When cofounders Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark approached me about a top position in a little-known startup called Mosaic that later became Netscape Navigator, I was thrilled at the opportunity.
And I turned it down. I had just given birth to my second child and knew how challenging it would be to successfully integrate work and home, along with a baby and toddler. The opportunity to be a key employee in a revolutionary startup with inspirational leadership wasn’t enough to change my mind back in the 1990s. The company went public without me. Since then, I’ve thought of my daughter Gabrielle as “the billion dollar baby”—almost $1 billion being the opportunity cost for prioritizing my kids and not abandoning my personal life for a startup.
Startup culture in Silicon Valley focuses obsessively on work and market dominance. Bringing your whole self to work isn’t always part of the tech world ethos. An executive at a Valley company I worked for told me to remove photos of my children from my desk, because he felt I looked less engaged and professional. He worried my photos would negatively affect other key employees and the company’s ability to recruit top talent.
I ignored this executive’s tone deaf demand, and shortly after he made that remark, I joined a different founding team with a lead role in a startup where I quickly established work-life integration for every employee. It became part of the company’s DNA.
For the 10 years I led the firm, I structured my daily schedule so that I could scale the business while staying strong and healthy and raising two toddlers. I told my direct reports to work hard and smart, exercise, and blend work with your personal life. Today this is known as a people-first approach. As a leader you create an environment that fosters work-life integration without stigmatizing it, and values the needs of your most important asset—your people.
A person I hired to head marketing communications worked more than 70 hours a week, sometimes past midnight. She admitted to being an overachiever who grew up believing she’d get ahead by working extraordinarily hard. It worked for her in school and college. I was having none of it. I gave her a goal to integrate her life and work. Initially she pushed back, but later was grateful she got her health back.
People-first should never be an option
Across industries, home and work life are more integrated and balanced than at any time since the U.S. became an innovation and service economy. Startup culture has been a bit slower to embrace this basic human need. Its singular focus on hard work and speed to get innovations to market has meant quality of life isn’t always a priority.
In my role today as angel investor, board member, and adviser, I support founders and their teams by telling them to work hard and to blend work with their personal life. Whether mom, dad, guardian, or someone with a huge passion, I want them to spend time with their families and do things not work-related. Healthy, happy founders and team members build better companies and retain key employees.
Here are some approaches that have worked for me and startups I have invested in:
Lead by example
When you practice work-life integration, work and life are woven together. Neither suffers. Both benefit. As a founder, role-modeling an integrated lifestyle enables your team to follow your lead. They’ll perform better as you set the tone for them to integrate their own work-life.
Recall, I had two young children while leading a company in startup mode. I scaled it to doing business in more than a hundred countries, then sold it to a multibillion-dollar public firm. If I hadn’t diligently integrated my work and personal life, I would have failed miserably.
In one instance, I was in the midst of a meeting that was running late with our Italian distributor. I also had a looming timeframe when I needed to pick up my children from summer camp. Rather than cut the meeting short, I offered to continue the conversation as I drove to pick up my kids. My contact loved meeting them, and learning about American camps. My kids also enjoyed meeting someone from Italy and peppered him with lots of questions! This contact continues to be an amazing distributor for the company I led, responsible for millions of dollars in business. By merging my work and personal life, it ended up strengthening both relationships.
In my executive role on a typical day, I communicated with international stakeholders across time zones throughout the day, and held strategy and product development meetings. I responded to emails from around the world, had meals with family, and handled school drop-offs and homework. I took a short break for lunch and exercise. When the children were in bed, I went back to work until my own bedtime.
This schedule prioritized our children and kept my mind and body healthy. Practice a version of this for yourself, and encourage everyone on your team to do the same without guilt or stigma.
People-first benefits your bottom line
Work-life integration in practice is important for retention and recruiting. At my startup, employee turnover was below 5%. Now that I invest in the kinds of early stage companies I once worked for, I emphasize integrated work-life as key to retaining top talent.
One founder I invested in had very small children, as did her entire team. They were growing their new skin-care business into a global brand and successfully integrated their professional and family lives. They secured millions of dollars in funding from investors who shared their vision and success with work-life integration.
People-first extends beyond families with kids
A key team member of the company I led was a noted technical expert who runs marathons and is a top marathoner globally in her age category. It was critical for her to work remotely, and we accommodated her marathon travel schedule. This enabled her to bring her true self to work; she felt respected and supported.
Learn to prioritize
Sometimes, perfection isn’t an option. Knowing when it isn’t is key to successful work-life integration. Prioritize your schedule. Delegate when possible at work and at home. Practice efficiency, don’t dwell on things you can’t change, and manage conflict with grace.
We’re in a world where firms that don’t foster work-life integration will find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain top talent, regardless of the economy and marketplace conditions. Don’t be a company that talent shuns because of your reputation for stigmatizing parenting and work-life integration. If you work for a company that doesn’t value work-life integration, don’t waste your valuable talents, especially when companies are scrambling for talent.
If you maintain a solid focus on your key priorities at work and in your life outside of the workplace, you’ll experience a sustained satisfaction that inspires and continues to propel you forward. Your company performance will reach new heights when you prioritize people with a culture that embraces work-life integration.