Work-Life Balance: Your Work or Your Life

If you want your life to be more than a series of meetings, e-mails and business trips, you are not alone. My objective in nearly every coaching relationship is to help my client find a balance between work responsibilities and personal life. Former GE grand pooh-bah Jack Welch has said in recent articles and interviews that he believes great managers don’t have work-life-balance issues because they have the necessary "systems" in place. This is a ridiculous comment, even for those with a stay-at-home spouse and legions of personal assistants. The only managers who don’t have work-life-balance issues are those who have already given up their lives to the company.

Welch says your boss wants to make "your job so exciting that your personal life becomes a less compelling draw." You may wish that your boss would embrace the whole you (and not view your children as competition), but most executives think of home and family as something to be dealt with—like a physical or emotional handicap. According to Welch, the typical boss is willing to "accommodate work-life-balance challenges if you have earned it with performance." In other words, you mortgage your life to the company in the present so that you can own it in some misty future.

Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t really work because by the time you realize that your work and life are out of balance, your habits, expectations, responsibilities and relationships (or lack thereof) have hardened. You have created your own "system"—that is, the combination of your organization’s culture, your position and your work habits—which works as long as you put your job first and everything else second, third or not at all. This system is tuned for long hours away from home. Eventually, your spouse, children, church and community become accustomed to your absence and develop routines that require your funding but make your day-to-day involvement unnecessary.

It’s important to realize that balance is not about having more free time; it’s about living a fuller, richer life that is more enjoyable and more significant. It means putting work in perspective as one of the many things that you do and aspire to be great at, but not the thing that defines who you are. Balance doesn’t necessarily mean working fewer hours—everyone, including the CEO, works for others and responds to demands beyond their control—but balance does mean gaining control over when, where and how work is done.

If you are one of the many whose narrowed worldview consists primarily of work and sleep, the process of recalibrating your system to define yourself beyond your job is difficult. The key to gaining balance is making external commitments that appear on your calendar and treating them with the same level of dedication you give to your work. Welch speaks the truth when he says that within most companies, "work-life balance is your problem to solve" and that "people who publicly struggle [with it] get pigeonholed as ambivalent, entitled, uncommitted, incompetent." (For a sampling of how CIO readers manage it, see Inbox.)

Rather than letting work expand to fill all your time, set limits. Take advantage of the fact that companies and managers value results rather than effort; figure out how to work smarter (see my column "It’s Never Too Late for Time Management"), and how to manage up and stand your ground. When someone tries to impinge on an external commitment, adopt the mantra: "Don’t complain; don’t explain." Just let them know how much time you have, and work it out from there.

Those of you in your 20s have the opportunity to build balance into your work-life schedule from the beginning. Continue or incorporate the extracurricular activities that you enjoyed in college (the healthy ones). If you eventually get married and have children, you will need to give up some of these activities, but you will have "hard-coded" a system that will not require you to change companies, positions or a career path to become the spouse and parent you wish to be. Be aware, however, that if you do this, it will impact the companies you choose and the positions you aspire to.

A balanced life may result in a slight tarnish on your managerial star, or even the realization that you are in the wrong job or at the wrong company. But what’s the alternative? For all the passion you put into your work and the joy that you get from creating and collaborating with others, at the end of the day, it’s just a job. It doesn’t hug you when you are sad, and it won’t take care of you when you get old.

Most of us are not destined to and don’t want to become the next Jack Welch. Good thing, because even he sounds a little melancholy when he says that "my kids were raised, largely alone, by their mother" and advises us that when it comes to work-life balance, to do as he says, not as he did.

Reader Q&A

Q: Work-life balance seems to be a problem mainly in America and perhaps Japan. Most European countries do not impose such imposing work expectations; in fact, they take whole months off. Yet their quality goods and products are exported all over the world. Why will corporate America never learn?

A: Research indicates that long work hours are not simply imposed by companies but are a function of our work ethic as a culture. It’s hard to recommend across-the-board policy changes in light of our superior productivity and the fact that emerging competitors (such as developing countries in Asia) work more hours than we do. Those of you in leadership positions should focus on driving productivity in sustainable ways. (After a point, increased work hours actually decrease productivity.) On an individual basis, we don’t have to wait for corporate America to learn, since we have the final say over what we do with our time.

Q: Those of us in IT, Software Test and Quality Assurance often find ourselves at the end of the product release cycle. As a manager, I often stay late to handle demands so that my staff can go home. So their lives are more balanced, but mine’s not.

A: Peaks and valleys exist in all project-driven positions, and accepting these jobs means being available when needed. The way to provide balance is to distribute the "late shift" among the workers and ensure that during the lighter times, people take comp time (regardless of company policy). Work-life balance doesn’t mean getting home at 6 p.m. every day, but it does mean eliminating continuous 60-hour weeks and allowing people to catch their breath.

Q: As an ex-CIO who managed to get fired before I died on the job, I suffered for three years under a Jack Welch advocate. After the dust settled, I still had my family and my health—things that bonuses and 80-hour weeks can’t get back—and I vowed never to take for them granted again. I realized people such as Jack Welch and my former boss are driven by power and greed, and they are willing to sacrifice anything (and anyone) to get what they want. I’m sure their families will attest to this.

A: I, too, was fortunate to have life get in the way of my long weekly commute and hours. Congratulations on getting fired.

Susan Cramm is founder and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, Calif. E-mail feedback to susan@valuedance.com.

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