Fast Company

Balancing Acts

Unit of One

Everyone wants it. Few achieve it. Balance: It's the Holy Grail in the new world of work. But is it even something that any of us can have? We asked 10 business leaders and thinkers to describe their journeys toward balance - - and also to consider a few questions: In the face of unlimited business opportunities, how do you create balance in your life? How do you continue to pursue your work goals and still stay connected to the things that make you human? And finally, once you've gone overboard in one direction, how do you "get a life"? There is no shortcut to the world of balance, but here are some suggestions to help you on your journey.

Dawn Gould Lepore

Executive Vice President and CIO
Charles Schwab & Co. Inc.
San Francisco, California

Balance is less about striving for some elusive state of equilibrium than it is about making an explicit series of choices in your life. You have to figure out what's important to you, and that's what will dictate how you spend your time. I'm 44 years old. I've chosen to focus on my career throughout my life. I get a lot of gratification from work; I love the challenge, and I'm a sucker for taking on new projects. But a year ago, I had a child, and that choice has changed the entire equation for me.

I'd always kept my work life and my personal life separate. Now that I'm both an executive and a mom, I've got to be able to move smoothly between the two roles in order to remain sane. On weekends, for example, I'll be working at home, operating in "executive mode" and thinking about an upcoming presentation. Then -- oops! -- my son's diaper needs changing, and I've got to slip into my "mother mode" to clean him up. When I can integrate the two parts of my life that way, the transition comes naturally.

Having my son has made me a more balanced leader. I'm trying hard to cut back on my usual 60- to 70-hour workweek. I'm much less tolerant of activities that aren't a good use of my time, and I'm a better delegator. I frequently ask myself, Do I really have to do this? Does my organization need me to follow up on every detail? My answer often is, "No, it doesn't." Now I focus on what's important: providing inspiration and emotional support for my organization.

Still, when it comes to balance, I'm a work in progress. Do I look back and wonder if I made the wrong choices? No. But I do realize that I've given up a lot along the way: I gave up the chance to have children in my thirties -- which was a big trade-off. I gave up a lot of opportunities to spend time with my family. These are all things that I've consciously chosen, and as a result of my choices, I've increased the stress in my life. There's nothing easy about making choices. But here's how I look at it: Either you make them for yourself, or they're made for you.

Dawn Gould Lepore (www.schwab.com) has been a leader in the expansion and redesign of Charles Schwab's information systems. She is responsible for Schwab's worldwide use of information technology, including telecommunications as well as customer and business applications.

David Lunsford

Director of Advanced Technology
Dell Personal Systems Group
Dell Computer Corp.
Austin, Texas

I often hear people proudly claim that they work 100-hour weeks. The first thing I think is, How can a person really be effective for 100 hours? How effective you are is more important than how long you work. Your goal should be to hone your work habits to achieve maximum performance. But a lot of us are hooked on a tangible metric that suggests that more hours must equal better work.

In the 13 years I've worked at Dell, I can remember two times when my work style led to major burnout. I lost the inspiration to perform. I reached a point where nothing mattered. I didn't care: Fire me. Shoot me. Whatever. The work I was doing began to feel futile, a feeling that is hard to translate into productivity. When you realize, as I did, that a lack of balance downgrades your effectiveness, it's easy to make balance a priority. I finally understood that achieving balance would actually help my career.

More and more, the boundaries between work and life are being blurred by technology -- pagers, cell-phones, email. It's easy to let your work life migrate into your personal life, so you need to create a reverse migration. I do this by scheduling routine breaks in my workday to have private moments. That can mean sitting and reflecting for 20 minutes, or talking to someone who is important to me. I'm beginning to manage my personal life as if it were a business. Of course, I don't have a profit-and-loss statement for my private life. But I am much more willing today to let my private life take priority when it comes to making choices about how I use my time.

I have a very long-term view of the relationship between my work and my life. I work to have a good quality of life, not to achieve some arbitrary goal, such as a job title or a figure in a bank account. My tenure at Dell has far surpassed that of senior executives who went for the brass ring -- who convinced someone that they could succeed but who failed to deliver over the long haul. Now they're gone. So who really did better?

Ask yourself: Is the way you're working today sustainable over the next 20 years? Then listen to your answer.

David Lunsford (david_lunsford@dell.com) has been at Dell since July 1986 and has served in various engineering and management capacities. In his current position, he is working on advanced-concept PCs.

John Perry Barlow

Cofounder, Vice Chairman, And Cognitive Dissident
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Pinedale, Wyoming

I'm the guy who wrote the Grateful Dead song with the line "Too much of everything is just enough." It sounded good when I wrote it 20 years ago, but I don't believe it anymore: Too much of everything is too much. But it's tricky to find a balance between just enough and too much. The more you get, the less you feel that you have. The faster I go, the faster I feel that I need to go. When I was a rancher, there came a point every day when I had to stop working -- simply because my body couldn't keep going. Work in the information economy is different. We can hammer ourselves endlessly -- or so we think. We're living in an era of explosive abundance. The challenge is to manage our freedom and to strike a balance in the face of endless opportunity. I've realized that I must find the discipline to say "No" more often. It sounds easy, but it's not. Just when I've convinced myself that what I have is more than plenty, the phone rings, and someone offers me something that I can't resist. But then I ask an important question: How thin can I spread myself before I'm no longer "there"?

