Tag Archives: Autonomy

Feel the Fear, Then Do it Anyway

Kids Podium

In this post I will talk about the fears that prevent us from chasing our dreams, and the path I took to win a bronze medal in the Cycllng Road Race at the World Masters Games in Torino, Italy.

In my last blogpost I talked about how status anxiety drives far too many of us to over-commit financially, thereby locking us into jobs that we hate. We then feel trapped and unable to pursue a different and more fulfilling lifework path, especially if that new path involves financial unknowns.

As a non-linear career progression, anyone who pursues the path of lifework needs to acknowledge that certain givens are no longer valid. Most of us expect that our income will increase year by year throughout our career, and that our reputation, professional status and social standing will steadily grow. Indeed, if this is not the case then most people feel insecurity and fear.

Embarking on a non-linear career adventure often requires an investment in time and money as one builds new skills, explores new contacts and networks, and creates the platform for lifework.  In turn, this sometimes require a ‘downgrading’ of one’s lifestyle and expenses, and even some changes to the social circles in which we move if those interactions involve expenses we can no longer afford.

The further away from one’s core expertise that lifeworking entails, the greater the re-adjustment of living expenses that is needed. For some people this can be a difficult realisation – for others it can be terrifying.

It is not only financial insecurity that prevents us from pursuing a wider definition of success, and a happier and more purposeful life. The people around us can also have a powerful and negative effect upon our choices in life – even those who love us the most.

Besides financial worries, the next most significant set of fears that I faced when my wife Anne-Mie and I decided to embark upon our lifework project related to my social and professional environment. I lost many hours of sleep thinking about the likely reactions of bosses, peers and colleagues and it took a lot of courage to tell these people about my decision to change my life.

I had been mentored throughout my career by colleagues who had chosen to follow linear career paths. They had worked hard to pass the gruelling and competitive process of promotion from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor, and in some cases to departmental or even institutional leadership.

The reaction from some of these people was shock and disbelief at my decision to step of the track, and in one case my decision was met by anger. I was told that I was “throwing away my talent” – that I was going from being a somebody to being a nobody. I was also criticised for “betraying the investment” that the institution had made in me, and exposed to hurtful gossip.

To an extent I felt that the investment story was true – the institution had paid for my doctoral studies, and provided me an incredible developmental opportunity – and I experienced a real sense of guilt. I had been promoted and rewarded handsomely, but the reality was that these promotions and rewards involved me spending a lot of my time doing things that I really did not enjoy. I found academic research for peer-reviewed publication to be tedious, and the organizational politics, committee meetings, recruitment interviews, budgeting and grading sucked the life out of me.

What I really loved was interacting with real people – the managers with whom I shared the classroom as part of my teaching on executive education programs. But as is the case with most Business Schools, mid-career faculty were discouraged from taking on too much teaching as the real focus should be on research and publication.

So I found myself in the situation that 80% of my energy was going into tasks that I hated – and I thought to myself that life is too short to continue doing that. But of course, and what I have realised since, many people in organizations spend an awful lot of their lives being promoted into jobs just like the one I had – the job with the big title and big salary that involves you letting go of what it is that you really love to do.

But of course, many of the people with whom I worked could not and would not understand my selfishness in wanting to do stuff that made me happy. I was even called to a meeting with senior management after resigning my position and offered a significant increase in salary to get back on to the organizational track. I politely declined – they just didn’t get it.

What I appreciated was the wisdom of several of the senior people with whom I worked to respect my decision, and to offer me an on going relationship with the institution as a free agent. I feel a very strong loyalty to those people, and especially a guy by the name of Olaf. I do everything that I can to support him and his team, and I really hope to continue our collaboration until I am old and grey.

In the end I realised (and as I have discovered through conversations with countless other professionals who are pursuing a lifework agenda), one needs to accept that not everyone in a given professional circle will understand the decision of a non-linear career path choice. The people who matter the most are your partner, your family and your friends. They are the ones who will live with the consequences of lifeworking, and they need to have their own fears addressed.

One important piece of advice is not to expect full understanding from parents, especially parents from the post-war generation that only ever experienced the industrial-age work model. You can only communicate to Mum and Dad that you will not become bankrupt and homeless – this is what I did for my parents-in-law in Belgium, and although they were not exactly delighted by our lifework choice they understood that their grandchildren would not go hungry.

