Category Archives: personal leadership

Shut Up Legs

JamieLegs

When Michelangelo produced a marble sculpture, he talked of ‘releasing’ the figure from the stone. Each strike of his chisel moved him a little bit closer to revealing the potential within. When I returned to competitive cycling more than five years ago, I thought of my body like that heavy block of stone. I believed there was an athlete within, but it would take a lot of chiseling to release him.

I once read an interview with a former professional cyclist who was asked by the magazine’s journalist: “What does it take to become a great rider?”. The cyclist’s answer: “Choose you parents very carefully.” It is clear that genetic make-up represents a significant contribution to elite sporting success, especially so in endurance sports such as cycling. But genetics are only a part of the story.

Some sports scientists attribute up to 60% to 70% of an elite road cyclist’s likely success to genetic inheritance, with maternal inheritance (ie the mother’s genes) the most important. My Dad was never an accomplished sportsman, but my mother was a talented long-distance swimmer in her youth.

When I was seventeen years old I had my VO2 Max measured. VO2 Max calculates the amount of oxygen your body can use in one minute measured per mL for each kilo of body weight, and is expressed as mL (kg/min). A sedentary male typically has a VO2 Max of around 50 mL (kg/min), and a ‘recreational’ cyclist around 60 mL (kg/min). As a teenager I achieved a reading of around 76 mL (kg/min), which is close to someone like Simon Gerrans (Aussie pro cyclist riding for Orica GreenEdge). Tour de France winner Cadel Evans is reported to have had a VO2 Max of 88 mL (kg/min), and Greg Lemond 92.5 mL (kg/min). So thanks for the lungs Mum!

VO2

But while physiological indicators such as VO2 Max, efficiency of motion, and power output per kilogram of bodyweight are clear and established markers of fitness, most sports scientists agree that there is more to cycling success than physiology – other key factors include training methods, technique, tactical wisdom and motivation. Training methods can be learned, and tactical wisdom and technique (such as descending and cornering) come with coaching, experience and racing. But motivation is a completely different story.

Once you understand how to train, almost everything about becoming an elite road cyclist involves willpower – or what the psychologists call the locus of control. A journalist once asked the former professional Jens Voigt what goes through his mind when he is at the extreme edge of suffering in a race breakaway. “Shut up legs” was his response, a statement that has become a worldwide mantra for cyclists.

As Voigt understands, the key to becoming a winning cyclist lies in one’s ability to embrace suffering. It’s about riding in terrible weather, pushing yourself beyond your limits, dieting and sacrificing other priorities to make the time for riding and competition.

A few weeks ago I was training in the Belgian Ardennes near the border with Germany. It is a beautiful area with good roads, forests and long winding climbs. Although mid summer, the weather was foul on the day of one of my rides. Looking out of my hotel room window after breakfast, the wind was howling, the sky dark with clouds and the rain coming down sideways. When I Googled the day’s weather forecast things were only expected to get worse.

I trained for around 100 kilometers in the rain and wind, and did not see another cyclist for more than four hours. At times I crawled up those long sweeping climbs as the rain lashed in my face, and by the end of the ride I could feel that my body was completely drained – that I had used almost every ounce of energy to push the pedals and to keep warm.

At one point a few hours into the ride, as the rain penetrated my overshoes and my feet became soaking wet, my mind started to tell me to turn around and go home. But I didn’t. Because my will told me that this was part of the journey.

I can’t say that I truly enjoyed myself on that ride through the Ardennes – that would be misleading. But I understood that what I was submitting to was part of a bigger objective that will come many months down the road.

That’s the locus of control – the willpower to do the difficult work that needs to be done, in whatever endeavour you decide to excel at in life.

It’s about having the fortitude and self-belief to keep chipping away at that block of stone.

The legs of the top of the post are really mine – after five years of chiseling!

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Life Should be a Long Vacation

lifeworking

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

asshole rule

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

homeworking

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.

Who ever dreamed of becoming an Accountant?

stress

In my first post, which is based upon an article I am writing with my friend Ayelet Baron, I introduced the idea of lifeworking – an alternative philosophy for thinking about career and purposeful living. I would like to go deeper into this idea by discussing why it is that we often find ourselves on a life path which is not what we want, and why we sometimes make career choices that actually make us desperately unhappy.

