In my first job after business school at a fortune 50 company, I was rated as a “high-potential” employee and asked to participate in something called the “Advanced Leadership Development Program” or ALDP for short. My ALDP class consisted of about 25 other high-potential employees who spent a week in leadership courses taught by professors from Ivy League institutions. We handled real-world based project work and attended interactive sessions led by very senior executives. After the interactive sessions with executives, we were afforded a brief question and answer period. During the Q&A period of an executive vice president (who was responsible for about 30% of the sales of this particular $100B market cap public company), one of my colleagues asked how, as a senior executive, he was able to manage a healthy work/life balance. His answer, delivered without hesitation, has stuck with me to this very day:
“I don’t have a life. [Nervous laughter from the ALDP students]. No, I’m not kidding: I don’t have a life. It’s one of the things you need to understand if you want to become an executive. I bet everyone in this room has 2-3 weeks of vacation per year and, if you are smart, you will use it. I travel 100% of the time, work 12-16 hours per day, and schedule my time in 15-minute increments. A good day for me is to be able to spend dinner, in person, with my family. I have not seen my family in three weeks.”
“When you are new in your career, everyone thinks they want to be an executive. They hear about the pay, they like the title, but the don’t really understand the sacrifices that are required to perform at this level. Everyone in this room needs to think long and hard about what they really want and if they are willing to make the sacrifices needed to move up the food chain.”
I deeply admire the executive’s honesty, even though it was clearly not what the audience of bright-eyed, optimistic middle managers wanted to hear. It also completely reflects my experience growing my career rapidly to the executive level. Currently, as an executive (at a smaller public company) I have a punishing work schedule. I consistently work 60-80 hours per week and travel about 75-90% of the time. This often includes working weekends or at least traveling on weekends to extend my work week. Basically, I am “on call” 24/7. I will readily admit it is much easier for me as I don’t have kids (yet) and have a very supportive wife, but it still is physically and mentally exhausting.
So, is the purpose of this post to discourage all of you from growing your career and becoming executives? No, of course not. Rather, it is to paint a realistic picture of the time and personal commitments it takes to climb the corporate ladder and offer some useful tips for managing work and life commitments in the corporate world.
Discipline is the secret to success in the corporate and personal world.
Returning readers of this blog will know that I firmly believe the secret to all success lies in discipline. It should be no surprise that I feel the same way about discipline outside of work. Now, I am not saying you need a completely regimented personal life, but make a list of what is truly and profoundly important to you and ensure you schedule time (and carve time out from your work schedule) to invest in these priorities. If you are in a relationship, schedule a “date-night” and stick to it. If your kids’ sports events are really important, adjust your work and travel schedule around it. If you are not firm on your priorities and make time for them, they are not really priorities.
Leave work at the office.
This one can be difficult and takes time (and discipline!) to master, but it is a key to not burning out. It’s not just the amount of time you spend on priorities and hobbies outside of work, it is the quality of time you invest as well. I try really hard, for example, to not talk to my wife about work. Sometimes she finds it a bit strange that I don’t talk to her about work more, but I tell her that I already spend an inordinate amount of time and emotional/intellectual energy on work, so I don’t want to spend my precious home time thinking/talking about work. Put up emotional boundaries and respect them.
Take 10-day vacations.
This one sounds silly at first, but it is critically important. A depressingly high number of employees do not take all of their vacation every year. I am convinced that this is not only bad for employees, it is bad for business. I depend heavily on my team and I need them engaged, motivated, and focused. They cannot be engaged, motivated, and focused if they are burned out. Think of your vacation as part of your compensation package (which, technically, it is). Would it be OK to you if you didn’t receive 10% of your pay? Of course not, so why skip out on your vacation? More importantly, make your vacations count.
- Research shows that people do not fully unwind from work (and the stress that comes along with it) until they have been away for 10 days. As such, try to take vacations of at least 10 days. This is important for another reason: If you take short vacations (a week or less) people will tend to hold the work until you get back. Longer than a week? Someone else will cover it for you, or it is not a priority and didn’t need to be done in the first place.
