Category Archives: flexibility

Living Like a Pro

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Training in the Basque Region, Spain

It is just one week to go until my first race of the season – The Tour of Good Hope, South Africa. The last half year has been amongst the most fulfilling time of my life, as I have embraced my commitment to prepare for the World Masters Cycling Championship in Albi France in August. In my last blog post I talked about my willingness to “live like a professional cyclist” and over the past six months I have done so. So what does “living like a pro” actually mean?

Since September I have been training under the mentorship of my coach and ex-professional cyclist Allan Davis, completing somewhere between 12 and 20 hours of training per week, split between time on my bike and workouts in the gym. Approximately half of my on-bike work is done indoor on my stationary trainer to allow me to completely control my efforts, and of course to deal with the Belgian winter weather.

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My Coach, Allan Davis

So how about balancing training, work and family? September through November was pretty steady with one or two days of work per week, typically a keynote talk or day of teaching. I did not take on any commitments involving long-haul travel at this time, so all of my work projects were in Europe avoiding long flights and jet lag. I tried to align my gym sessions with days that I needed to travel, as most hotels have decent gym facilities and/or a pool.

Four or five times a week I have started my day at 6.30am with an easy one-hour session on the indoor trainer, before joining the family for breakfast and doing the School commute. After the School drop-off I have headed out on my bike to complete my specific training activities, or gone to the gym or pool. This has typically been followed by shower and lunch, and then an afternoon of emailing, conference calls, writing and other work activities.

From December until end of February I have had very few work commitments in terms of keynotes and teaching – just one day a week or so. But this is typical as this time of year is always less busy, especially with regard to conferences and events. March and April has been almost completely blocked out in my agenda for racing – something which my speaking agent has been wonderfully understanding about.

After racing the Giro Sardinia at end of April, I plan to take it relatively easy in May and first half of June to allow time for my body to recover from a very intensive nine month period of training and racing. So I have told my speaking agent that I will be available in this period to ramp-up my speaking commitments – which also corresponds with the busiest time of the year for conferences and congresses.

My family have been very understanding – and I definitely have the most amazing wife in the world! Training at this level takes a huge amount of energy and focus, but I have been mindful about contributing to the household and spending quality time with Anne-Mie and the kids. There have been moments of frustration and annoyance, but I think that is normal in any relationship. But the family completely understands what I am working towards, and that makes a huge difference.

With regard to training, September through November involved a lot of time on developing muscular power and core strength, with three sessions per week of about an hour in the gym and a weekly swimming session. Training on the bike at this time involved three to four hour rides twice a week, interspersed with shorter sessions after the intensive gym workouts. December included a big training “block” in India where I participated in the Tour of Nilgiris, covering more than 1100kms in just eight days.

From start of January I shifted from gym sessions to on-bike power and intensity training, starting a number of new protocols introduced to me by Allan. The emphasis of these sessions has been on dramatically increasing my neuromuscular power, building on the weight training and core work done during my base building phase. The biggest shift for me was to introduce twice weekly efforts using lower cadence and higher power output through short interval work. These sessions resulted in a lot of fatigue, and were interspersed with easy “brew” rides to allow my muscles to recover.

On top of this, I have maintained two or three sessions per week of three to four hours on the bike, varying between easy riding and high intensity tempo riding. From middle of February we have included one or two Time Trial specific training sessions per week, very intensive but short efforts at high power using varying cadence to simulate race efforts over mixed terrain. And finally, I am just back from a four day block of training with Allan in the Basque region of Spain where we did climbing efforts and motor pacing at race speed.

In addition to the physical work, I have been focusing a lot on my diet, and Allan and I have introduced a regime of vitamin and mineral supplements to help my body cope with the intensive training load. I have provided a list of my supplements below, and it is identical to the regime used by a current World Tour professional team. I have a good diet, but it is difficult to meet all of the body’s requirements for branch chain amino acids, iron and other minerals – thus the supplements regime. I have found that my general feeling of health and wellness has improved with this approach, and I have not had any issue with colds, flu or illness over the winter months.

