Tag Archives: NWOW

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid the High Potentials Program at all Costs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”