- Take vacations where you can truly unwind. For me, this means taking a cruise. Yes, cruises are not for everyone, and my wife and I tend to be the youngest people on the ship by a few decades, but cruises have one major benefit: no phone reception, no internet. When I am on a cruise I HAVE to disengage. My team knows that when I am on vacation I am completely out-of-pocket, so emails are reduced by 90+%. Don’t like cruising? Go camping, get off the beaten path, or simply communicate to your team that your phone will be off until you get back. Trust me, this works.
Learn to delegate.
This tip in the hardest (especially for new managers), but it is the most powerful when done effectively. Effective delegation is difficult: it requires a strong team, accountability, clear direction and metrics, and a lot of trust. Delegation is not simply taking your work and making someone else do it: that is lazy/poor management. Rather, empower your team with clear objectives and metrics, provide them the tools and support to be effective, and create clear escalation/communication processes for when they need help. Trust me, it is much easier to go on vacation and disconnect when you have a strong, high-performing team.
These tips are applicable to employees at all levels of an organization. If you are overwhelmed and overworked, create a 90-day action plan culminating with your vacation. Create clear metrics for yourself and stick to your plan, just like you would any other business objective you are trying to accomplish. Investing in yourself will pay dividends.
I could end this post here having provided insight into how you can better manage work/life balance, but I feel it would be remiss if I did not provide a few tips to managers on how they can better foster a culture of strong work/life balance on their teams to avoid burnout and low morale issues.
Tips for managers:
Don’t ask your employees to make sacrifices you wouldn’t make yourself.
Look, we all face times when there is too much work to do and not enough time to do it. The last couple months have been rough for me personally and for my customer service team (although my title is Vice President of Product Management, we are currently in a transitional structure so I am managing a customer service/inside sales team of ten) as the company I work for has invested heavily in sales resources leading to an increase in orders of 42%. Unfortunately, we were not able to add customer service resources quickly enough so to enter all of our orders on time, we had to work weekends. As the leader of this group, I provided context by clearly communicating to the team why we were in this situation (order growth, which is a good thing!), the teams role in supporting the organization, and what was required from a time perspective (working weekends for a month until we could hire additional resources). I then consciously did three important things:
- I learned how to enter orders and worked with my team on weekends to hit our targets.
I cannot, in good conscience, ask my employees to work during the weekend if I would not be there myself. I made sure I was the first to arrive and last to leave each day. I had one of the veteran reps teach me how to enter orders (much to the amusement of the rest of the team). Did I enter as many orders as the other reps? Of course not. Did I make errors? Of course I did. But the important thing is that I was there with the team so they did not feel alone.
- I valued my employee’s time.
I could have been a jerk and said “you are all salaried employees, as such you are paid to do a job, not work a specific number of hours.” But I didn’t. Instead I gave each employee 1 hour of vacation for each hour of weekend worked (only to be used once we could “return to normal.”). This gesture, which is largely free to the company, delighted employees and sent a clear message that we value their time.
- I tried to make it fun.
Working weekends sucks. So in the morning I brought coffee and donuts and let the team vote on what they wanted for lunch (of course I paid for all of this). Also, our office is open concept and has industrial grade white noise machines, so I brought a radio so we could listen to music. Dress was as casual as people wanted to be. In other words, I didn’t want the extra work to feel like just another work day. At the end of a long Saturday, one of the customer service reps told me, “I dreaded coming into the office today but it actually turned out to be kind of fun.” Success!
Ensure your employees take vacation.
Stressful corporate cultures (and I have worked in a number of them) often subliminally communicate to employees that they have to prove their commitment to the company by making personal sacrifices like working long hours or skipping vacations. Squash this wherever you find it. Encourage your employees to take vacation. In fact, encourage your employees to take 10-day vacations where they are completely out-of-pocket. Bend over backward to make it work for them. The impact on morale and employee productivity will astound you.
Tune into the culture you create and celebrate success (even when you are failing).
Everybody likes to win. Nobody likes to lose. Create a culture that celebrates success and you will get more success. Even in challenging times there are little successes to celebrate. Privately thank employees and publicly praise good work. Feeling valued is key to employee productivity and success, and it feels good as a manager as well.
This post covers a lot of ground, but again, avoiding burnout for yourself and your employees is critical to success in the corporate world.