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Second Shift

How To Balance Business And Family While Both Are Growing Fast

Sorry, but there are no hacks or shortcuts for this one, as one dad and startup founder learned.

How To Balance Business And Family While Both Are Growing Fast
[Photo: Flickr user Markus Spiske]

Since the birth of his daughter in late November, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been streaming his paternity leave one heart-melting image at a time. This isn’t brand-boosting PR—it’s the genuine and admirable outreach of a proud dad.

For other CEOs and executives out there who are struggling to balance the commitments of a fast-growing business and family time, Zuckerberg’s posts are both an inspiration and a challenge: "This is what’s really important. So why aren’t we doing it?"

Finding time for family while steering a company through hypergrowth isn’t easy. With my wife, I’ve done my best to help raise three young children while turning my business from a raw idea into a different kind of family, with over 300 members and counting. Here's what I've learned along the way about keeping work and life in balance while both are barreling ahead.

Your Calendar Doesn't Lie

As any entrepreneur can tell you, building a business is a rush and can be extraordinarily addictive. It’s habit forming. And that's the exact reason why it's so important to step back and recognize how foundational family life is—both in and of itself, and also to your business. Unfortunately, many CEOs never seem to make this connection.

There’s a virtuous work-and-family cycle, but it can easily turn vicious if ignored. In my experience, anyway, it’s hard to work well and remain inspired without family support and a rich life at home. For CEOs, whose workload is so often outsized, this is especially true.

One good indicator of whether you’ve got this right or wrong is right in front of you: Just take a quick glance at your calendar. Is it showing 90% work obligations and only the occasional family activity? If so, there’s a very good chance that you’re already burnt out, as are 96% of senior leaders, by one recent estimate. So when you look at your calendar, see your life—and not just your work—on it. Think about whether your spouse or kids would be pleased to learn what actual fraction of your calendar they get.

But this isn't a moral scold. The truth is that this imbalance is easy to fall into and can hurt both spheres of your life. Extend this over the length of a career and, in my opinion, it adds up to nothing short of a tragedy. Sadly, I’ve had more than a few older colleagues confess to me—often in the face of a health crisis—that they wish they could have a do-over because they got the work-life thing completely wrong.

Where To Look For Time You Don't Have

Of course, it’s pretty easy to say you value your family and are committed to spending time with them. The challenge is finding ways to pull extra hours out of thin air.

It can start with your morning commute. For me, it’s just 20 minutes, door-to-door. That wasn’t luck. As my wife and I were looking for our next home, this was perhaps the biggest factor of all in our buying decision—and it was an investment we intentionally prioritized at the expense of others. Those two hours (or more) you’re spending on commuting are two hours you could be with your kids. No matter how exorbitant the real estate (or how modest the home you have to settle on), this is a tiny price to pay to reclaim that time. If you’re spending more time with your car than your kids, you might want to think seriously about a move.

Equally important is management style. Early in my career, I was almost a walking stereotype of the overworked CEO, obsessing over every facet of the company. As we grew to 50, then 100 employees, obligations kept me at work later and later until it just became untenable.

Looking back, I'm lucky it did. My COO walked into my office one day and told me point-blank that I was the one holding our company back. I wasn’t fully utilizing the talent we already had, him included. After that, things started to get better. Supported by the right team, BuildDirect was able to go global. It seems miraculous that all this happened while I managed to carve out more time for my loved ones, but I realize it isn't: I'd learned to start delegating right when it mattered most—to my family and to my business.

As work grew more demanding, another natural inclination of mine actually turned out to be helpful. The people in my life know that when they have me, they have all of me. I’m not looking at text messages from family when I’m in the board room, and I’m not thinking about work when I’m with my wife and kids. The ability to be completely present isn’t a luxury or indulgence: it helps maximize the limited time you do have. If it isn't your natural instinct, it's worth the effort to practice.

Finally, I’ve found that rituals are key—setting aside sacred time that's purely for family. Family dinners are an obvious one. (If Barack Obama can pull this off, anyone can.) This usually means working a few hours after dinner, but it’s well worth it. Sacred spaces can be just as important. My kids know that when we’re spending the night at the cabin, it’s all about swimming in the lake and playing guitar around the fire, and that I’m not going to suddenly be pulled away for a call.

There are no shortcuts. Even as I write this, I realize how many times I’ve gotten it wrong. And to be perfectly honest, making it work often requires cutting back on the one thing we could all use more of: sleep. But these are the sacrifices we make to take care of what’s really important.

Jeff Booth is cofounder and CEO of BuildDirect. Follow him on Twitter @JeffBooth.

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