Although I have not focused on weight loss specifically, my weight has declined from 68.5 kilograms at start of September to 66kgs by end of February. I plan to lose another kilogram during March as I prepare for more mountainous race events in Cyprus and Italy, and this will involve dieting.

Figure 1 – Dietary Supplement Regime

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So what have been the results of “living like a pro” under the guidance of Allan Davis? I can objectively say that I am currently in the best condition of my life, purely on the performance metrics that I have been tracking over the past three years. I train with a heart rate monitor and power meter, and have been collecting and analysing my performance data since start of 2014. My current level of performance is somewhere between 5% and 10% better across the board than for my highest numbers in 2016 – for 5 minute, 10 minute, 20 minute, 30 minute and 60 minute functional threshold power.

Figure 2 – TrainingPeaks Performance Management Chart

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I have provided some of my data for the cycling nerds out there, and you can clearly see the steady progression of my fitness (blue line) in the above TrainingPeaks chart (Figure 2). I have also accrued a lot of fatigue (pink line), which I will now steadily reduce through tapering to see my race “form” (orange line) peak just in time for the Tour of Good Hope.

For the cycling novices, the main thing to appreciate is that my current performance numbers in terms of watts per kilogram of body weight (Figure 3) now equate to what is typically expected at the domestic professional level, also known as “Continental Professional” level here in Europe. So not too bad for an old guy.

Figure 3 – Peak Power Output

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Now it is all about converting this incredible feeling of fitness into some race results in South Africa in a little over a week’s time.

I can’t wait!

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Self-Belief, Beyond Reason

Eight months ago I lay beside the road on a mountain descent in Mallorca. It was early April and I had just hit a brick wall doing about 50km per hour, breaking ten ribs, puncturing a lung, dislocating my right shoulder and cracking several teeth. And I was pissed off – furious at myself for losing concentration on the corner, and angry that all of the hard work that I had done on my bicycle over the winter was now lost. But I did not despair – not even for a moment. Because throughout my life I have sometimes experienced setbacks and heartache, but I have always been able to get back on my feet. And I knew that this time would be no different.

After the ambulance arrived at the roadside I was taken to a small hospital in the nearest town, but the doctors took one look at me and shook their heads – my condition was too serious. They put a drip in my arm to ease the pain, and I was transferred to the intensive care unit of the University Hospital in Palma. The rest of the journey was a blur.

That evening, after the catheter had been inserted to drain the fluid from my punctured lung, I managed to call my wife Anne-Mie. With laboured breathing, I told her that I had crashed, but I was okay. No broken neck, no head injury and I could remember the kids birth dates. I told her that I was going to be okay – that it would just take time.

I spent a week in the hospital before I was allowed to travel home to Belgium by ferry and train – I was unable to fly because the tear in my lung was too serious. In that time I had a lot of time to think, and of course I started to write this blog. But not for one moment did I consider that my life as a cyclist was over – I just accepted that my goals for the 2015 season were gone, and that I would have to focus on repairing my body.

Lying in that hospital bed in Mallorca I reminded myself that life is long, and that this accident was just a setback. At only 44 years old, I have many years ahead of me – in 2016 I will turn 45, and that means progressing to the Masters 4 Category for guys from 45 to 50 years old. So I said to myself, “next year will be your year.”

A few days ago I had a quiet celebration – I got back on my bike at the start of July, and for the past five months I have been steadily rebuilding my fitness. I still have some pain in my ribs, and the shoulder aches a bit, but the rest of me feels fine. I record all of my training sessions with a Power Metre and Heart Rate Monitor, and it is exhilarating to see that my condition is now back to where it was before I had the crash. My body’s ability to sustain power is about the same as when I got on the top step of the podium at the Cape Town Cycle Classic back in March – and that feels amazing.

But more importantly I still have a passion to compete. For me, love for my sport is not about a small spark in the dark. It’s about a burning fire, and self-belief beyond reason. The fire still burns, and 2016 is going to be a very good year.

WATCH MY TED TALK: What is Success, Really?

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Life Should be a Long Vacation

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In my last few blogposts I talked about how life working is built upon a blend of both home-based and workplace-based productivity – what I call ‘at home days’ and ‘away days’.

