by Matt Villano

The Extreme CIO: Taking the “Life” Out of Work-Life Balance

Aug 22, 200723 mins
CareersCIOPersonal Software

Are you working 70 to 80 hours a week? More? And who are those strangers living in your home? Oh, your family. Right. Globalization, technology and corporate expectations are turning the CIO job into an extreme sport. Understand the costs. Learn how to thrive.

To call Clyde Thomas a high performer would be an understatement. As CIO and executive vice president of global operations and technology for eFunds, a $600 million financial services company, Thomas logs nearly 70 hours a week on the job. He oversees five data centers in the United States and two abroad, managing 450 people who serve 6,000 users overall. He is responsible for the company’s software engineering, call and data centers, and security. He is also building new enterprise projects in China and Eastern Europe.

Thomas typically works from 5:30 a.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., answering all 300 of his daily e-mails before heading out for the 30-minute drive home. Rough days stretch longer. Some nights he’ll participate in an overseas conference call with network administrators and other IT managers at 2 or 3 a.m. Then there are emergencies, which require his immediate attention.

“We do millions of transactions every minute. If something goes wrong with our technology, I want to make sure I’m involved in fixing it,” he says. “Do I like handling conference calls [after midnight]? No. But if you’re running operations for a company of this size, you do what you must.”

How Extreme Are You?

Think your job is extreme? Take our online poll and find out how tough you have it.

Thomas is not the only one working nearly 70 hours a week these days; CIOs are racking up serious hours in just about every sector. Recruitment firm Harvey Nash released a March survey of 172 CIOs that found nearly 20 percent worked more than 56 hours a week. About 4 percent put in more than 65 hours a week.

CIOs have always logged long hours; it’s what you do in IT. But now these work habits dovetail with the rise of “extreme jobs.” The Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP), an independent research organization that works with employers on work-life guidelines, released a study last year that defined extreme jobs as those in which employees work at least 60 hours per week, receive hefty salaries and feature at least five of 10 characteristics from a list that includes availability to clients 24/7, an unpredictable flow of work, lots of travel and an inordinate scope of responsibility (see “Are You Extreme?” on next page). Study authors Carolyn Buck Luce, a principal and global pharmaceutical sector leader with Ernst & Young, and Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the CWLP, call these jobs “extreme” with a nod to extreme sports such as the Ironman triathlon and bungee jumping that require participants to risk life and limb to compete at the highest levels.

While the study didn’t specifically look at the CIO position, the job easily meets most of the extreme criteria. The CIO role may in fact be among the most extreme in business, says Luce.

Are You Extreme?

Check the 10 characteristics to see where you stand.

Consultants Carolyn Buck Luce and Sylvia Ann Hewlett put extreme jobs on the map last year when they unveiled a study of some of today’s toughest and most consuming careers. The research consisted of two surveys: one of high earners across various professions in the United States, the other of high-earning managers in multinational corporations.

Respondents qualified as extreme if they worked at least 60 hours per week, took home big salaries and held jobs that met at least five of the following 10 criteria.

1. Unpredictable flow of work

2. Fast-paced work under tight deadlines

3. A scope of responsibility that amounts to more than one job

4. Work-related events outside regular work hours

5. Availability to clients 24/7

6. Responsibility for profit and loss

7. Responsibility for mentoring and recruiting

8. Large amount of travel

9. Large number of direct reports

10. Physical presence at workplace at least 10 hours a day

According to the study, the four characteristics thought to create the most intensity and pressure among survey respondents were unpredictability (cited by 91 percent), a fast pace with tight deadlines (86 percent), work-related events outside of business hours (66 percent) and 24/7 client demands (61 percent). What Makes CIOs Extreme

CIOs are at the nexus of three forces driving business today: a global economy, the technologically enabled ability to be in touch 24/7 and the increasing reliance of business on IT. These factors, coupled with six-figure salaries (CIOs earned an average salary of $185,000, according to our “2007 State of the CIO” research), create an environment that helps to foster an extreme work style. (To see the most recent “State of the CIO” data, go to

“Work has become extremely interesting these days, filled with talented people, new experiences and new frontiers. CIOs are right in the middle of that,” says Luce.