Many of us were benignly guided away from our passions in pursuits such as sport, music and art at a relatively young age with the advice that such interests were unlikely to lead us into a ‘good’ job. I experienced just this advice having achieved success as an elite junior cyclist in Australia in my mid teens, before being guided towards the ‘rational’ career path of a university degree.

I grew up on a housing estate in a working class neighbourhood in a small town in country Victoria, a southern state in Australia. I spent my first four years of high school at a vocational college, but was a lousy tradesman. So I moved to an academic High School for my final two years of studies and did very well.

I had dreamed of being a professional road cyclist since I was nine years old, but despite having enough talent to make it to the national level I had increasing doubts about my dreams. It was not that any one person told me that I should abandon my ambitions, and my parents were incredibly supportive. But the influence of my environment – School career advisors, teachers and friends slowly but surely created doubts and fears.

The message was that a cycling career was a dream, and that I should be more realistic especially since I was clever academically. Of my six brothers and sisters, I was the only one to finish High School, and when I was growing up I knew of only a handful of kids from my neighbourhood who had gone on to tertiary education.

In the end, the choice to pursue an academic path was my own but it was not my most desired path. I am not sure if you can understand what I am saying – I felt that it was almost inevitable that I should stop cycling, even though it was a heartbreaking choice.

Why was this kind of subtle pressure applied to me even by those who cared about me the most – because of course, there was an underlying belief that if I might achieve ‘traditional’ career progression and a good income, then this would provide the platform for contentment and happiness. But for me, and for many career professionals, these last two outcomes remained stubbornly elusive. Why was that?

Since the turn of the century the higher education systems in much of the Western world have worked towards standardization of learning according to the functional division of labour.

By the age of fifteen or sixteen, and even earlier in some countries, individuals are put on an educational track that leads them into increasingly specialized learning paths. The bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees originally awarded by European universities have been adopted in the most diverse societies throughout the world, and while generalist degrees do exist, degrees in fields such as accountancy and finance, commerce, engineering, information systems, law and medicine have become increasingly prominent.

As a student progresses further and further up the educational hierarchy, the more functionally specialized their learning tends to become.  This linear educational path often then sets an individual onto a more or less linear career path – law students become lawyers, engineering students become engineers and accounting students become accountants. And once in an organization, career paths often unfold in an equally linear way – first as an individual contributor within a functional department, then team leader and on to middle and sometimes senior management in the same function.

Of course, this is not to say that a humanities major cannot become a Chief Financial Officer, and some organizations, such as Shell and GE, actively encourage cross-functional experience as part of an overall talent development framework. But in most large organizations this kind of zig-zag career path is the exception rather than the rule.

And if you were to ask many functionally specialized career professionals if they are really passionate about the career track that they have followed, how many would answer you in the affirmative? Most would answer with a kind of resigned acceptance that this is the track that they were put on when they were in their early teens, and there is not much chance of changing now.

Something else starts to happen on this linear educational and professional track – as we progress we are ranked and compared to others, typically according to a narrow range of performance criteria. First are academic grades, and then organizational performance indicators such as productivity or sales results. Indeed, achievement of these metrics often provides the basis for the next stage of progression. As we progress, we start to accrue artefacts of recognition – degree certificates and job titles, for example.  So it is not surprising that many career professionals start to define their success – and sometimes their identity – through the accrual of these artefacts by their late twenties and early thirties.

For some people these artefacts become important indicators of social status and position, and become a kind of career snobbery whereby one evaluates the value of another according to the academic and career achievements that they have attained. I remember the cocktail parties at some of the prestigious academic institutions at which I’ve worked – social interactions with new acquaintances were often short lived if the others realized that I was not within their own bandwidth of high-level career achievement.

The first question we often get asked in any social or professional setting is ‘what do you do?’  People then judge whether they should spend time talking to you based on your wrapper: how big your title is and how prestigious your organization is.  And in the back of their mind is their own self motivation of how being connected to you will help advance their needs and network.

How successful you are perceived is critical so many work toward the goal of being seen as successful In these situations, and it sometimes seems that your worth is determined by little more than a title on a business card. One of my favourite speakers and writers Alain de Botton has written a book titled ‘Status Anxiety’ on this phenomenon of career snobbery, and it is highly recommended reading.