Now I would like to make what I am sure is a pretty controversial claim – we should completely rethink the way that vacation time is seen as blocks of leisure time interspersed throughout an overall productive working year.

I believe that it is completely within reason that future work models could reject this approach, and that knowledge workers might be productive in a ‘seasonal’ manner – just like their agrarian ancestors. Indeed, this is the way in which many free agents, including myself, work today.

About two thirds of my annual income is generated in the Spring and Autumn months which coincide with the conference and event season in Europe. My kids completely understand this now – In May and June and September through November their Pappa has many more away-days in his calendar. But they equally know that the remainder of the year is dominated by at-home days, and that July and August are 100% family time – usually involving camping in a tent somewhere in southern Europe.  I recall a conversation with my 12 year old son Ries last year when I apologised for a pretty intense period of away-days in September. He said “That’s okay Pappa, that is why we get to see so much of you at the other times.”

For about four or five months of the year I put a lot of energy into my work, and I still try to be a good husband and father – although I am away from home a bit more than normal. But I am certainly not at my best as a sportsman as I simply do not have the time to train at a high level. In the other months of the year, the energy I put into my family, my sport and my other passions far exceeds that which goes into ‘workplace’ activities.

I am sure that the mere suggestion of such an approach – workers being intensively productive for just three to six months of the year – would cause on uproar in most organizational settings.  Can you imagine a salesperson at a bank or technology company reaching their annual targets within the first quarter of the year, and then the business agreeing that they could enjoy the remaining nine months in an at-home mode to focus more on family and personal passions – like studying a philosophy course, learning to scuba dive or training for a marathon?

No way! The response of the organization would be that if a sales person can hit an annual target in three months, then of course the annual target should be quadrupled! Many top-performing sales people know this of course, and make sure that even if they can hit their targets in three to six months they stagger their contracts throughout the year. Or they conclude their biggest contracts at the end of the sales period. That’s right sales people – we know your game!

My 40-year-old friend David lives in Belgium and is an excellent B2B salesman and a competitive cyclist. His job in selling machinery involves him meeting with clients, developing  proposals and concluding large contracts. But he also has an understanding with his employer that his cycling passion is very important to him. David trains around 10 to 15 hours per week pretty much all year round, with about half of that during weekdays. In certain months of the year, such as April-May and August-September he competes a lot and ramps up his training. Naturally, these months are less productive in a commercial sense, but that is not a problem for his boss who is focused on David’s yearly output, not on obsessing that every quarter will deliver the same results. The company is proud of David’s sporting achievements, and his commercial results are also widely respected.

David and I have a lot in common – and in fact he is one of my toughest competitors. The only difference is that he is employed by an organization while I am a free agent. But I would not call what David and I do work-life balance, would you? The idea of ‘balance’ presumes a constant tension – a tilting between work and non-work priorities. For the two of us, we actually experience very little tension.

Lifeworking is more like a rotating work-life seesaw, periodically rotating and tilting between different priorities. The most important thing of course is that you are the one steering the seesaw, and this is the theme I will address in my next post.

Avoid Meetings & Assholes

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In some of my previous blogposts I have discussed how lifeworking is built upon a blend of both home-based and workplace-based productivity – what I call ‘at home days’ and ‘away days’. I especially focused upon the fact that ‘at home days’ do not necessarily involve one working in isolation in either a physical or virtual sense, a point which I think the current debate on working from home almost completely misses. Before moving on to talking about workplace based productivity or ‘away days’ I would like to elaborate on a couple of other points related to my approach to ‘at home’ working.

My belief is that a lack of genuine socialization is why companies like Yahoo! have failed to see the full productivity benefits of at-home working. It is not enough simply to allow people to work at home in isolation – we must ensure that people have a genuine feeling of connection with the people they are working with, especially if they are not meeting physically.

I take first-time meetings very seriously, usually trying to spend an hour or more with my new client or colleague to build a genuine insight into their personality and interests. And in that hour business is a small part of the conversation – much more importantly I try to get an insight into the person I am meeting. Where did he or she grow-up? What have been the most significant life events? What are his or her passions? How about family? What I am seeking are points of connection – those shared experiences and interests we have had that can provide a basis for our future relationship. I listen more than I speak, and I try show to the other that I am enjoying the moment.

