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Why work-life balance is such a dicey subject

Work LIfe BalanceIn our client work, the issue of work-life balance comes up frequently. The subject often carries with it a significant amount of emotion and is usually raised by people who feel they aren’t achieving anything close to it. But if there are two people in the room, there are probably two different definitions, and therein lies the challenge.

Now let me say up front I’m not talking here about people who work 3 jobs to get by, or have unfair and inhumane work requirements pressed on them by employers or by the challenging injustice of the economic system in many places in our society and world. These are extreme or pathological circumstances – and that’s clear to most people. But that’s for another blog.

What I’m addressing here is an environment in which knowledge workers or professionals, on salary, are working in a fluid or flexible environment in which their working hours are not routinely set by their employer. In other words, I’m talking about the circumstances of millions, in which they have to decide, using their own best judgement, how much they can and should work to meet the requirements of their job, or to meet their own standards of performance, or to adhere to their organization’s cultural norms about what constitutes an appropriate work commitment.

And I guess I’d like to add here that I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with working long hours in an environment in which one has the opportunity – or obligation – to manage or set their own work hours. To say there’s a psychopathy among people who work long hours isn’t fair. While in some cases it might be true that working long hours is an indication of something wrong, or missing, in a person’s life, it doesn’t necessarily follow. I’ve known plenty of well-adjusted people, including myself, who’ve chosen at times in their career to work very hard, long hours. It may just be that the person loves their work, or is particularly engaged in the current project, or loves being where the action is.

The problem with work-life balance in these environments is that it’s a subjective concept at best and almost meaningless to many workers. Each person in an organization has a different set of personal and professional circumstances, judgements, and perceptions, and because of this I often see the discussion of work-life balance devolving into one person’s judgment of another, about what it “should” be.

For many people, work IS the balance point on which rests their self-identity, their interests, their passion, or their life energy. For them, putting in long hours is nothing more than doing what they enjoy the most. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to judge a person for loving what they do, or for not having something else they want to do more. In many organizations there is conflict between those who do and those who don’t put in the long hours. This often results in judgments that pit one person against another: you should be putting in longer hours like I do, or conversely you need to get a life so you don’t spend so much of it at work – and besides you’re making me look bad by comparison.

What does make sense is to deepen the dialog in your organization about work-life balance, and to honestly address these questions:

  1. What are the perceived cultural norms in your organization about what constitutes an appropriate time commitment to your job?
  2. How can we prevent an uneven playing field? In other words, what do we do, if anything, about the fact that some people just can work more than others because of their personal circumstances. How do we prevent assessing a penalty for those great employees who can’t or won’t put in the same long hours as some of their peers?
  3. If we declare work-life balance to be a corporate value, (and I believe most would), what does that really mean in actual terms? Should we have guidelines that result in shooing people out the door, or preventing them from sending emails after hours, or from working from home? Should we be telling people who want to work long hours that that can’t, or shouldn’t?

And while it’s healthy to ask these questions in an open forum, don’t expect easy answers to come from asking them. There are many, many layers to this conversation, arising from broader social issues, cultural norms outside your organization’s 4 walls, and the fundamental differences in people’s attitudes towards work-life balance. Please don’t work your people to death, or let them work themselves to death. But don’t presume everyone who puts in the long hours does so under duress or due to some perceived imbalance in their personal lives.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

SoldierI was in high school during the last years of the Vietnam War, and I was struggling with my conscience as my 18th birthday approached and I became eligible for the draft. Luckily, history spared me this choice and the war ground to an end before I had to face the possibility of fighting in a conflict I deeply opposed.

My most powerful memory of that time came from a discussion I had with my English Teacher, Mr. Orr. He was our resident “hippy” teacher and was as happy as any kid in the school when the dress code was modified to allow boys to grow long hair – after which he grew his long as well. Mr. Orr was a teacher I could confide in about my misgivings about the War. I knew he would be sympathetic to my concerns. I told him I was researching conscientious objector status and even considering leaving the country.