John Perry Barlow (barlow@eff.org) cofounded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to protect privacy and freedom of expression on the Internet. Barlow has raised cows in Wyoming and written songs for the Grateful Dead. At present, he is a Berkman Fellow at Harvard Law School.

Linda Stroh

Director, WorkPlace Studies
Professor, Institute of Human Resources & Industrial Relations
Loyola University
Chicago, Illinois

We recently conducted a survey of 900 managers, and we found that people who work more also earn more. Those managers who worked 61 hours or more per week had earned, on average, about two promotions over the past five years. The financial, social, and emotional rewards of working -- and even of overworking -- entice us out of the house and into the workplace. We're all being seduced by what we can achieve.

This seduction isn't a bad thing -- unless it creates an imbalance in your life. The challenge, then, is to understand why you are overworking: Are you escaping something at home? Has your work style become just a habit? Or do you really enjoy what you're doing? Once you pinpoint what drives you, you'll be better at driving your own life.

Linda Stroh (lstroh@wpo.it.luc.edu) has helped more than 30 companies to develop policies related to work-family issues. In addition to her work as a professor, she serves as an academic adviser to the international personnel association.

Melinda Brown

Vice President and General Counsel
Lotus Development Corp.
Cambridge, Massachusetts

A few months after I was promoted to general counsel, I was dashing through the airport when I stopped to buy a book. One title caught my eye: "Care of the Soul," by Thomas Moore (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992). I grabbed it, immediately lost my composure, and began to cry. I'm a very self-contained person. But there I was, having a nervous breakdown in the airport. Over time, I began to understand why.

I was depressed. I felt that I had no control over my life. I spent every day giving -- to my work and to my family. There was no reserve left for me. I had gotten into a cycle where I was incapable of wringing one drop of time to nurture and sustain myself. As a member of my company's operating committee, I felt that I needed to be 100% accessible 100% of the time. I created a situation where I could never be "off."

To me, balance is an illusion -- and to have it as a goal is self-defeating. Instead, take advantage of whatever trade-offs you can make. I don't know how much faster and harder we all can go. There has to be a breaking point. Maybe then we'll be able to slow down and accept a certain level of tedium and repetition. We might have fewer toys, but we'd be able to simplify our world and to enjoy life.

Melinda Brown (www.lotus.com) became General Counsel of Lotus in 1996. Previously she was a senior attorney with the Lotus Notes product-development and marketing organizations.

Rahm Emanuel

Managing Partner
Wasserstein Perella
Chicago, Illinois

Conventional wisdom says that you can't work in politics and have a family. But I worked in the White House, and, all things considered, I think it was a family-friendly environment. It's true that when you work for the president, you are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. But while working, I found time to do plenty: to get married, to go on a three-week honeymoon, to visit Spain and France, and to start a family. We now have two children. On the Saturdays when I had to go to the White House to review the president's weekly radio address, I would usually bring my son. And most Mondays -- no matter what was going on at work -- I would eat lunch at home with my family. I also drew the line on using technology: I rarely wore my pager, and I refused to have a fax machine at home.

There's obviously no easy answer to the question of balance. You have to work at it. You've got to be as determined in your personal life as you are in your professional life. I've been in politics for 16 years, and I've managed to stay in shape both mentally and physically -- which, in my world, says a lot about sustaining an even keel on this work-life sea. To me, you're not a very interesting person if you do only one thing. Don't let your work become all-consuming.

Rahm Emanuel, one of the original members of Bill Clinton's Little Rock "War Room," was President Clinton's senior adviser for policy and strategy. He was the president's chief strategist on the balanced-budget deal and on the overhaul of the welfare system. One example of how Emanuel has pursued a balanced life: He has taken Saturday ballet classes on and off since he was 16.

Patti Manuel

President and COO, Long-Distance Division
Sprint Corp.
Kansas City, Missouri

I'm a boss, an employee, a friend, a mother, a daughter, and a member of my church and community. I play a lot of roles. Balance is about understanding what those roles are and not letting any one of them become dominant. Most of the time, I'm good at this. Other times, I'm trying to manage my way back from chaos.

I sleep 5 hours a night. The other 19 hours, I'm going 200 miles per hour. But I don't overdo it. There are people at Sprint who work from sunup to well past sundown: They become their jobs. They might make it to middle management, but then they get stuck. They can't lift their heads above the trenches. They're horrible managers, because they expect the whole world to behave and work as they do. I went through a stage like this in my early thirties: Would I get the next promotion? Would I get a better account assigned to me? Today, as a leader, I try to guard against that syndrome. I know that in the final analysis, workaholics are not business successes.