The CWLP study found 66 percent of extreme jobholders love what they do and thrive on the pressure. So do many CIOs. But this brave new world of extreme work is not without costs. Long hours can negatively impact family and personal life: 50 percent of study respondents, for instance, indicated their jobs made it “impossible” to have a satisfying sex life. Personal health also suffers. More than 69 percent of respondents said they would be healthier if they worked less extremely. Other studies find personal productivity can fall off due to greater mental and physical fatigue associated with overwork.

Finally, hard-charging CIOs and other executives run the risk that watching the boss work 60 or more hours a week may turn off the next generation of leaders. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Technology was going to liberate us from the tyranny of work. Instead, the legions of laptops, cell phones, BlackBerrys and other wireless devices that allow executives to increase their productivity also keep them tied to the office via e-mail, instant messaging, voice mail and text messages. The line between work and home is blurring. Taking care of business these days often means working anytime, anywhere.

CIOs are reluctant to discuss the downsides of “being on” nearly all the time. That’s not surprising given the nature of the role, say work-life experts. “A CIO is not going to have anything close to balance,” says Cali Yost, author of Work + Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You. “That job is never going to be nine-to-five.” What CIOs can do, she says, “is find a fit that works for them in a job that may require a 24/7 scope.” The high performing CIOs we spoke with combat the challenges of their jobs with strategies designed to help them stay productive and to maximize control over their schedules and lives. But the question remains: Are these strategies enough?

The Extreme Job, Defined

Extreme jobs are everywhere. They have emerged in accounting and manufacturing, finance and medicine, entertainment and the law, as companies struggle for mastery in a global economy, according to the CWLP. It’s the CIO’s job to keep a company’s computing and communications lines constantly humming—along with the workers who rely on these tools.

Customers expect systems to function perfectly all the time. Business leaders expect problems to be resolved instantly. Typical CIOs respond to these demands by playing the hero, doing whatever it takes to meet the challenge.

These realities—along with intense competition for top jobs—have combined to create a workday with no real beginning or end.

The unpredictability of the IT environment also keeps CIOs on their toes. A vendor issues an unscheduled upgrade. Servers crash without warning. Out of nowhere, a hacker unleashes a distributed-denial-of-service attack. CIOs need to make sure that they and their staffs are ready for anything that comes their way. This preparedness has a consequence: long hours.

Just ask Raymond Dury, CIO of Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, a holding company that operates more than 1,150 branches in the Midwest and Florida. Dury sets the IT agenda and facilitates business strategy to achieve corporate goals. A big part of his job is enabling the processes and people required to efficiently manage customer transactions 24/7. He estimates he works 55 to 60 hours a week. Much of this time is spent managing on-time delivery of projects and ensuring the quality and reliability of systems, including some 12,000 ATMs belonging to Fifth Third and others.

Dury, who has two children in college, usually starts his days before 7 a.m. They don’t end until 6 p.m. or later. Some nights, Dury says, he logs in to the company’s network from home to ensure timely communication about decisions and to respond to urgent e-mails. He is sometimes awakened in the middle of the night by his staff if there are incidents requiring executive decision.

“Funds and transfers are always coming in and going out,” he says. “Because of the business we’re in, there’s never a green zone, never a moment where you can sit back and just coast.”

As a result, Dury has created teams to respond quickly to any incidents that require immediate attention. However, critical outages may still involve his input. If there’s a security breach, for instance, he may need to work with security administrators to secure the network perimeter. Dury says such demands can be challenging. Still, he doesn’t face these challenges alone; contractors in India assist with overnight processing and deal with minor incidents when things go wrong.

Since arriving at Fifth Third last November, Dury has also worked with his team to devise processes and procedures for improvements in quality, delivery and financial efficiency of business initiatives. For example, Dury and his team completed a new data center that improved production operations and system recoverability.

The Work “High”

Tackling such challenges keeps IT leaders engaged. They are not alone: The CWLP study found that many of the most extreme professionals don’t feel exploited; instead, the long hours make them feel exalted. Sure, many who keep these hours are exhausted at the end of a long week. For some, however, this exhaustion is a badge of honor.

Dr. Betsy Williams, clinical program director at the Professional Renewal Center, a behavioral health services center, explains that the drivers for this kind of behavior differ for everyone. In some cases, she says, certain high performers simply “have the Type A personality” and derive pleasure from working long and hard.

Eric Goldfarb, CIO and executive vice president of BearingPoint, a management and technology consulting firm, regularly puts in 70- and 80-hour weeks handling technology for company offices in more than 60 countries. On the afternoon he spoke with CIO, he had been in the office since 6 a.m.