So is it any surprise that ten to fifteen years into our careers many of us have really started to lose perspective about the wider meaning of success? This was certainly something that started to happen to me by my mid 30s. I felt that I was disconnecting from my deeper passions and dreams, and measuring myself according to criteria set by others.

Even as I was being singled-out as a ‘high-achiever’ and being shepherded towards a fast-track career, I felt that motivation was increasingly outside in rather than inside out. And it was at this time that I really started to sense that there was an imbalance in my work & life. There was a disconnect.

In my next blog I will extend upon this idea of a disconnect by going further into the idea of ‘being the best’ especially in an organizational setting. While my professional mentors were more than ready to set out the exciting path ahead, I experienced that this was defined in the narrow context of my relationship with the organization.

Wider life goals such as fulfilling private relationships and parenting, the pursuit of personal passions such as art or music, sport, health and wellbeing were not even part of the career discussion when I was in my 20s and 30s.  And this led to a situation, by my late 30s, in which many people around me thought that I had achieved a high level of  ‘success’ but which for me felt like something quite different.

The strangest bit was looking at myself in the mirror in the morning, and asking “Who is this guy and what does he really want from life?”

The Idea of Work-Life Balance is Bullshit

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If you were in a business setting and heard that a really successful person was about to enter the room, who would come to mind? Most likely you would think of a person who has attained a senior level position, maybe a CEO or Board member. This thinking is not unusual, especially for anyone who has spent his or her career in a corporate environment.

But in many ways, this thinking focuses on a very narrow definition of human achievement and is at the root of what we consider to be a crisis in 21st century careers.  Why a crisis? Because my friend and co-researcher Ayelet Baron and I believe that many people in business reach a level of high professional achievement only to realize that the commitments and tradeoffs that this requires are excessive.

In the words of Alain de Botton, “it is one thing for people to not achieve their dreams – but it is another for them to reach their professional goals and then to realize that the wider outcome is not what they want at all.” Ayelet and I share the belief that this realization has become an epidemic amongst many senior managers and leaders around the world.

One of the most topical themes in the debate on future careers is the impact of Generation Y who are now starting to enter many middle-management positions within organizations.  In our interactions with Gen Y, and increasingly with Human Resources professionals and senior managers themselves, Ayelet and I have been continually told that Gen Y is more interested in “work-life balance.”

Gen Y has witnessed the generation before them commit a very large part of their lives to career and company, and many of these young people have started to question the trade-offs that are required to make it to the top. Many have also witnessed their parents and grandparents made redundant, sometimes after decades of service to an employer. In such an environment, it is not surprising that many within Gen Y have started to question a world in which organizational loyalty is expected but not always returned.

But we think that this debate misses something – it is not just Gen Y that is grappling with a more holistic appreciation of success. Another trend that is emerging at work that is significant but does not get as much attention as the Millennial generation is the shift that is taking place in employees in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Indeed, the aspiration to be recognized as a multi-faceted and purposeful human being is powerfully present across even the upper echelons of senior management. But in so many cases these high- achievers hide their wider dreams and aspiration, and suffer in high-paid silence.  There was a total of US$ 54 billion dollars in unpaid vacation pay reported in the US alone in 2013, reflecting upon the true scope of the problem in many countries.

In this forthcoming series of blogposts I will talk about people who are often termed ‘high-potentials’ and ‘high-achievers’ in organizations, either as outstanding individual contributors or in leadership roles. I will discuss the success trap – the manner in which so many career professionals find themselves on a path towards promotion, responsibility and accountability that slowly but surely absorbs energy from other meaningful life activities.

Some people define themselves by and through their work, and therefore have no sense of the conflicts that we are talking about. Their work is their life, and I wish such people every happiness in the way that they define success. I will focus in my discussion on the people who come to define happiness in a wider sense.

I will aim to address the myth of work-life balance by arguing that the very definition of this term is part of the problem, and offer an alternative philosophy to purposeful living – what my co-researcher Ayelet Baron and I call lifeworking. This is an approach that does not try to separate life and work into two distinct and seemingly incompatible spheres, but instead meshes both into a new way of thinking about a life journey in the 21st century.

I will also make what many might think is a controversial claim – that the concept of lifeworking is fundamentally incompatible with the role expectations of high achievers in most large organizations.

So enjoy the posts, and I look forward to your feedback.