Mr. Orr, in the most unexpected way, challenged my thinking. He said, “Jim, if you don’t like war, join the army.” This advice was stunning to me, and I found it perplexing and disappointing. More than anything I wanted Mr. Orr’s blessing and support to evade the war. But in the years since I’ve returned to this conversation with Mr. Orr many times to tease out the meaning of what he said.

When we are unhappy with the direction of an organization, our first impulse may be to flee. But organizations need people who stay and fight too. Maybe by joining the Army I could have saved lives by being in a position of influence to tamp down some of the needless violence of the War. Maybe if I had joined the Army I could have asked “what are we doing here?” “Is this helping anyone?” “Is lobbing that next grenade going to make us safer?” Maybe by getting inside the Army I could do more good than by walking up and down Main Street with a protest sign.

And, maybe joining the Army would have been a terrible idea. Maybe I would have been utterly powerless and frustrated, maybe I would have challenged authority one too many times, and maybe I would have gotten swept up in the madness and killed. I’ll never know.

Most of us will be faced with this “to be or not to be” question in our career. If I don’t like what’s going on where I am – my culture, my job, my family – should I stay and fight “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or should I head to greener pastures and find a more comfortable place, more in line with my values?

If everyone chooses the latter, we end up with bland organizations that don’t change, and which reinforce their cultures and behaviors through groupthink. Maybe you should stay in that bad situation and try to make it better.

Or, maybe you should get out before the bombs start exploding around you, to find a safer and happier place.

What matters is that you ask yourself the question – and answer it from the highest possible motivation.

Leadership in High-Tech: Two skill-sets in one package

Hi Tech LeadershipOrganizational leadership is challenging in any case. It requires maturity, focus, discipline, and extraordinary skills of communication and relationship-building. Good leaders are “go-with-the-flow” people who also stand on a foundation of tremendous mental and emotional discipline. So good leaders are already a valued commodity. And I just read an article in our local business journal pointing out the challenges that high-tech companies are having filling management jobs.

As a musician who loves classical music, I am in awe of the composers who imagine and create classical compositions, and if you’ll bear with me for a moment I’d like to suggest there’s a parallel here between those great composers and effective high-tech leaders.

A composer has to be extraordinarily good at elements of intelligence and personality that are wildly different in nature. They have to have a musical mind – unusually creative – attached to a firmly focused and organized mind – unusually disciplined — which can focus and fill in all the little black dots on the musical staff which then become the “program” that translates their artistic vision into something the musician can re-create according to their intentions.

A good manager/leader in a high-tech environment also must bring in two talent sets that are uncommon to find in one person. One, of course, is the ability to keep up with brilliant programmers and developers technically – to know enough about deeply technical matters to facilitate the work of the team. Matched to this high level of technical ability, the high-tech manager must also demonstrate an uncommon level of relational skill and emotional intelligence. This is especially true because highly skilled technical employees, because of their burning intelligence and their orientation to seeing the world through a technical lens are often more challenging to bring in to highly collaborative and mutually dependent teams.

A composer is an inspired artist with the discipline of a software developer, translating multiple colors of sound into bits and bytes of black-dotted code. A high tech leader is an artist who fashions nuanced and productive relationships, often shaded in grays and pastels, in a world of sharply lit, sometimes monochrome technical brilliance.

Both are amazing, and both are rare.

Does Your Business Have a Split Personality?

Business PersonalityMost companies are pretty good at serving their customers. Yes, there it is, I’ve said it. We all have war stories about bad service here and there, but generally I see most companies as being pretty good at meeting their customer’s needs. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t see them around – the companies we deal with on a regular basis are the ones who are good enough to have lasted.

This customer service mentality is the side of the business personality that looks outward, toward the customer. It’s the side that takes pride in meeting customer expectations, in being highly accountable to promises made, answering customer calls on the first ring, showing appreciation, admitting when things didn’t go well and making them right, and in general being engaged with the idea of creating a good customer experience. This is the side of the business personality that measures everything about the customer experience, conducts focus groups, and obsesses about what’s being said about it on social media.