Goldfarb considers himself a “turnaround specialist.” He was brought in last year to help BearingPoint expand its business and IT capabilities. His responsibilities are always changing, and he likes it that way. He says turning around an underperforming IT department is a high.

In his first 12 months at BearingPoint, Goldfarb’s primary challenge was to provide structure, direction and motivation for his team. Once he achieved that, the challenge was to rebuild the corporate intranet. Next, he was charged with opening offices in several countries, including Afghanistan.

Goldfarb looks back on these accomplishments with enthusiasm. “Some people consider what they do professionally as ‘work’ or a ‘career,’ but I chose a profession that was my hobby—working with IT and helping businesses use it to become profitable,” he says. “It’s never easy, but then again, when something is easy, it’s usually pretty boring.” Of course, not every CIO thrives on the pressure. In some cases, Williams says, that hunkering down at the office can indicate a lack of fulfillment elsewhere. Perhaps a CIO’s home life isn’t as good as it once was. Perhaps work is the only place a CIO can feel on top of things. Williams says that in some instances, a “hearty dose of narcissism” might even be at play.

“Some people have this view that if they don’t do it, nobody will,” she says. “That’s not a healthy way to run anything.”

What Time Is It in Tokyo?

Globalization ensures that IT departments work around the clock. As companies diversify into foreign markets, business leaders expect CIOs to manage systems at remote locations just as they would those at home. Overseeing work in multiple time zones increases not only a job’s travel requirements but also the length of the workday. According to work-life consultant Yost, this can be particularly problematic for CIOs.

“A CIO is tasked with using constantly changing technology to achieve a corporate strategy that is most likely global and therefore 24/7,” says Yost. “The primary question is, ‘How do I manage technology and time zones to get my work done and have a personal life, instead of technology and time zones managing me?’” (See “Riding the East-West Express,” next page.)

Riding the East-West Express

Three tips for managing across time zones

Strong coffee. A can of Jolt. An alarm clock that could wake the dead.

These may be great tools for pulling an all-nighter, but they’re not what you need as a CIO who manages work across time zones. So how can you keep your systems running 24/7 (while getting your own system some shut-eye) when your company has offices in New York, Mumbai and Los Angeles? Work-life strategy consultant Cali Yost, author of Work + Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You, offers the following advice.

1. Analyze the work that needs to get done over a typical 24/7 period. Define your optimal work-life schedule and then get others involved to cover the rest. Be strategic about using your people. You can’t do it all.

2. Take a tag-team approach to managing technology. Trade off responsibilities and take turns with the “middle of the night” shift for global group meetings. Everyone in every zone can’t work 24 hours a day and neither can you.

3. Challenge your definition of personal success. Look at the pressure you may be putting on yourself. Challenge your assumptions. Don’t let the fear of being seen as a slacker get in the way of brainstorming a creative solution to the time zone problem. Yost says this is the hardest thing for high-achieving individuals to do.

CIO Staff

Tom Conophy, executive vice president and CIO at the InterContinental Hotels Group, has logged plenty of flight time. InterContinental has hotels in 100 countries, and Conophy handles technology and operations for all of them. He’s responsible for 750 IT professionals worldwide and regularly works between 80 and 90 hours a week. Overall, Conophy estimates that he’s logged more than 1 million air miles since he joined the company 14 months ago. His most common route is between his office in Windsor, England, and the company’s U.S. headquarters in Atlanta. He also flies regularly to properties in the Far East. Conophy stays on top of his responsibilities by staying productive in the air (see “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” next page). He works on his laptop until the batteries run out, then he catches up on his work-related reading. He also sketches on graph paper; he says some of his best system designs have been created in the air.

“Airplane time is quiet time since the phone isn’t ringing and e-mails aren’t pouring in,” he says. “Of course, once I get to where I’m going, I jack in, upload what I’ve accomplished and get moving at full speed all over again.”

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Tips for surviving long-haul flights

Flying across the country or across the world is just part of the working day for some CIOs. These road warriors get down to business as soon as the wheels go up. How do they stay productive in their offices in the sky? “Avoid the alcohol, drink as much water as you can handle, take two aspirin, and eat the fruit instead of the sweets,” suggests Tom Conophy, executive VP and CIO at the InterContinental Hotels Group. That’s good advice, according to business travel advocate Ted Celentino, who is also the author of Combating Air Rage. Celentino offers the following tips to help travelers stay healthy and make the most of the ride.

