Having a Life While Still Being a Great Leader

It’s illustrated constantly in media and everyday life: the worker who gets ahead and rises to the top is the one who eats, breathes and lives their work. They don’t take holidays, like Mark Cuban, the billionaire who didn’t go on a vacation for seven years. They’re on their phones, checking and responding to emails at all hours, like Tim Cook from Apple. Some barely sleep or see their children, like Tesla’s Elon Musk. All are what managers would call the ‘ideal worker’ – as has been shown in countless surveys, many executives prefer workers who don’t have any personal life or children to look after. It’s a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’, according to plenty of leaders who admit they aren’t great role models and that their job is 24/7.

So why is a “work-life balance “ (not a fan of this phrase as I love just ‘balance”) so elusive, or even completely unattainable if you wish to be successful? The answer is that it doesn’t have to be this way! It was an important lesson I learned in the past few years when my teenage daughter had severe mental health issues due to bullying and I had to revisit my work and business and my own mental health to support her. I had to put the oxygen mask on myself first and start balancing my priorities. 

Jessica DeGroot, the owner of the ThirdPath Institute, is determined to find an answer to that question, helping people make time for family, work, and life in general. She partnered with a group of senior managers from a range of businesses from law firms to Fortune 500 companies because they all had the common goal of proving that work-life balance is achievable for leaders. Believe me, it is, and it will make you a much better leader.

For almost 20 years, DeGroot and her group have been helping one another come up with strategies for successfully balancing life and work. They share their triumphs, failures, their families and their lives, so that they have plenty of background when discussing things like overwork and boundaries, and the handling of work-life balance when faced with emergencies in work or life, or both. One leader is so grateful for modelling and communicating the importance of work-life (ARGH!) balance at his workplace, as it’s enabled him to alter his workload while he cares for his sick child.

Some of the leaders in this group, DeGroot noted, were excellent at making time for holidays, and the tips and strategies they shared enabled her to develop the ‘Vacation Checklist’, which is passed to others at the ThirdPath Institute.

Strategies that are incredibly effective include:

  • Making a list of ‘what can wait’, one week before you travel
  • Two weeks before you go, delegate and review teamwork that will be essential while you’re away
  • Not scheduling calls or meetings the day before or the day after your holiday

She also recommends putting strategies in place to allow you to have quiet time at work so that you can focus on your priorities and better handle your time without getting overwhelmed. Demonstrating how much you value work-life balance as a leader is incredibly important according to DeGroot. When leaders send a message and challenge the status quo, balance becomes a priority for others, and you’ll see the culture of the organisation start to shift to be more accommodating. DeGroot says, “When you get leaders to behave differently, it sends a signal to the rest of the organization that they can behave differently, too.”

When leaders pioneer this new way of thinking, ThirdPath discovered that there were three relationships that needed skills developed in order to bring about the necessary change. Leaders need to learn how to make plans with their families to put them and their home first, to change how they work with their teams at work, and how to change their mindset of work-life balance being a mere pipedream; instead, believing that the change is possible and that they should try and achieve it, and speak out about it whenever possible.

Changing how you work with your team

Having faith in your team is important, as you’ll be putting more responsibility onto them as you change the culture in your workplace. Demonstrating yourself that family comes first and that everyone needs a life, will spread throughout your team and help make introducing strategies for work-life balance much easier. Things like allowing staff to work remotely and/or with flexible hours have been shown to reduce staff turnover, which in turn reduces your recruiting costs while increasing productivity and morale. Small things like allowing staff to start earlier to finish earlier, or to work from home a day or two a week, will see your organisation reaping the benefits of increased results.

Having the courage to speak up about your plan
Being the first to try and introduce flexibility and strategies for improved work-life balance in your workplace can be daunting, but you need to have faith in yourself and voice your opinions if you want any hope of things changing. Remind yourself that you’re more than likely not the only person in your workplace wanting a better work-life balance and that you’ll be making things better for everyone.  

Family comes first

While a lot of parents work hard (and believe that working hard means working a lot) because they believe they’re doing what’s best for their families, the opposite is true. It’s a common story; husbands and wives growing apart while focusing on their careers, or one climbing the ranks and working constantly while the other stays home and shoulders most (or all) of the familial responsibilities. This causes resentment and means the working parent/s miss out on quality time with their families that they’ll never be able to get back.

It’s not as hard as it sounds to start making adjustments and improving your work-life balance, it can be as simple as finishing early once or twice a week so that you can pick up your children from school, and coordinating your family schedules to make time for each other.

It’s time to change the culture of overworking that we see in our leaders, and therefore emulate ourselves. It’s our role models that greatly influence us, and at the moment there are not many role models that demonstrate an effective work-life balance. How many articles do you see about CEOs and their insane schedules that disregard family, health, and life outside of work – leaving a majority of burnt out and no longer producing great results, as this style of work is unsustainable. Unfortunately, there aren’t many role models at present to show that the opposite is not only possible but easier to achieve than first thought. There are a few that are challenging this way of thinking, and we need to hear more about them.

Look at David Solomon, the Goldman Sachs CEO. He goes to yoga classes with his daughter, calls his workmates to tell them to stop working so much, and reduced the crazy work hours expected of him and his staff. Or Susan Wojcicki from YouTube, who makes sure she’s home for dinner with her kids every night, even while running a company worth $100 billion. Leaders like these aren’t the norm, but they should be.

It’s far more important to be effective and use your time wisely than to work constantly – you won’t burn out, and your work will be of a much higher quality. You’ll also benefit from improved relationships with your friends and family, and having time for yourself to partake in your hobbies and unwind from the working week. Unlike what most people think, you CAN be a great leader and still have a fulfilling personal life as well – so it’s time to start making it happen. When you start to show gratitude for your life and family and focus on the abundance and love you have and you can give, your leadership and life will transform.

Remember to put the oxygen mask on yourself first…and to rock it, Sonia x

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