As part of those meetings I always share a little about what makes me tick. Where I come from, my life as a parent and as a competitive sportsman. I want to have people understand why I do the things that I do, not just what I do in a professional sense. I feel that this is very important, because it then gives people an understanding of how I work – more on this later.

When I became independent five years ago I adopted Professor Bob Sutton’s “No Asshole Rule” which basically says that life is too short to work with people who are assholes. I follow this rule religiously, and have discovered how much more enjoyable life becomes. If I meet an asshole, I don’t work with them. If a client approaches me and is an asshole, I say thank you and then explain that I am far too busy to take on another project right now.  I then refer them to one of my colleagues who does not have such a full calendar. 🙂

I think the no-asshole rule is an important reason that my at-home working is effective. As I mentioned above, I genuinely endeavor to build trust and openness with my clients and colleagues, as I think that this provides a level of empathy that makes our interactions meaningful, even if over a Skype Video connection. It also means that my colleagues and clients rarely hesitate in accepting an invitation to visit my home.

In my experience assholes, especially assholes in big and inflexible organizations, have a hard time with people who work from home. They resent the fact that they are not allowed to do what you do, they treat consultants as 2nd class citizens, and they like to play power games. When you try to engage with them on personal topics, they are closed and impersonal. So the idea that you might not be willing to spend an hour in a car to get to their office really pisses them off. I can usually smell these kind of people from a mile away, and I avoid them like the bubonic plague.

I guess I don’t need to explain how workplace-based or ‘away days’ are structured as this is the way that most of the world still works. But I would like to explore an important philosophy that underpins the way that these days work for me – the fact that ‘away’ days are always a very conscious decision. In fact, I only ever meet face-to-face or attend a physical gathering away from home if it is absolutely necessary – for example, when meeting a client or colleague for the first time, attending an essential meeting, dealing with a conflict, presenting a proposal or delivering a workshop or keynote talk.

Of course, my discipline with managing ‘away days’ does not make everyone happy, so it is important to manage expectations, to learn to tolerate occasional conflicts and to do what I call selectively breaking the rules. I am amazed by how often I am invited to attend meetings where I am not really needed, or to meet with people physically when I already know them well and there is no good reason to spend half a day or more to get to their office. We all know that the formal face-to-face gathering has become too much of a habit in many organizations, and there has been plenty written about the mindless scheduling of unnecessary and ineffective meetings. So I simply try to explain to people that Skype video works just fine.

I must admit that when I first started to have this kind of away-day discipline I was worried about the reaction of other people, especially my clients. But what I discovered was that many of them appreciated it just as much as I did, especially because I had explained why I was being so disciplined with my time.  My clients and colleagues understand the importance of my family life, and they also understand that at certain times of the year I am preparing for or competing in international-level cycling events. And why do they understand these things – because I have told them in an open and honest way.

About a year ago one of my clients with a large technology firm told me that she wished that she only had the courage to ‘selectively break the rules’ herself – and now she does it more and more. The result has been better performance at work, and much more investment in her self. Two of my senior clients – one who is a CFO at a bank, and another who is a CIO at a pharmaceutical company – have talked about me as a role model when explaining to their respective leadership teams about how to have more energy and focus in their roles.

Of course, there is an underlying caveat to all of this, and it is that you had better be bloody good at what you do! If you are mediocre, if your knowledge is not valued and unique, then you are probably going to end up having to work with a lot of assholes during your career, as you have to pay the bills somehow.

It is a simple fact of life – the better you are, the more you are able to choose the clients and colleagues that you interact with. That goes the same for working in an organization as it does for being a free agent.

So remember the most important rules of achieving lifeworking – be kind, avoid meetings & assholes, and be a superstar at whatever it is that you do!

New Ways of Working: Yahoo! Still Doesn’t Get it

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Today’s digital networked technologies allow people to be productive almost anywhere at anytime, whether they are working individually or in teams, and yet most organizations still adhere to regimented start and end times to the workday. While there might be good reasons for this in terms of job or sector specific activities requiring manual work, face-to-face collaboration and/or schedule-dependent activities, it is not required for the vast spectrum of non-manual and non-concurrent tasks engaged in by knowledge workers.

