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Work Smart

How Business Leaders Get Ahead By Making Time For Passion Projects

Risk management, perspective, and creativity are career skills these execs learned while chasing storms, sculpting ice, and playing soccer.

How Business Leaders Get Ahead By Making Time For Passion Projects

[Photo: Crew via Unsplash]

All work and no play can make life pretty dull. But for some, play is more than a weekend game of golf or a night out at the movies. It’s a project that fuels a passion. From chasing storms to teaching soccer, these six business leaders make the most of their nonworking hours.

1. Sculpting Ice

Steve Conine is CEO of the Boston-based online home furnishings store Wayfair, but when it’s time to chill out on a Sunday afternoon he takes the concept literally. Conine started ice sculpting in college, and continues the unusual hobby today in his own lakefront backyard. With the help of his wife and children who move around chunks of ice, Conine uses his chainsaw to craft things like a living room furniture set or ice animals.

"I’ve always gravitated toward projects that require handiwork," he says. "Seeing the final product of something I created with my own two hands is different from my role at Wayfair, where I primarily work with software."

Conine says ice sculpting is not only enjoyable on a personal, creative level; it also translates to better performance at work. "It helps me prioritize and take calculated risks," he says. "When I’m carving slippery ice, my ability to manage risk is critical."

2. Rescuing Dogs

By day Zarina Mak is managing partner at PS260, a New York-based film editing company that has worked on commercials for Powerade and Ray-Ban. Nights and weekends, however, she manages the New Jersey-based nonprofit dog rescue See Spot Rescued.

"I started See Spot Rescued accidentally," Mak admits. After adopting two dogs, Mak learned there was an unlimited supply of dogs looking for families and homes. Many never make it out of the shelter and are euthanized. So she decided to rescue a few.

"To me, I was just helping out a couple of dogs by providing them with much needed vet care and a promise that I was going to find them their perfect families," she says.

Six years later, she’s saved, vetted, and rehomed over 1,500 dogs, including a few that have gone to celebrities like TV personality Andy Cohen, director Spike Jonze, and designer Todd Oldham.

Mak drew upon her professional life to make her passion a success. "I found that my skills and experience in my everyday job of running a film editing company and, prior to that, as an ad agency producer, easily translated to rescuing pups," she says. "You need to make it happen no matter what, and that is what I am used to doing."

While the work is hard, Mak finds it rewarding. "Every single time we place even just one dog in a home, we are rewarded with pure, genuine joy," she says. "And I'm addicted to this pure, genuine joy."

3. Mentoring Through Reading

As president of Adecco Staffing, Joyce Russell helps people find jobs. On her off time, though, she shares her passion for reading by organizing a book club at the University of Florida (UF).

Russell got the idea after staying in touch with an intern who attended UF, offering book recommendations as part of their correspondence. She decided to expand her reach by leading a group of 10 female students who read a book and gather to discuss it.

Recent selections include Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy and The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington.

"I believe that leaders leave their legacy through the people they develop and support," says Russell. "By providing opportunities that expand these young women's network and education, I can help improve their ability to impact the future for themselves and other women around them."

Russell also learns from them, and she takes that knowledge into her workplace. "I am always trying to keep our business relevant through changes in technology and the staffing industry, and working with these women helps me do that," she says. "Spending time with them challenges me in ways that helps shift my mind-set and improve my ability to think beyond how things are always done."

4. Chasing Storms

Steve Gray, co-owner and partner at Dallas-based B2B marketing firm Spire Agency, has a passion for weather—bad weather. He started chasing storms nearly 20 years ago, and each spring he takes time away from the office to track violent super cells and tornados in Northern Texas and Southern Oklahoma.

"I consider myself incredibly lucky to live in tornado alley," he says. "Having an opportunity to intercept and witness firsthand some of the most powerful and beautiful acts of nature is a ‘mental reset’ for me from my professional life."

While thrilling, Gray’s hobby is also helpful. In rural areas, there aren’t as many people to serve as the "eyes" for what the National Weather Service (NWS) sees on radar. "Having the opportunity to visually verify for the NWS dangerous storms that may be heading toward rural cities is an incredibly important service that storm chasers like me provide," he says. "This often helps emergency management provide a more accurate warning for small towns in advance of being hit by the storm."

Gray has also had a chance to be a first responder. "Being out on the plains during the storms puts me in a position to quickly react and assist if one of the small towns or farms is hit by a destructive storm or tornado," he says. "Being in a place where I can assist people who need immediate help means a lot to me."

Ironically, the experience has taught him a lot about business: "Like running a company, this is not a hobby to pursue without considerable training and experience," he says. "Being able to analyze models and forecasts in advance of an event as well as confidently make the right decision to stay near a storm while at a safe distance are all critical requirements."

5. Animal Therapy

During the day, Dotan Bar Noy helps protect companies as CEO of the New York-based cybersecurity firm ReSec Technologies. When he gets home, Bar Noy and his two mixed-breed rescue dogs, Mika and Fredi, volunteer at an animal therapy program for elderly residents of an assisted living center.

"The volunteering started when my wife saw an article about the petting program," he explains. Bar Noy's wife thought that would be a great opportunity to do something good for others, as well as an exciting new thing to do with their dogs, he says.

Bringing pets to the living center gives residents a break in the day, and the dogs become a bridge for conversation, says Bar Noy. "People talk about the dogs they used to have," he says. "It puts them at ease and leads to talking about their past experience and their life in general."

Bar Noy used to visit a man named Sam, who recently died at the age of 93. "Sam had the most exciting life, living through two world wars," he recalls. "Every visit, we were lucky to hear more stories that could have easily turned into a Hollywood movie," Bar Noy adds. An escape from their regular routine, Bar Noy says the visits provided "a small window into someone’s else rich exiting experience and life."

Sam's stories have also given Bar Noy a much needed perspective on business. "Working in a startup, we are consistently running and making what we consider ‘life or death’ decisions," he says.

6. Teaching Kids Soccer

Akash Nigam started his passion project long before he launched the group-messaging platform Blend. When he was in high school, his father challenged him to give back to the community, so Nigam founded Kick, Lead and Dream (KLD), a Mountain View, California, soccer camp for at-risk kids.

"KLD combined two of my passions: soccer and helping those in need," he says. "I use soccer as a vehicle to help underprivileged kids who couldn’t afford summer camps, helping them avoid potential violence, drugs, and gangs."

The camp was successful right away, growing from 20 kids in its first year to 300 in its third. Nine years later, Nigam continues to mentor participants, working one on one with some, and giving motivational speeches to encourage all campers to follow their dreams.

Running KLD helped prepare Nigam to become CEO of a company: "Managing over 375 people taught me that the only way to succeed as a business was to hire the right people and put everyone in the best positions possible," he says. "You have to devise systems and schedules every single day to remove distractions to assure everyone focuses on the tasks at hand."

KLD also taught Nigam about the user experience. "We wanted to make sure that all participants look at KLD as one of their best summer memories ever, and it’s the same with Blend," he says. "We don’t want it to be an app that people just download and delete," he says. "We want it to be a platform that users will forever cherish."

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