Getting closer to balance

Ian William Vollbracht — №34 with Greg McKeown

Work-life balance is a holy grail for many senior managers. According to a recent FDA survey of senior government professionals in the UK, nearly 60% of respondents work the equivalent of an extra day unpaid every week.

This balance was equally elusive for my wife and me. She had a high-profile corporate position in a large US company. I was an advisor to a senior politician in the European Commission in Brussels. But it wasn’t just the work. We also had a daughter and twin boys (all under four), were both travelling abroad regularly, and then we suffered a sudden close family bereavement. We dealt with it all, but not without some lifestyle changes. Then, when the dust had settled, we wrote a book about it (The Karmic Curve, under the pen name Mary I. William).

The first lesson we learned is that you can’t have it all, all of the time. That goes for men just as much as for women. The second lesson is that when the pressure hits on the family front as well as the work front, something will have to give. Small children are not open to compromise, and family tragedies are not forgiving events. So, however important the work, flexibility for us had to come on the professional side.

1. Forever chasing positive feedback comes at a high cost

Anyone who works in a large organisation knows the importance of feedback and regular appraisal. We all have to play that game. But, especially if you are looking for balance between work and family life, some playbooks are definitely better than others. In our book we talk about “Scrappy-Doo” characters that we have met in the workplace. These canine individuals are ready to run around endlessly in pursuit of praise from their masters. Now let’s be clear, this is probably essential when you are starting out and can also be an effective route to promotion over time. But when it comes to balance, true productivity and - frankly - self-esteem, then chasing after dog biscuits is not cool.

Our advice on this is that “gold stars are for school-children.” What we mean by that is once you have established yourself in the workplace as a competent and efficient person, it is crucial to start to set your own metrics for success. All professional people know in their hearts whether a piece of work is good, bad or just good enough: they don’t need “Mummy” or “Daddy” to tell them! Likewise, once you free yourself from the need for daily (or even - in some extreme cases of Scrappy-Doo syndrome - hourly) praise from your managers, then you can focus more on getting on with doing a good job and using the other hours in the day as best you see fit: seeing the kids, meeting friends, playing the piano!

We are not for one moment saying that you should disregard all (and especially negative!) feedback, but there has to come a point in your career where you start to act on the observation that endlessly chasing a pat on the back can cost you great amounts of family time, sleep and – potentially – your health if you allow yourself to get continually exhausted.

2. It is frequently observed that the working environment is an important element of team productivity …

… It is less frequently pointed out that different people work in very different ways, even in the same office.

Susan Cain’s excellent book Quiet is our inspiration here. Cain highlights that while some outgoing colleagues may love the bustle of open-plan offices and group discussions, more introverted colleagues may need some quiet time to plan and think. This led us to the very simple conclusion that, as managers, there was very little point actively monitoring how people worked – provided that they were there on time, of course. Extroverts might be typing while talking, whereas the introverts might seek refuge in the cafeteria not to idle away half an hour, but rather to plan out their next piece of work. In short, by checking only the basics because of all of the pressures that we were under, we suffered no visible reduction in overall team productivity.

3. Proper strategic planning is hard

Here, we found no short-cuts. But we do think that there were benefits to doing it properly in terms of time saved once the approach was agreed and in place. The first part of our method is obvious: to clearly identify the set of acceptable outcomes that you are aiming towards (the landing zone). The second aspect is then to work back from the landing zone to the present situation, identifying as many potential stumbling blocks along the way as possible. This sounds simple. It isn’t. One of the hardest things can be convincing colleagues who are desperate to get started on a project by taking some action – any action – to pause for breath. Because until you know which way the river is located, there is no point hacking randomly at the undergrowth.

For this particular metaphor we are indebted to a Ray Mears survival DVD that we had received as a Christmas present. It also provided some much-needed therapy after stressful days of work and child-care. Wisdom comes in many shapes and sizes, it turns out. In summary, we hope that you and your family don’t have to go through the same set of parallel challenges that we did, but we did write down our experiences in a book, just in case.

Photo: Flickr / Neal. CC BY 2.0

Ian vollbracht

Ian William Vollbracht

Ian William Vollbracht works for the European Commission. He and his wife are the authors of The Karmic Curve, available now via in hard copy or e-reader formats.