But I am not suggesting that knowledge workers should never engage in face-to-face time with their colleagues and clients – there is definitely value in bringing human beings together, as many Silicon Valley companies that swung the pendulum too far towards remote working have started to appreciate.

For me, a knowledge worker, life today is not regimented along the lines of an 8 to 10 hour x 5-day office-based workweek, and nor is it about working exclusively as a solo but digitally connected freelancer. Instead it revolves around a blend of both home-based and workplace-based productivity – what I call ‘at home days’ and ‘away days’. And this logical blending of these two modes of working is what the current debate around Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s banning of working from home largely fails to acknowledge.

In my next few blogposts I will explain what the blending of these two modes of working looks like, and in doing so elaborate further on the lifeworking concept. In this post I will describe ‘at home days’ – Yahoo! please take note.

My at home days always start with breakfast with my wife and children before waving my wife off to work and taking the kids to School. I then do a training session on my bike for an hour or two, while at the same time listening to podcasts about leadership, philosophy, art history or any other idea I am exploring (don’t worry – I only use one earphone bud, and always wear a helmet). I then return home for shower and lunch before afternoon working – email, conference calls, working on a paper, managing my social media, speaking with my accountant or whatever other priorities are on my desk.

I also frequently invite colleagues and clients to my house for afternoon meetings, typically at the kitchen table, and I have invested in a good coffee machine. But I only do this if it is convenient for the other – I would never ask someone to disrupt their own day to go out of their way to come to me. Fortunately I live between Antwerp and Brussels, and a lot of people commute between the two cities. So if it is convenient, then I invite people to visit. Some people have asked me if it feels weird inviting people to my home for meetings, but why should it be weird? Okay, the living room sometimes looks a bit of a disaster when they arrive – three kids have an ability to do that.

I actually find that meeting at home brings an informality and authenticity to interactions that rarely happen in a business setting. When we first moved to Belgium we rented a really crappy 1970s era house as we were unsure about our next move – it had salmon coloured carpet, and really tacky cork wall covering on the staircase. But so what – if people were to judge my professionalism by a rented house, then they were probably not the kind of people that I would like to be around.

I also offer to visit my clients and colleagues residences if I know they sometimes work from a home office and it is convenient for both of us. I am still perplexed by how reluctant many people are when I suggest it. I mean, it is not like I am suggesting we meet naked in a sauna or something.
My favourite client meetings of all happen on a bicycle – one of the CIOs with whom I work loves to cycle, and we try to ride together at least once a month. These days, those rides are much more about our friendship than any specific projects. Thanks Herman!

In the late afternoon I collect the kids from school and get them started on hobbies, sports or homework. I do another couple of hours of work in the late afternoon, which might also involve some more drop-in visitors. I never ask the kids to tidy-up especially because clients are coming, and sometimes the kids need to interrupt my meetings or conference calls for an important question – like where to find the toilet paper. Or maybe Charlie just needs a quick hug, and sits on my knee for a minute.
My kids are mindful of when I am on a call, but I do not ask them to tiptoe around the house and be silent. Of course, there is sometimes the occasional screaming match between my two youngest, or my 12 year old forgets I am speaking with someone and decides to play his favourite track on Spotify at full blast.  At moments like this I usually shout a little reminder from my desk: ‘hold it down kids.’

My at-home approach has never gotten in the way of having meaningful interactions with my colleagues and clients. Indeed, the overwhelming response of people to experiencing my family has been positive, and I think they like meeting my kids whether in person or in a virtual sense. I believe that the most important thing is ultimately what you deliver – if I am credible and deliver exceptional work, then people are not too concerned about sharing a Skype call, video shoot or at-home business meeting with Ries, Hannah and Charlie.

