nonsens. But my reality in 2013 was 10 hours commuting every week from Berlin to Essen and back (where it was hard to work nor to do anything else which was somehow useful), 50 hours of work every week, in total 3 times around the world on business trips (mainly Asia and Americas), no bank holidays at all (missed all of them based on the nice China, US and Brazil trips). And that is time you can’t cut the lawn or repair the car or take care of the kids or or or …

      • leshayman says:

        Holger, my advice would be to focus on being a great lover of tennis … Les

  5. Adriana says:

    Mr. Hayman, I find out these days that many people that are vocal about work-life balance are not the extreme ones who are working 24/7 (as one can never meet them anyway) but mainly people my age of even younger who wouldn’t give up working flexible hours and home office hours, but still want a career. I’ve always felt that a 60 hour working week can bring one both – career and family life, and I never thought or talked about this balance in my career. It was just life lived – with work and family together. Thank you. Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, that is exactly why I said that we each have to define our own balance … there is not one solution. I also tried to limit my work time to 60-70 hours and as little as possible (not easy) on weekends. International travel makes it harder and it is important to work around that if one can. Les

  6. John Irwin says:

    Well stated, Les! I think this also fits with the broader question to oneself of ” What does success in my life look like?” versus “What does success in my career look like?”
    Best wishes,
    John

    • leshayman says:

      John, the problem is that most people forget this once they are on the treadmill and it takes over. It usually takes a seriously threatening event to make someone rethink how they want to define their life … such as illness, divorce etc., I thought that I had managed this after my bout with cancer, but have to admit that it only took a few years and I was back running as fast as the rest of the rats. I have to be thankful to Victoria for being able to remind me whenever I got out of control. Les

  7. Kerstin says:

    The challenge is to keep remembering this issue.
    Mostly we become aware of the fact that life is more than getting your work done, when someone close to us breaks down – or even worse dies – after postponing “the good times” all his/her life long because there was always sth. more urgent to be managed before…

  8. Randy Conley says:

    Those are 3 excellent points, Les. I’ve started to think about this issues as work-life “harmony,” not balance. The word balance implies you have to devote equal amounts of time and energy to both sides of the issue, whereas harmony means you find a blend that’s acceptable to your particular preferences. It’s really about point #1 – creating your own definition. Most importantly, your post reminds us that we should be intentional about defining, understanding, and creating the balance/harmony and not hope it happens by accident.

    • leshayman says:

      Randy, I love your term “work-life harmony” which I will now use all the time instead of work-life balance, as it is a much more accurate way to describe it all. Les

  9. Kerstin says:

    I like “work-life harmony”, too. It implies the inner state of mind and not only the act of balancing and not trying to fall ;o)

  10. Katja says:

    One of the saner views on a complex topic. Thank you for the food for brain and for your honesty, it is always encouraging to hear personal experiences of people in senior roles.

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