Escaping the Asylum

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In my previous blog posts I explained my belief that the continuing adherence to the industrial-age mind-set has meant that it is impossible for high-achieving knowledge workers to realise a true work-life balance in most established organisations.

This is certainly what I experienced as a career professional, especially when I was in the ‘acceleration’ phase of my career from my early until late 30s, and I see it being endured by so many of the high-achievers with whom I now engage through my coaching, writing and speaking.

In this post I would like to introduce a roadmap towards lifeworking. I am in no way suggesting that the roadmap is perfect – it is simply built upon my own experiences, and upon my interaction with scores of other lifeworkers who have been willing to share their stories with me over the past few years.

I believe that the realization of lifeworking can be achieved through the pursuit of three possible paths:

PATH 1 – Renegotiate the terms of engagement with your existing employer.

PATH 2 – Create or join an organisation that rejects industrial-age work orthodoxy.

PATH 3 – Become a Free Agent.

Whatever choice they make (and sometimes people choose more than one option), individuals need to be the ones driving the shift towards lifework, and not wait for organisations to create the necessary environment

The first approach is to re-negotiate the terms of engagement with the existing organisation to better integrate other life goals. This requires a track record of high performance (i.e. an ability to demonstrate one’s value to the organisation), trusted relationships with senior management and peers, and willingness for the organisation to be output rather than input focused.

The organisation and the individual need to rethink performance targets and rewards to boost intrinsic motivation, and in some cases to accept that promotion to wider levels of responsibility is not an objective – at least for the time being. The shift might also require the individual to develop stronger skills in collaboration as the transition to lifeworking within an established organisation typically involves greater task sharing with others. In my previous blogpost I described my friend David who is a good example of this kind of approach.

I recently had a conversation with the delightful Paul Stratford who is Head of Talent Development and Performance at Telstra Australia. Paul talked through how Telstra has embraced this approach, and the excitement that it has generated across the organization. One of the most amazing insights that Paul shared with me is that Telstra now takes the view that almost any role should at first be considered part-time.

At first Telstra adopted this thinking in an effort to boost diversity, but it has increasingly come to realise that it has a more widely compelling logic given the evolution future-oriented work practices. It is only after thoughtful deliberation and an objective look at the task requirements of a job that the company will agree to offer a full-time employment contract. This is very different to the unspoken industrial-age assumption that any ‘serious’ job, (especially in senior management) was by default full-time.

The second option involves creating or joining an organisation (often small) that rejects industrial-age work orthodoxy. Such organisations reject a philosophy of scarcity in favour of embracing abundance, and are comfortable in providing individuals with a greater degree of autonomy over how they achieve performance goals. These organizations typically have special kinds of leaders who have a true interest in their people, and who create a meritocratic culture in which people are measured on outputs rather than inputs, but which equally foster a sense of belonging and mutual support.

My dear friend Gert-Jan Van Wijk has created exactly this kind of organization through his executive learning platform ‘The World We Work In’ and in the process has won numerous awards for innovation in executive learning and development. At the same time he and his wife Sandra have adopted two beautiful sons from Kenya, he has put more time into his running passion, and he has discovered his skills as a coach and writer.

The third approach involves the individual becoming a free agent, and offering knowledge as a consultant, advisor or interim manager based upon one’s most valuable skills and capabilities. This approach delivers a key element of lifeworking – autonomy. But it requires deep insight into where the individual’s skills really lie, and an ability to be open to building relationships with clients and colleagues with complimentary areas of expertise.

Connections with peers and networks are the free agents life-line to their own professional and business development. Contrary to institutional environments there is less advantage gained from keeping new methods and concepts to oneself. Sharing knowledge and skills demonstrates your willingness to collaborate openly and is even an implicit standard by which free agents are evaluated and gain work.  Collaboration becomes a platform to showcase your ability among peers who may in fact also become your clients, and my firm belief is that open collaboration between free agents becomes most effective in the face of an immediate client request.

The enablers of free agents are the interactive digital tools which have become widespread and easy to use for non technical people – email, Voice Over IP (VoIP), free video conferencing, Google academic and open-source shareware. The availability of these low cost communication tools for telephone, videoconferencing and document sharing, allow collaboration networks to get connected, to communicate at low cost and to share and co-create intellectual capital. This has dramatically reduced the transaction costs of managing groups of people who are not co-located, but has also created new demands in terms of project management and open communication.

The high tech tools also require a different mindset in building relationships: the value of careful and concise referrals increases and the basic assumption must be one of trust.  In my experience, becoming a free agent also requires the individual to learn how to configure Outlook email on a SmartPhone, network a printer, set-up multi-party videoconferences on Skype, and even find the best flight deals.

All of this stuff is typically taken care of by others when you are a high-achiever in an organization, and it can come as a big shock when you need to do it yourself. Free agents often discover a new found respect and empathy for IT helpdesk staff after they go independent.

My friends Ayelet Baron, Giselle Vercauteren, Bie De Graeve, Sabine Bulteel, Steven Van Belleghem and Vali Lalioti have all become free agents in the past few years and it has been a joy to watch them develop and grow. But is has also been hard to see the struggle and frustration which has sometimes accompanied their endeavours to establish themselves.  I have been gifted with their support and encouragement, but also had the joy to be able to reciprocate.

I was recently badly injured in a cycling accident and was humbled by the outflowing of support from my network. People stepped forward to cover client commitments, to delay certain deadlines, and just to check-in with me during my recovery to see that everything was okay.

I am not suggesting that these three approaches are the only ones that might provide the platform for lifeworking, but they are the most common paths that I have witnessed.

I initially decided to pursue the third path, resigning from my position as a full-time academic in 2009, but in the process re-negotiated my terms of engagement with my then employer to continue working as a free-lance educator on executive education courses.

Since then I have expanded my freelance work with several business schools, built relationships with speakers agencies in India, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom and the US, and co-founded a thought leadership platform called ‘Connected Visions’. I have also engaged in a multitude of consultancy projects with other free agents – including all of the wonderful people I have just mentioned above.

Despite the existence of the lifeworking choices that I have described above, there are powerful barriers that prevent individuals from embarking on a new journey, even when the possible path ahead can be at least partly visualised.  And perhaps the two most powerful blockers of all are the need to define purpose and the requirement to address fears, challenges that I will discuss in my next blogpost.

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