Tag Archives: No Asshole Rule

Escaping the Asylum

jdin644_hi

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

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

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

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

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

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

PATH 3 – Become a Free Agent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!