In the early evening I prepare dinner, depending on whether Anne-Mie has been to her office or not as she also likes to cook. We then eat and relax as a family until the kids’ teeth brushing, pyjamas and bedtime at around 8pm. For these hours, screen time (computer, phone, tablet) for me and everyone else is forbidden. Once or twice a week, after dinner, I take my eldest son Ries to his nearby BMX club, and while he trains I cycle on the velodrome that surrounds the BMX track. I never listen to podcasts on the track of course – being on the piste with 50 or 60 other cyclists is just a wonderful immersive experience of the senses which I find almost therapeutic.

Later in the evening I might sit with Anne-Mie at our kitchen table or on the sofa, both of us with laptops open, but also talking about the day. Evenings might also involve conference calls or interactions with people working in different time zones. One of the funny things is that I can honestly say is all of my professional colleagues and clients are people I like, so often the afternoon meetings and evening phone calls and interactions do not really feel like working in a strict sense of the word. It is also about connecting and catching up and sharing ideas.

I think that my experience demonstrates that if organizations were only focused upon productivity outputs rather than inputs we might fundamentally question the assumption that week day family and leisure time be constrained to early mornings and evenings.  My ‘at home days’ mesh leisure, work and family – there is no compartmentalization, and many of the activities overlap. This is the very meaning of lifeworking, and something that Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer fails to understand.

In my next blogpost I will go deeper into lifeworking by explaining ‘away days’ and elaborate upon why organizations struggle to adopt these kind of future work practices.

Being at the Gym at 6am is not work-life balance

Time-Management

As many high-achievers start to experience the conflicts and imbalances that I have discussed in my earlier blogposts, they endeavour to make some changes. They try to compartmentalize their life, and to squeeze in other life goals around the demands of the 50 or 60 hour work week.

I recently attended a country-level annual employee event of a top international consultancy firm, and as part of the gathering one of the firm’s senior partners had produced a mini-documentary on achieving work-life balance. The film started with a 6am wake-up, followed by step-trainer work-out and shower before 35 minutes with her husband and two pre-school children who were then taken to day-care and kindergarten by the family’s live-in helper. Then came the commute to work (attending phone conference on the way) and meetings with clients until around 7pm. This was followed by a commute home, one-hour dinner with family (prepared by live-in helper) and a 10-minute bedtime story. A quick glass of wine with her husband followed, before another few hours of email and proposal writing.  I witnessed a lot of decidedly uncomfortable looking Millenials in the audience who realised that the partner on the stage was actually being proposed by the firm as a role-model for others. In the Q&A session that followed she revealed that she had taken just six days of vacation time in the previous twelve months.

The scary think in listening to this consulting partner was recognizing so many of the things that I myself had engaged in just a few years before. Trying to keep the three balls of career, family and self in the air is exhausting, and that is why I am still perplexed by people who think they have a work-life balance because they can fit in a 6am gym session once or twice a week, just like I used to do. How is 90 minutes in a gym a week, often while still half-asleep, some kind of balance? It was the same story with vacations – although I took the mandated number of weeks each year, I was rarely away from my computer or mobile phone. On several occasions I actually left family vacations mid-way through to deal with ‘important’ work matters. Or the times when I was reading bedtime stories to my kids, but finding myself rushing through so that I could get back to my email or the report I was working on. My littlest boy Charlie always knew when I was skipping a few paragraphs from his favourite bedtime story – and he soon let me know it!

The behaviours demonstrated by the partner of the consultancy firm, and the approaches that I had engaged in myself, are part of a repertoire of tactics adopted by high-achievers who are desperately trying to achieve a “work-life balance” and are based upon deeply held assumptions.  The thinking behind getting to work-life balance is that individuals need to prioritize between work (career and how one makes a living) and life (health, family, leisure and spirituality). According to this approach, people should be able compartmentalize everything into either work activities (work, meetings, conferences, business trips) or life pursuits (focusing on health and wellbeing, spending time with family and friends, taking time for oneself). This is exactly what I was trying to do throughout my 30s – and it was certainly what I witnessed with the partner of the consulting firm in the Netherlands.

The underlying reason for this mind-set is that the vast majority of organizations still adhere to an industrial age operating model, with accompanying beliefs about technology, organization, processes and culture. This is true whether these organizations be publicly listed firms, family owned companies, start-ups or public sector organizations such as universities and hospitals.