This area of parental or wider family pressure also overlaps with the status obsession that I discussed in my previous post – many parents feel ashamed if they think that their children will not be able to move in the social circles that are their ‘birth right’ and to which they themselves have often worked very hard to ascend.

My Mum in Australia was wonderful when I told her that I was leaving my job to go independent. She provided nothing but encouragement, and has been one of my proudest supporters over the past few years. She has attended some of my talks, and carries my book around in her handbag to show to complete strangers at every opportunity. The reaction of my siblings was also great, with my big brother Rob declaring: “We always wondered when you were going to get a real job.”

Of course, your life partner is the one who matters most in this story. As I have described in my previous posts, my wife Anne-Mie and I jointly developed our lifework picture. I am the first to admit that it has not all been plain sailing in achieving our dreams, but we have never lost sight of the overall purpose that we set-out for ourselves back in 2009. We have tried to support each other, especially when we have faced setbacks.

On my path to compete in the World Masters Games in Torino I had several race crashes, two of which sent me to hospital. In the past five years I have shattered my collarbone, broken 10 of my ribs, cracked my pelvis, punctured a lung, dislocated a shoulder and lost a lot of skin as a comeback cyclist. All of that stuff hurt.

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But never once has Anne-Mie suggested that I should give-up, and when I stepped on to the podium to collect my bronze medal in Italy it was not me who had won. We had won. Because the medal was just one part of the story – almost everything that we had dreamed together when starting our worklife project four years earlier had come to fruition. In many ways Torino was not about a cycling road race – it was about who we had become as a couple and as a family in getting there.

In my previous post “Confessions of a Fiat Driver” I described the story of Luiz, his unhappiness and his desire to take a different path. He had told me about how he and his wife’s dreams for the future had started to painfully diverge.

I sometimes find myself thinking about what Luiz is doing now. If you read this mate, please drop me a line.

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Confessions of a Fiat Driver & Cyclist

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Despite the existence of the lifeworking choices that I described in my previous blogpost, there are powerful barriers that prevent individuals from embarking on a new journey, even when the possible path ahead can be at least partly visualised. Perhaps the two most powerful blockers of all are the need to define a purpose and address the fear of financial insecurity.

To understand what we both wanted from our future my wife Anne-Mie and I spent many hours talking together during our last year of a five year stay in Berlin. These discussions culminated in a drawing exercise in mid 2009 when we sat together with a large sheet of paper in our apartment and co-created a hand drawn picture of what success really meant to us.

The pencil and ink sketches we created revealed a much wider definition of success – we aspired to have a loving relationship and to live in a semi-urban environment in which our three children could play and be free. We desired more family leisure time, and the opportunity to actively participate in our children’s social, artistic and sporting activities. We both wanted to work, but to engage in professional activities that we enjoyed and which would still provided the opportunity for occasional international travel. And of course I also dreamed of returning to elite-level competitive cycling.

Shortly after completing our lifework picture I found myself watching Eurosport and by accident witnessed the opening of the World Masters Games in Sydney. The World Masters Games is built upon the concept of the Olympics, but for people over the age of thirty-five. Cycling is just one of the more than 20 sports in the Games, and at that moment I promised myself that I would strive to compete in the cycling road race at the next iteration taking place in Torino in 2013. I remember my wife looking at me with a rather strange expression when I announced my intentions – I had not raced a bicycle for more than twenty years, and I had the waistline to prove it.

But before embarking on the journey towards lifework, and of course my Torino dream, I recognised the need to confront a number of deep-rooted fears. The first set of fears for me were intensely personal. I had grown up the second youngest of seven children in a small country town in Australia, and as a small child money was scarce. My Dad was a musician and held scores of daytime jobs just to pay the bills, but it was not always easy to make ends meet in a family with seven kids. Mum did not work outside the home.

To make matters worse my father was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in 1987, the same year that I competed in the Australian National Road Cycling Championships as a junior. His illness intensified my family’s financial problems in my final years of High School, and meant that part-time work was a necessity for me, even as I pursued my cycling goals and prepared for my final exams.