However, many companies – maybe yours – have a decidedly split personality. When facing outward, toward the customer, deadlines are met, projects are managed carefully, emails and phone calls are promptly returned. But this same business, when facing inward, towards one another, consistently misses deadlines, fails to respond, and lets things slide in a way that no paying customer would ever accept.

There is a ready defense for this behavior.  It’s the paying customer after all who pays the bills. Without them the business would quickly fail. On the other hand, if we blow off a meeting with a co-worker, treat them disrespectfully, or simply ignore their requests for help, we’ll probably be OK – at least for a while. The paying customer always comes first, doesn’t she?

Do a thought experiment: Look at the way your business operates inwardly, and see if it matches how it operates outwardly. Do you tolerate behaviors and habits with one another that your customers would fire you for if you pointed these same behaviors toward them? Would a customer be OK with you failing to show up for a meeting, failing to meet a specific time commitment, ignoring a phone call or email, or glaring at them with disgust when you were having a bad day? Why would this behavior be OK on the inside when it’s not OK on the outside?

Serving one another as customers inside the business is more than just an empty gesture. How we serve one another inside carries over to the outside. And, it just makes your business a lot better place to work. Next time you see behavior inside your company that would alienate a paying customer, call it out. Talk about it. Ask if this behavior would be acceptable with a paying customer. If it wouldn’t fly facing outside it shouldn’t fly facing inside.

Bringing your money problems to work

MoneyDuring our Path Forward Leadership Workshops, and on our radio show/podcast The Boss Show, we often discuss the idea of bringing your whole self to work, of being authentic, and not having to wear a mask in your work life that results in you being a different person there than you are at home.

So of course I read with interest the recent survey that indicated 47% of Americans don’t have even $400 cash in hand to cover an emergency expense such as a car repair. If almost half of all Americans are walking on a financial tightrope, I’d say it’s fair to assume this is stressful for them and their families.

And of course a person in this situation has to bring this financial stress to the workplace to some degree. Seeing your job as either the only potential way out of your financial duress, or as the limitation that keeps you from enjoying financial success has the potential to change your relationship with your job. Instead of seeing your job as purposeful and engaging and pleasurable, financial stress might cause you to think of it as the only thing that stands between you and ruin. That’s not a very inspiring way to look at one’s career.

And by inference, it has to change your relationship with the people you work with, and most notably the bosses who decide how much money you make and whether or not you get the promotion that would help you pay off your credit card debt. If you’re experiencing financial stress, you may end up feeling frustrated, distracted, and defeated at work. And you may end up feeling that work – and life – are unfair, and that if they would just pay you what you were worth you’d be OK. Financial stress causes your relationship with your employer to feel dependent rather than interdependent. You need them more than they need you. Without them, you’re in deep trouble.

I don’t want to blame the victims here, so if someone makes $10 an hour it may be simply impossible to save any money. But for many or most of these 47% of Americans, saving money is possible. And if you’re not saving money, and you have no financial security, you may find that it damages your work-life in significant ways. Put some money aside, and maybe your relationship with your job will lighten, will seem more doable, more of a choice you made rather than a circumstance in which you’re trapped. Maybe you’ll stop cussing out the boss. Maybe you’ll even experience the freedom to leave a bad situation.

When we lose any sense of financial independence, we potentially suffer a loss of partnership and self-worth at work. Maybe the best thing you can do to make your job more enjoyable is to set yourself up so you don’t need it so desperately.

The Most Important Training You Can Give Your Employees

So you spend a lot of money training your employees, making sure they know the basics of their job, the specific qualities of your products, and how to enter orders and expense reports on the company computer. You even conduct training on safety, and you make sure everyone understands that sexual harassment is a BIG no-no.

But of all the training you provide, do you provide perhaps the most fundamental training of all? Do you teach every employee to understand how your business model works and how it makes money?

Your business has a profit and loss statement, it has cash flow, it has competition, it has marketing strategies, it has development budgets, it has payroll cost ratios, and it has to closely manage the Cost of Goods Sold.