I try to create an environment in which people know that it's okay not to be a workaholic -- in which they get ahead because of their contribution, not because of the number of hours they log. I let people know that balance is important -- for them and for us. I let people I work with know that I take off Wednesday afternoons to volunteer at my son's school. It takes a lot of discipline to achieve balance. People who work too much have a massive amount of discipline -- but they're not applying it in the right way.

Patti Manuel joined Sprint (www.sprint.com) as a national account manager in 1986. When she was promoted to president and COO a year ago, she became the first woman in Sprint history to run one of the company's divisions. The long-distance division employs more than 19,000 people and accounts for more than $9 billion of Sprint's $15 billion in revenues.

Liz Dolan

President
Dolan St. Clair Inc.
Portland, Oregon

It's hard to admit that your work life is out of control. I loved my job at Nike, but it was all-consuming. I had no life. My housekeeper was spending more time at my house than I was. I reached a point where I could not remember the last time I had slept in my own bed. I love summers in Oregon, but I was never there long enough to enjoy one. But the real indicator that my life was out of whack came when I got a call from my brother, Brendan. He'd been trying to reach me for several weeks. I was always too "busy" to call him back. When we finally connected, he told me that he'd had to do a Lexis-Nexis search on me to figure out where I was that week. I was being Lexis-Nexised by my own brother! That really made me stop and think.

Six months later, I took a sabbatical -- to my backyard. My goal? Not to leave the state of Oregon for two months. There were days when I didn't even leave my house. I hoped I could restructure my job at Nike so that I could have a life outside of the company. But although I knew I wanted to do less, I couldn't pass up the interesting projects that kept coming across my desk. I realized that a corporation as large as Nike has an "all or nothing at all" environment. To achieve balance in my life, I needed to create more variety. So I quit. Instead of having one big job, I now divide my work time into thirds: business consulting, public service, and creative projects.

You don't have to sit on top of a mountain to discover what's right for you. You always know in your heart what you need to do. But you do have to ask yourself if you're willing to make choices. Put yourself in a position where you're making choices about your life, rather than letting other people make those choices for you. That's what balance is all about.

Liz Dolan (lizdolan@msn.com) left a very big job -- as vice president of global marketing at Nike -- to take on three small jobs. Dolan St. Clair is a marketing company that works with no more than three clients at any one time. Dolan is also on the board of governors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. with her four sisters, and in conjunction with WNYC (the largest U.S. public-radio station), she has developed a pilot for a talk-radio program called "Satellite Sisters."

Stewart Friedman

Director of the Leadership Program and of the Work/Life Integration Project
The Wharton School
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Last year, I was doing some work with a large bank. The people there told me a story that astounded me: After 7 p.m., people would open the door to their office, drape a spare jacket on the back of their chair, lay a set of glasses down on some reading material on their desk -- and then go home for the night. The point of this elaborate gesture was to create the illusion that they were just out grabbing dinner and would be returning to burn the midnight oil.

This type of thing happens all the time. A lot of us accept the pressure to demonstrate that kind of commitment to work. I call this "the face-time mentality": Commitment equals time spent in the office. That attitude, which comes from a fear of being replaced, is starting to change as companies implement flextime and paternity-leave programs. But often those measures fall short of solving the real problem. In fact, I suspect that some of these programs are simply efforts by companies to get themselves on the "100 best companies to work for" lists.

There is something you can do as a leader: Sit down with someone you work with and ask him or her some simple questions. What do you really care about? What are you most interested in? What do you do in your free time? If you ask these questions with a full heart and an open mind, you can establish a level of trust that benefits your company while also encouraging your employees to find balance in their lives.

Stew Friedman (friedman@wharton.upenn.edu) initiated and now directs the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project. The project is an academic-business partnership dedicated to developing leadership through both "action research" and education.

Kirby Dyess

Vice President and Director of New Business Development
Intel Corp.
Portland, Oregon

I can tell that I've hit the wall at work, and that I need to recalibrate my life, when I can no longer empathize with others, when I'm focused only on results, when I ignore other people's goals, and when I become frustrated with life's interruptions. Or when my daughter has to tell me, "It'll be all right, Kirby."

To reorient my life, I take several important steps: Every day, I do something that's totally for myself. I constantly look for ways to simplify my life. And when I start to run out of creative juices, I avoid the temptation to work harder. Instead, I do something recreational, like gardening.

As a leader, I find that the best thing I can do for people who work with me is to ask them what's important to them -- and then to give them permission to get away from work so that they can do it. I remember when one man who worked with me began to go overboard. I knew that he was working too hard and that he had no life outside of Intel. At the same time, his work had stopped being useful. He'd left all his objectivity behind; everything became too intense and too immediate. So I told him that he needed to get a life. He looked at me as if I were joking. But when I reviewed his work with him, he began to see my point. Eventually he got a life, and now he's one of the best analysts in the organization.

Kirby Dyess joined Intel (www.intel.com) in 1979 as a manager in its human-resources department. Earlier, in 1968, she had been the first woman to graduate with a degree in physics from the University of Idaho.

Add New Comment

0 Comments