Category Archives: work-life

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.

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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.

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

worklife

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.