In the industrial age advances in technology drove incredible leaps in human productivity and economic prosperity. But there was a massive gulf between the technological resources of organizations and private individuals, and factories and offices were designed around providing access to technology – whether it was machinery or mainframe computing, or communication tools such as the telephone and facsimile machine.  While access to certain specialized technologies is still important in many industries, the degree to which people need to travel to work to access these technologies has changed dramatically.

Step-fold improvements in computing power, and the rapid advancements in areas such as IP-based communication platforms, mobility and cloud computing, have created low-cost access to technologies that often outperform the legacy technological infrastructure of many established organizations. But in many organizations employees are banned from accessing these productivity tools, or are expected to access them only from the workplace.

While old world practices expect people to come into concrete walls to work, with digital technology people can work anywhere. But organization trust is so fragile that many managers still have a need to see their workers to make sure they are working.  And many employees feel that they have to be seen to be physically present to be valued, often working long hours simply to be seen to be working long hours rather than because there is real work to be done.

The pre-digital age organizational model typically involved entities built around activity systems in which key human resources were ‘contracted’ in a more or less exclusive manner. Loyalty was expected, and it was not unusual to meet ‘lifers’ in many organizations. People who changed jobs frequently were often viewed with suspicion, and the opportunity for people to work as ‘free agents’ was severely limited by the technological constraints that we have mentioned above. But over the past two decades these constraints and attitudes have been undermined.

Rather than relying on dedicated human resources, the boundaries of organizations have became more permeable as firms initially looked towards outsourcing and consultancy. More recently there has been an even more dramatic shift – in some sectors organizations have started to employ interim management at even the most senior levels.  The digital age has seen an explosion in the number of intellectual free agents who desire to collaborate openly with other individuals and institutions. Free agents are knowledge workers who determine their own work portfolio and often integrate their own work/life tradeoffs, without a contractual commitment to a single employer. Some of these people have chosen this path, while others have been forced into free-agent status due to losing their jobs.

Despite the explosion of digital technology, and the increasing permeability of the boundaries of many organizations, underlying organizational processes and cultural norms have been much slower to shift.  In the pre-industrial age different work and social activities were typically dispersed throughout the day, and work and leisure was often seasonal.  Some months of the year people worked from dawn until dusk, while in other periods they had long bouts of leisure time.  Of course this is not to suggest that life was easy, and there were large differences depending upon the basis of productive activity. But life in the pre-industrial age occurred at a much more variable pace than it does today.  Industrial age work processes were designed to bring uniformity and efficiency, and this typically required the regimentation of the workday and separation of work and non-work activities.

In my next blogpost I will talk about why most organizations are completely unable to think beyond industrial age work practices, and also explain why developments in technology and society are now providing an opportunity to make fundamental changes.

Avoid the High Potentials Program at all Costs!

In my last blog post I described how high-achievers bring energy and focus to their roles, and this is often rewarded with recognition and promotion. Many organizations even single-out these people for special development, and they are shepherded towards the ‘High Potentials’ career track.
I have taught on my fair share of executive education programs that are targeted at serving such people, and I have witnessed first hand how this can be a very exciting experience for a young and ambitious professional. But all too often the high-potential track leads to high stress, unhappiness and even burnout.

I experienced the ‘fast track’ in my early 30s as my own career started to take off and doors start opening towards more responsibility and accountability and, in an increasingly global business world, international assignments. I never could have imagined when I graduated from Shepparton High School in a small rural town Australian way back in the late 1980s, that I would eventually find myself based in London (later Berlin) and working in Europe, the US, Africa and Asia. By the time I was in my mid 30s I had engaged in projects in countries as diverse as Norway, India and Nigeria!

From my late teens until my early thirties I was really hungry to be successful. I took the discipline and hard work ethic that had been instilled in me by my family and from my cycling passion into my studies and early career. I had sadly realised that there was no way that I could pursue both my cycling dream and complete university, so after turning my back on racing my bike at the age of 18 I channelled my energy into being the best student, and later young career professional. I followed my undergraduate scholarship with a postgraduate award, and by the time I was just 29 I was working at London Business School – one of the world’s foremost academic institutions.