Our financial problems also brought a sad realism to my decision of whether to pursue professional cycling or studies. In the end, and as I have discussed in my previous posts, I chose the study path and was lucky enough to get a grant to go to University. But I would never have been able to complete my first degree without the financial support of my older brothers and sisters. Sadly, my Dad did not get to see me graduate as he took his own life shortly before my 21st birthday.

So financial stability meant a lot to me, and the fear of economic uncertainty for my family weighed heavily on my mind when I was thinking of following a new path in my late 30s. I was earning a very good salary, close to one-hundred and fifty thousand euros a year, and now I was thinking about walking away from that. Therefore, a critical element of our lifework project involved us calculating how much money our family really needed to live a fulfilling life.

I actually created an Excel spread sheet and calculated how much money the picture that I had drawn with Anne-Mie would cost – the amount was much less than I expected, and only a fraction of what I had been earning. But I also needed to step back and realise that I still had at least twenty years of productive working years ahead of me – plenty of time to take a year or two out to try to build something new. As Anne-Mie said to me: “If it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to doing what you did before.”

The fear of financial insecurity is one of the most important hurdles that I have witnessed for people who are thinking about lifeworking, and I think that far too people ever go through the exercise of thinking about how much income is really is enough. But unlike my fear of financial insecurity which came from childhood want, I think that for many other people this fear is a consequence of society’s obsession with status which results in the financial over-commitments that many people make during their 30s and 40s.

I recently spoke at an Alumni event of a top-tier business school in London and was asked by a 40-something Brazilian guy about how one should respond if wanting to pursue lifework, but your spouse or partner does not understand? Luiz explained that he and his wife came from middle-class roots in San Paolo, but the two of them had fallen into the status trap that required him working incredibly long hours to earn accordingly. Luiz spoke of the apartment in an exclusive neighborhood, private schools for the kids, expensive family holidays, and prestige cars. He seemed desperately unhappy, and said that he did not really care about these things – he wanted to change to a less stressful and lower paid job. But his wife could not accept a ‘downgrade’ in lifestyle, and the shame this would entail within their circle of friends. They argued constantly, and Luiz quietly told me that he was considering divorce.

When I stepped away from full time academia and consultancy to pursue other lifework goals my wife Anne-Mie had not yet returned to work and our family income level dropped by more than 70 per cent in the first two years. After several months of reflection and exploration I decided to focus my professional activities on becoming a keynote speaker, but to do so I recognised the need to write a book, take acting lessons, connect with speakers agencies and create a website. I studied stand-up comedy intensively. At the same time I needed to engage much more actively in family life and ride my bicycle at least ten hours per week.

The decline in income meant that our family needed to think about our living expenses – but this became much easier when I realised I had been earning money to buy things I didn’t really need, to impress people (ie. assholes-see previous post) I didn’t even like. Our first decision was to rent an inexpensive 1970s era house near to Brussels, which was certainly far from luxurious but was all that we needed. It had a small garden, and was close to some beautiful parkland. We bought a second-hand Fiat Doblo, a shock to some of my German pals, and we stopped flying places for our vacations. There was no designer furniture, no Nespresso machine and no private schools for the kids.

I remember feeling a little bit embarrassed when I first invited colleagues and clients to that house, but I told myself to get over it. We lived in it for almost five years until we were in a position to buy the place where we now live on the outskirts of Antwerp. It’s a beautiful house with a big garden, and its something we can afford. The shift towards keynote speaking has been especially fruitful for me, and it pays well. Or as I tell my friends, keynote speaking is the best job in the world as you work a little, and you earn…enough. 🙂

Our long summer holidays are now spent in a tent, usually camped beside the ocean or a river somewhere in France and in the midst of some beautiful cycling country. We might spend a couple of hundred euros a week while we are away, and the kids run barefoot and wild. There is nothing luxurious about those weeks away, but I think we are giving our kids the richest memories and experiences they could ever wish for.

I do have to admit, however, that I still wear my Cartier watch from time to time. I bought it when I felt the need to show off to my colleagues at London Business School many years ago.

But I don’t wear the Cartier as a status symbol anymore – I wear it as a reminder to myself of how stupid status anxiety can be.

Oh, I also own a few very nice bicycles. I raced one of them to a bronze medal in Torino.

Hannah

Escaping the Asylum

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

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

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

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

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

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

PATH 3 – Become a Free Agent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.