1. Get out of your seat. Casual exercise is key to staying healthy on long plane rides. Walk the aisle or stretch in the back of the plane to stay limber and avoid deep vein thrombosis, a rare but real hazard on long-haul flights.

2. Power up. What good is a dead laptop? When you book your seat, request a row with power outlets. To plug in you’ll need a special adapter; buy one and keep it with your laptop. Another tactic: Bring extra battery packs. Or plan a layover that leaves you time to recharge in the airport.

3. Pack a mini laptop. Some savvy travelers take both a regular laptop and a mini on board. Why? You can still see the mini’s screen and keyboard if the guy in front of you reclines.

CIO Staff The Expanding Manager

As IT moves from supporting the business to driving its growth, CIOs and other senior technology leaders have taken on more responsibilities. It’s not uncommon for CIOs to act in another executive capacity, perhaps as COO or CSO. For these leaders, a 50-hour workweek won’t suffice.

Sometime around 5 a.m., well before the orange sun crests the blue horizon east of Massachusetts Bay, John Halamka rises to begin his day. From his home office, the physician and CIO of both the CareGroup and Harvard Medical School logs on to the corporate network, checks his e-mail and dives into work. By 8 a.m., he has scarfed down breakfast and penned concepts for a strategic plan. Then he heads for the office.

Halamka’s responsibilities have grown exponentially over the past few years. He is now responsible for 40,000 users, 110 terabytes of data and 16,000 computers. He multi¬tasks wherever he goes. During a recent interview, he shared a photo of himself at the top of a 13,000-foot mountain with his BlackBerry, handling a major controversy about personal health records standards during a break on a hiking trip.

“Being a CIO is like being an actor in a play; you never step out of character,” he offers. “I can never say, ‘It’s Saturday at 3 a.m. and mission-critical systems don’t exist.’ So I’ve learned to work responsibilities into my everyday life.”

He heads home most nights around 6 p.m. for dinner with his wife and 14-year-old daughter but fires up the computer again after 8 p.m., answering e-mail and working for two more hours before practicing a Japanese flute to wind down for the night. It’s a 16- to 18-hour day. He says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“To me, being a CIO is not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” he says. “When I got into this business, people told me it was a 9 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.] job, but I’d say it’s really a 5 [a.m.] to 9 [p.m.] job, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Mary Crouch has taken a different path. Crouch is now CIO of Laughlin Memorial Hospital in Greeneville, Tenn. In her previous job, Crouch regularly put in 60 to 70 hours a week handling operations and security issues as both CIO and CSO of the Phelps County Regional Medical Center in Rolla, Mo. As if that weren’t demanding enough, Crouch was working on a B.S. in health care—a program that required her to be in school for five hours a night on Tuesdays and Thursdays and left her with 30 hours of homework each week. Do the math. She spent nearly 100 hours working each week. Crouch coped by delegating most day-to-day IT management chores to her three assistant directors. She hired most from inside the hospital and personally trained each of them in areas such as incident response and help desk. She also used money from the general IT budget to pay for external training and classes to supplement what they learned on the job.

“My job is to have a vision,” she says. “When you work as hard as I do, it’s key to have people who can tackle the day-to-day stuff and make decisions without having to come to me to make every single choice.”

Earlier this year, when the hospital’s e-mail system crashed, Crouch assigned an assistant to oversee damage control. By spreading the responsibility, she says, she insulates her team from working too hard.

The Price You Pay

Crouch’s strategy worked for her and her staff members, but being an extreme CIO isn’t all a series of highs and fat paychecks. There are drawbacks to working this long and hard.

While 70- and 80-hour workweeks can be exciting, that sort of intensity can cause productivity to suffer, leaving some leaders spinning their wheels. In fact, productivity decreased by as much as 25 percent when white-collar workers put in 60 or more hours per week over a long period, according to a 2003 study by Circadian Technologies. Fifth Third’s Dury usually accomplishes all of his tasks in a given week. But he says there are days where he feels he can’t get out from under the to-do list. “Those are the days where I get home and I think to myself, ‘Can I run like this forever?’” he says. “Of course, they’re usually followed by totally exhilarating days, but the point is that everyone gets challenged from time to time.”

There are other drawbacks. Nearly 69 percent of respondents in the CWLP study said they believe they would be healthier if they worked less extremely. They’re right. Multiple studies have linked excessive overtime to employee health issues, including high rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and work-related injuries, according to Circadian.