As a working class kid from the bush, I was also driven by a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to prove that I was just as smart – even smarter – than the other kids at university and the people surrounding me at business school, most of whom came from privilege. So I was internally motivated to do well – to get good grades and get promoted. I defined success in a quite simplistic way I think – I was going to make it as a top academic, and in the process earn a lot of money.
As my hard work and ambition was recognized by others, and as the promotions and income started to come, I found that even more challenging projects and opportunities started to appear in front of me. All I had to do was to race headfirst through the doors that were opening. I got a kick out of being picked and rewarded – it was gratifying to climb the ladder of success. But what I also found was that motivation started to become increasingly outside-in rather than inside-out. It started to become less about what I wanted, and more about what others wanted for me.

As I started to progress further and further up the career ladder, there was little encouragement from those around me to stop and ponder about wider life goals. Those around me readily engaged with me about the world of possibilities that lay ahead. But this was typically defined in the narrow context of my grades, scholarships and eventually relationship with the organizations with which I worked.  For me, the quest to ‘be the best’ became narrowly defined around academic and career achievement. What I think started as a belief that I would need to temporarily subjugate other life goals in order to be able to invest in achieving a high level of professional achievement, became habitual and permanent as I followed by ambition to reach the top.
I reached my main career goals by the time I was in my mid-30s, perhaps even earlier than I thought was possible. But at the same time that I seemed to be experiencing meteoric career success, and was receiving recognition and financial rewards, my personal relationships and physical and mental wellbeing were suffering.
This stress became especially acute when I found myself the father of young family – by my late 30s I was married and had three children, all under the age of six.  Juggling the three balls of job, family and self had become almost impossible. And the result was far from happiness as I struggled to deal with the conflicting pressures that I was experiencing. The first ball that I dropped was self – the luxury of pursuing my own interests and passions, and of course rest. The result was weight gain and constant tiredness, and for someone who had been an athlete this created a lot of personal unhappiness. I was 20 kilograms heavier at the age of 39 than I had been at the age of 19.

Guilt was also a feeling that I started to experience as I tried to reconcile loyalty and commitment to the organization with commitment and loyalty towards my wife and children.  While recognized as ‘being the best’ at work, I frequently felt conflicted, inadequate and unappreciated at home. I have an an incredible partner, but I sometimes wonder how she put up with me at this time. To be completely honest, I sometimes stayed late in the office just to avoid the chaos and tension at home. If I had a choice between dinner with a CEO or an evening with my family, I almost invariably chose work over home.

Is it any surprise that the tensions that I experienced in my own relationship often result in marital breakdown for many career professionals? In reflecting on my own experience I have looked into the research on work-life balance and discovered a phenomenon that has been described as the “spiralling cycle of imbalance” whereby a passion for one’s profession can create a dynamic in which one becomes more competent at work than in managing intimate relationships is well described in the literature on work-life balance.

The 1990 article by Kofodimos titled “Why Executives lose their balance” and published in Organiztional Dynamics makes an unsettling read for any high achiever. Paula Cratoni also describes this experience well in her Journal of Applied Behavioral Science article “Work/Life Balance: You can’t get there from here”:

“…as people to continue to invest more and energy into work, they begin to receive psychological and material rewards that encourage them to even more of themselves and their time into their work. However, time and energy are limited human resources, and as people take more time away from home, they become less competent with their home-based responsibilities and relationships, creating dissatisfaction and stress at home, which in turn makes the workplace more attractive and less stressful place to be than home. This creates an even greater commitment to work and a concomitant avoidance of home and the intimacy typically associated with home – and the cycle escalates. “

I have met many, many top executives in large organizations over the years, and few would admit to being role models as partners and parents – and it is a situation that I certainly found myself in at the ‘peak’ of my professional success as a business school academic and consultant. But I decided to step back – to ask myself if what others were defining as success was really what I was seeking in life.

Most importantly I did not ask this question alone – I did it together with my wife Anne-Mie. In the next blogpost I will talk about how we started to re-think success, and more importantly the steps that we took to embark upon a new life journey.

How are you doing in terms of juggling the three balls right now? Do you feel yourself fighting the spiral? If so, don’t despair. The future is in your hands.