Balancing Family Life and Career
If I can lead a balanced life, so can other busy executives. It’s a matter of organizing around priorities.
One of the most critical problems facing today’s successful executive is learning how to balance career and family. This issue has faced every executive at one time or another. For many, it is an issue that never goes away. It demands making a choice, not once, but almost every day.
Recently I saw a survey that was quite interesting, involving the typical Chief Executive Officer for a Fortune 500 company. The profile went like this: the CEO is (most probably) a male in his 50s, married to his first wife and enjoys his work very much. He works over sixty hours a week and makes sure that he has sufficient time to spend at home, resulting in a stable relationship with his family.
Two things stand out in the results of the survey: one, that the typical CEO works long hours, and, two, that he has a stable family life. It makes me wonder what separates these executives from others who have successful careers but problems at home, or worse, executives that have the talent, but seem to never get it together in either their personal or professional lives?
Which Comes First, Home or Office?
The first step is to set your priorities. You need to determine what is important to you, but just don’t think about today, think about what will be important in the long-term—ten or twenty years from now. For me, the answer is simple: my family comes first. I firmly believe that success, no matter how great, can never compensate for being a failure at home.
Fortunately for me, I work for a company where I am the Senior Partner and the culture we foster agrees that the family should be your first commitment. Most of my friends and neighbors are as busy or more busy than me. The demands on our time is enormous, yet we set aside time to spend at home with our families and even try to incorporate several other activities on a daily basis with private times for each child and especially our spouses. I admire that type of commitment to the family.
If you are single, then many of these suggestions can be easily applied to your relationship with a close friend or other family members. The need for emotional support and encouragement is just as important for you as it is to someone who is married.
However, making your personal life your first priority takes more than simply drawing a dividing line between work and home. It starts by building a strong relationship between you and the members of your family. Then it means committing the time necessary to nurture and enhance those relationships. As a general rule, I try to be home for dinner every night that I am in town, even if it means taking work home or scheduling something later in the evening. I also find that I don’t have a lot of time for playing golf, poker or any of the other traditional “out with the boys” activities. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the time I spend with my associates, but when I weigh the responsibilities of family, community and business, I have to make choices. I have to set my own priorities.
Planning a family vacation is another way I try to maintain a strong relationship with my family. I usually schedule my vacations a year in advance and they are the first dates I mark in my calendar. Next, I mark important activities and events that I want to spend with my family, and then I try to plan my business calendar around those dates. Obviously, there are going to be conflicts, but by planning far enough in advance, many problems can be easily avoided.
Learning to Listen
Another aspect of maintaining a strong relationship with my family is fostering open communications, the most important part of which is learning to listen. By listening properly, you not only hear what is being said, but can also pick up messages that are not being verbalized. Sometimes the silent messages are the most important ones. Successful communication is also remembering that conversations are not always parent-to-child or parent-to-parent, sometimes communication needs to be simply person-to-person. This type of open communications doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and patience. But once you learn to communicate with your family, many of the other elements necessary for a good relationship will fall in place.
Setting a regular time to do things as a family is another way to build relationships. In our family, we have what we call a “family activity.” Once a week, usually on Sundays, we try to schedule an activity, preferably at home where we all participate as a family. The activities range from taking a long walk, bike ride or playing games. They really doesn’t matter as long as we do them together.
Just as your kids need special attention, so does your spouse. For more than fifteen years, my wife and I have tried to schedule at least one date a week. It’s a time when we both have an opportunity to share what’s happening in other parts of our lives and can spend time getting to know each other better. Would you believe that after fifteen years, I am still finding out new and interesting things about my wife? When we first started our weekly date, I had thoughts of a nice quiet evening at home with the kids away visiting friends or my oldest baby sitting them quietly in the basement, but my wife had other ideas. After spending all week at home, she wanted to go out for dinner and maybe see comedy or another type of show. She won, which brings up another point. Our relationship has flourished over the years because it is a partnership based on mutual respect and consideration. That’s not to say we don’t disagree. But when we do, we work it out.
Finally, whenever possible, I try to leave my frustrations at the office. If I have had a tough day at the office, the last thing I want to do is bring it home. Over the years, I have developed two simple habits that help me mentally prepare to spend time with my family: while driving home I turn off the radio and just breath deeply, that will put me in a lighter mood. Sometimes I have to park the car and just close my eyes for a few minutes in order to release and let go of the work day. As soon as I get home, I change into something comfortable. Taking off my suit is almost like hanging my work-related problems in the closet until tomorrow.
Setting Priorities at Work
One of the most interesting things that I have learned about being an effective manager is that many of the elements that create a successful home life also can help to establish a successful career. These elements include learning to set priorities, fostering an atmosphere of open communication, establishing a cohesive relationship with other executives, and setting high standards and working hard to meet those standards.
In setting my priorities at work, the first thing I do is to determine what the business associates want to achieve (in my case the business is my boss, for you it would likely be your CEO), and then I try to ensure that we are able to accomplish his goals. Often this means finding the right people to do a specific job and making sure that we are all working together to achieve that same goal.
My next priority is to spend time with the people who report directly to me, responding to their requests and specific needs. In developing relationships with those who work for me, I make it clear that I hired them because of their expertise and talent, and that I trust their judgement. They know that I don’t need to hear every detail about every project, that’s their responsibility. On the other hand, they know that I don’t like surprises, so they have to make judgments about what is important for me to know and what decisions I need to be involved in. This philosophy lets them do their job and frees me to focus my time where it is most needed.
I also try to encourage each member of my staff to set high standards and work to maintain those standards. Above all, I strive to create an environment where people enjoy working, one that recognizes talent and provides the resources and support necessary to grow professionally—an environment that rewards excellence.
As a professional, it’s important for you to be successful at what you do. The more successful you become, the more secure you and your family will be.
But let me caution you: no matter how hard you try to create a balance between business and family, there are going to be plenty of times when your career requires you to spend time away from your family. It’s unavoidable.
Finally, I believe that for most of us, the most important thing we will ever accomplish will be within the walls of our own home. If you’re successful there, you’ll be better prepared to face not only the challenges of a professional career, but the challenges of life.