The CWLP study also found 46 percent of extreme workers said work got in the way of good relationships with their spouses. Crouch says that during particularly busy weeks in her last job, she would sometimes go from Monday to Friday without seeing her husband for more than a few minutes.

The couple does spend weekends relaxing and playing golf together, but their busy schedules (he’s a hospital plant manager and goes to school at night as well) make weekdays trying and sometimes, as she puts it, “lonesome.”

Grueling hours also present challenges in child-rearing. Nearly 58 percent of CWLP survey respondents said work got in the way of their relationships with their children. Moms with extreme jobs do better than dads in this area; survey results indicated that almost two-thirds of men admitted that work takes a toll on parent-child relationships, as opposed to just one-third of women.

InterContinental CIO Conophy says he sometimes feels challenged by balancing work and family. He loves his job but acknowledges that spending so much time on the road “isn’t ideal.” He may go days without seeing his three daughters, ages 18, 17 and 5, although he notes that he tries to be home every Saturday morning to cook them a pancake breakfast. Conophy says that his family “doesn’t seem to mind” the hectic pace and that they make it a point to take four or five vacations together every year, some for as long as 10 days.

BearingPoint CIO Goldfarb says that while his travel schedule can get pretty hectic, he has not missed any of his children’s baseball games or school events. Still, he notes, there are times when he’s brought his BlackBerry to the games.

“It’s a constant learning process,” he says, “figuring out how to fit everything in.” Overwork can have costs at the corporate level as well, such as burnout and retention issues. Half of extreme jobholders said they don’t want to continue working under this kind of pressure for more than a year, according to the CWLP study. Williams, the psychologist, adds that if CIOs (or any executives, for that matter) put in such long hours for more than 18 months, it’s perfectly natural for some of them to begin thinking about finding employment in a less-demanding situation.

Many of these sentiments are generational. The CWLP study and others indicate that the so-called Gen X and Gen Y cohorts seem less enamored of their jobs, less willing to work around the clock, than baby boomers. Cam Marston, president of consultancy Marston Communications, says that workers between the ages of 21 and 35 are more likely to place a priority on personal time and to be outspoken about getting it.

“The younger they are, the more they want to get to work, do their job and go on to whatever’s next, whether it’s hiking, video games, or life with the wife and kids,” he says. In the case of industries rife with extreme jobs, he adds, “this could become a major problem down the road” as older workers with different work ethics hand the reins to members of this generation.

Staying Sane

Will it always be all work and no play for the CIO? Not necessarily. The CIOs we spoke with say they have devised coping mechanisms that allow them to carve out personal time and remain focused in the face of such intense work pressures. That’s smart, say the experts: Establishing boundaries between work and life is critical to staying sane and maintaining high performance. “You have to manage it to achieve your goals,” says work-life consultant Yost.

Conophy recently trained for and completed the London Marathon and always brings his running shoes when he travels. Even on the most hectic days he tries to squeeze in a 10- or 11-mile run. Goldfarb interrupts his morning e-mails each day to brew double shots of espresso for himself and his wife made with coffee they roasted themselves. He says this ritual forces him to take time out of every day to focus on something other than technology. “No matter how much you love your job, it’s important to value something else,” says Goldfarb. “In this business, if you just focus on all technology all the time, you’ll go nuts.”

Some CIOs manage to disconnect completely. During the summer, many try to take at least a week-long break away from the office. (Read “Five Tips for Getting the Vacation You Need.”) That doesn’t just mean leaving the laptop at home for a couple of hours; it may mean traveling to places where mobile communication is virtually impossible.

From December until March, Halamka spends one day each weekend ice climbing, a sport that involves conditions so cold that BlackBerry batteries freeze up and die. He also rock climbs in Yosemite for two weeks in August. Dury of Fifth Third vacations for a week to 10 days in the far northern reaches of Canada, where there is no cellular signal, no Internet connection and few hardwired phone lines. Dury says he still thinks about work for the first day or so but generally starts relaxing by the third day.

“Your mind enters a state where it looks more at the whole of the operation, as opposed to the urgent things that happen on the day-to-day,” he says. “Then, it hits you—you’ve worked all those hours to put a recovery system into place. Your staff and processes are taking excellent care of the commitments to the business. Then you realize everything will be all right.”

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, Calif.