How much do your employees know about any of this? Do they think your gross margin is 75% when it’s really closer to 25%? Do they think management and ownership is bleeding the business dry by taking home huge amounts of cash each year? Do they understand the risks of ownership, the cost of money, the challenges of taxation and government regulation? Do they know which competitors are beating you and why, and which competitors you need to beat? Do they know what your financial and non-financial goals are?

I argue all of your employees – down to the people who answer the phones and sweep the floors – deserve to know all of these things. And best of all, if they understand how your business works and how it makes money they’ll be better employees.

In any business, our employees need context in order to feel engaged and motivated. They have to know what their behavior means in the biggest possible picture, why it’s important they answer the phone in two rings, why it’s important they turn off the lights when they leave the office, and why it’s important they participate in that continuous improvement project you’ve been badgering them about.

Most employees – even those highly educated ones – need to understand the nuts and bolts of your business. Each business and each market are different, and each owner has different needs and goals. Educate your employees on all this, and include this kind of business fundamentals training in your training plans. It will result in employees who are more engaged and make better, independent judgments. If they don’t know where their paycheck comes from they may not do the best job of earning it.

Are Bosses Really All That Bad?

Are bosses really bad?In a business career spanning 40 years, including 15 years running a business that develops business leaders, I’ve become well-acquainted with the meme of “bad bosses.” We hear all about it in popular culture: My Boss Sucks.

And there are the endless parade of surveys indicating alarmingly high percentages of employees who are disengaged from their work. The finger is almost always pointed at poor leadership as the cause of this disengagement.

Of course I’m not going to argue the point that many bosses really do suck. The list of sins is endless: greed, tone-deafness, bigotry, disorganization, crappy communication, and downright dishonesty, to name a few. And in our business, (more…)

Please Just Respond

I know you don’t want to say no. I know when I call and ask you for something—an appointment, a favor, a return phone call—that I may not be the most important priority for you. (more…)

Speaking Up

I’ve spoken recently with several women who’ve posed a form of these questions:

“Why do I have such a hard time speaking up?”

“Why do I so often (more…)

Let Your Subconscious Work

I have often advocated for more “think time” – more reflective time — for business leaders.  But sometimes we can think our way into stupidity.

Have you ever tried to remember a word or a name, only to (more…)

Giving thanks

I realize every year about this time that I’m not as thankful as I could be.

Like so many, I too often measure what’s wrong with my life.  In the measuring, (more…)

The Family Business

I’ve closely observed family businesses for many years now, and I can sum up everything I’ve observed in two words:

It’s freakin’ complicated.

Okay, so it’s three words.  There are times (more…)

Toughest part of leadership

I surfed the ‘net today looking for answers to this question:

“What is the toughest aspect of leadership?”

Not surprisingly, I found a lot of answers.  Examples: (more…)

Corporations Aren’t People, But …

Corporations are people.  So says the United States Supreme Court.  In the recent, hotly-debated Citizens United case, the Court ruled, as it has in the past, that corporations have the same rights of free speech as American citizens – (more…)

Life On the 50-Yard Line

I don’t know how to do things halfway.

Or said better, I don’t know how to do things halfway and enjoy it. How often are we fully engaged with what we’re doing – (more…)

The Damnable Ego

We all tell ourselves a story about who we are and who we are meant to be.  We’ve been doing this since early childhood.  That story defines our ego.

Ego is the force that urges (more…)

It’s About Us – and Me

A crucial question for leaders: How does your organization represent your best intentions, values, and thinking? And how does it not?

In today’s business world, (more…)

Brain Rules and Stress

I’ve been reading a book called Brain Rules by John Medina, and I heartily recommend it to … well, everyone.

This book helps you understand (more…)

Leadership Smarts

Your computer would like you to be more like it. Don’t do it.

You are not a computer. Don’t try to operate like one.  The intelligence that fosters leadership is (more…)

The Leader As Psychologist

“I just want to run a business. Do I have to be a psychologist, too?”

Yes you do.

How can you expect to run a business effectively without (more…)