Growth Insights for CEOs

What is Work-Life Balance Anyway?

Posted by Slade Kobran

I recently got a call from a friend and ex-colleague who was looking for some advice regarding her job situation.  She’s contemplating leaving her firm and going into consulting for herself partly because of the toll her current gig is taking on her family life. She and her husband live in Connecticut with their young son and commuting to and from New York City was taking 2 hours each day and making it very hard for her to spend quality time with her husband and son. She wanted to get my thoughts on the situation because she knows that I’ve faced a slimilar issue and have moved from the corporate world to full time consulting myself.

In my case, I was commuting on average 1.5 hours each way from my home in northwest NJ to one of three company offices. On days when I had to go into Manhattan, the trip could take 2 hours or more in the morning depending on traffic. I could make it home from the city in a bit more than an hour if I left after 6:30 or 7, which meant on days I worked in NY, I would leave the house at 6:30 am and return after 8 at night. I know that sounds crazy to many people, but that’s not an atypical commute in the NY/NJ area.

My kids were older when I was doing this commute, so I was not faced with the same type of angst as my friend, but none the less, it was difficult to spend quality time during the week with my wife and family. When I left my last CMO job, I had to think about whether I wanted to get back on that rollercoaster and spend that much time away from my home (of course, out-of-town travel adds to this number, but that always seemed like a separate category for me). 

Since I’ve joined Chief Outsiders, I’ve been working from home, whenever I am not out meeting CEOs or working onsite with a client. I never enjoyed working from home before, mostly because I felt disconnected from what was happening in the office. It also felt like less of a workday working from the kitchen table, even though I typically spent 10 hours or more working on my laptop, answering emails, and on conference calls.

Now that I have a dedicated office space set up, it feels like full-time work. I’ve developed a routine, and I'm in my office about the same time each day, fully dressed and ready for work.  I’m able to communicate effectively using such tools as Skype, IM and email, in addition to my ever-present cellphone.  I sure don’t miss the 3 hours in the car each day, although I must say that my personal phone call production has suffered, as I would typically use my commuting time to catch up with family and friends. 

I think my work-life balance is better, but there are trade-offs in every situation.  My kids are mostly out of the house now (my son moved out 2 years ago and my daughter recently graduated college and is away for most of the summer and it looks like she’ll be moving to Virginia in the fall), so I don’t have to worry about being around for their games or school events anymore. However, I am able to be more available when they do have time for me and there’s more flexibility to do things with my wife while still taking care of what I need to for Chief Outsiders and my clients. I do sometimes miss the hallway conversations that can drive so much of the personal interactions important in business, but I’ve learned new ways to leverage coffees and lunch to start and maintain business relationships with colleagues.  All-in-all, it seems to be working for me.

So what advice did I give my friend?

I recommended that she focus on the following areas to make her decision:

  • Time with her husband and son – Not just time spent with her family but what quality time meant for her.
  • Flexibility – A flexible schedule can be a great thing, but it may mean working early in the morning or late at night to make up for the time with family.
  • Financial considerations – Consulting has many advantages, a steady income is not always one of them.  She really needs to think about whether she can handle the ups and downs that may come from choosing that path.
  • Social considerations – Offices can be full of politics, annoying people and unnecessary rules.  They can also be a place where great friendships are made and where much of our social interaction happens.
  • Career impact – For some people, focusing on family means redefining what career success is all about.  It may not be all about the next promotion, a new title or a new job.  Other people measure their success by those very things.

I also reminded her that few decisions were forever, and that as circumstances in her life change, the option rejected today, may be the best option at some point in the future.  I think too many people get caught up in thinking that they can’t make adjustments as they go forward.

At the end of the day, decisions related to work-life balance are highly personal and subject to change over time. Just as everyone’s situation is different, so is their level of tolerance, home and work environment and internal drivers of what’s important to them. It really bugs me when people criticize the decisions others have made to address their own situations – either by focusing “too much” on work or “short-changing” their careers by choosing family events over work time.

What do you think?

Topics: CEO Perspectives, Culture, Work-Life Balance

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