A Better Work Life Balance For Executives – 7 Sure Fire Ways

It was getting near five o'clock in the afternoon and some of the heat from the midday sun remained. I debated starting another project so late in the day, but I wanted to make good on my intention. It's been my intention to divide my workday into two, three-hour chunks of highly intensive effort followed by me-time and time for my family. I even had to consciously force myself away from checking e-mail one more time, so as to be more authentic in my value of life balance. I shut down my computer and rounded up my son. Based on previous experience, it was going to take me 15-20 minutes to coax him into the Co-Pilot bicycle seat for my workout to Georgetown and back. He started off tickling me and talking about his day. Just as we rounded the bend on the Capital Crescent Trail indicating that we were passing from Montgomery Country Maryland into the District of Columbia, something flew into my right eye. It was as if I had been knocked in the head by a tree limb!

I tried my best to massage this foreign body out of my eye, but the harder I tried, the more stuck it became. I imagined some strange insect trying to dig its way into my cornea and began to panic. I took many deep breaths and tried to bike with only my left eye open swerving every few feet. This seemed to make everyone around me nervous. With only my left eye open, it felt as if I was nearly asleep. It was surreal. This struggle with the eye invader happened while my mountain bike was going about 15 mph. In between renewed attempts to clean my eye out with water from my water bottle, my son continued to ask me the proverbial 'why' questions. He wanted to know why he couldn't see the 'boo boo' in Daddy's eye and why I couldn't go faster. Finally I made it to the National Park Service public restroom, panting. I spent over ten minutes trying to rinse, shake and beg whatever was stuck in my eye to come out. The only thing that happened was my son fell asleep. I was determined to finish my workout instead of limp home, so I gritted my teeth and 'toughed it out' by swerving all the way down the trail. I stopped again at the same restroom on the way back and still could not dislodge my opponent.

Two hours later after an extended shower, a botched attempt at calming myself through a relaxation CD, and multiple dunks under running cold water, I was ready to give up and have my wife drive me to the emergency clinic. Since I wasn't dying, just half-crazed with massive discomfort, I began to mentally prepare myself for the many hours-long wait at the clinic. At this point I remembered something. In between gritting my teeth and holding back obscenities, I managed to convince my wife to bring me a toothpick. She probably thought I was going to try and jab my eye in frustration. I promised I wasn't going to give her a macabre replacement for the olive in a martini. Instead, I wanted her to roll my eyelid back on the toothpick. She got the hang of it after a few attempts and said, "Now we're making progress." She saw the irritant, the source of my evening's discontent and ran upstairs to collect a cotton swab. With the finesse of Clara Barton, she removed a black speck the size of a grain of sand that was stuck to my upper inner eyelid. What affected me was so small, and yes it brought me to my knees.

Pay Attention to the Small Things
I'm still in awe that a black speck the size of a grain of sand could literally incapacitate me for a few hours. Yet isn't this what happens when we don't pay attention to our health, our employees and our organizations? The black speck is a perfect metaphor to what happens when employees aren't encouraged by management to take care of themselves, take proper vacations, and to practice an effective work life balance. When we work too hard and too long, once seemingly small inconveniences become big and foreboding. Not taking time for healthy meals eventually becomes a heart attack waiting to happen. The employee who wanted to take two weeks off on her vacation after your repeated 'next times' becomes one of the first out of the door to a competitor.

According to Laurie Bienstock, a compensation analyst at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, "The typical costs of turnover per employee - without even realizing you have lost productivity and intellectual property - can run one to two times employee salary." Each year, Watson Wyatt publishes a report called, "The Strategic Rewards Study," which examines U.S. organizations with 1,000 employees or more. In 2006 it looked at top performers in 262 companies. It found that of those who reported having work/life balance, 45% considered themselves highly committed employees. Interestingly enough, not one employee who didn't have an effective work life balance was committed to the organization! Clearly there is a connection between having more committed employees and having an effective work life balance.

In order to prevent a potential premature birth of her second child, then 39-year old Tami Booth Corwin, the President of Rodale Books, quit her post to become a full-time stay at home mom. She wanted to make sure that she enjoyed her family time more and this included not having to commute 90 minutes each way from her home in Bucks County, PA to Manhattan. She is best known for acquiring the 2001 South Beach Diet book that today has sold 11 Million copies. While executives don't necessarily have to leave the company in order to practice an effective work life balance, they do set the pace of the organization when it comes to how life balance is viewed. I remember working at Silicon Graphics, a computer company, in the late 1990's. The head of the government division, Anthony Robbins (no relation to Tony Robbins), always said, "The pace of the organization is set by the lead dog."

Set the Pace
The importance of executives setting the pace was made clear to me when I worked with Best Buy, Inc. as a speaker for work life balance at their annual leadership conference. As part of my preparation, I interviewed a few store managers before the conference. I was told that the store managers set the pace for each store's work life balance. If an employee or assistant manager needs time off, the store managers I spoke with almost always grant it. They know the importance of keeping good employees. As one manger so aptly said, "When an employee's head is screwed on straight with his or her family, then that employee's head is screwed on straight with our customers." However, there needs to be more emphasis from corporate that it is acceptable to take all of one's vacation time when it is earned and even time off without pay.

If you happened to be in New York City's Times Square last Autumn, you would have seen a 9-foot poster visible from the sidewalks. The Ernst & Young poster touted the promotion of Rob McLoed to partner after taking paternity leave. A copy of the same advertisement was sent to every Ernst & Young office in the USA as part of their campaign to highlight successful men who pay attention and value life balance. The important thing to note is the message from corporate that men (and women) can and will get promoted while paying attention to their personal lives. Perhaps if more organizations advertised this on a regular basis, a multiple-week absence from the corner office wouldn't raise eyebrows.

Become the Change
Lee Scott was becoming the change he wanted to see in his organization. When it was announced that the CEO of Wal-Mart was going to take the entire month of May 2006 off, the Wall Street rumor mill already had him resigning or being replaced. However, he had planned a long road trip with his entire family and then some deep-sea fishing with his wife. He was able to detach from his work and came back refreshed and recharged for Wal-Mart's annual shareholder meeting last June. According to business columnist Carol Hymowitz from the Wall Street Journal, "Executives who don't take chunks of time away from the day-to-day deadlines and routines can't create the mental space they need to get a fresh perspective on problems, think up new ideas and be creative." In fact, everything you see around you started as an idea, but how can you come up with new ideas if you aren't practicing your creativity (if you aren't seeing)? Now more executives and employees at Wal-Mart will be encouraged to take extended time off.

In order to foster additional creativity, Intel CEO Paul S. Otellini has taken advantage of several sabbaticals. Intel offers a paid 8-week sabbatical every 7 years on the job and Paul has been with Intel for over 32 years. This is a popular benefit at many high-technology companies and was something that attracted and kept many executives and employees at Silicon Graphics in its heyday. I remember everyone who qualified for a sabbatical at SGI took one, and the company did a great job of preventing employees from checking voice mail and e-mail while away too. They wanted employees to learn a new skill or pick up a hobby. One regional manager even moved to the beach for the summer and took up surfing. When executives are away for an extended period of time, effective delegation becomes critical.

Delegate Effectively
The U.S. Army knows quite a bit about effective delegation. Its very mission is about cross-training soldiers so they can do multiple tasks when their comrades are incapacitated. The Army plans for this kind of contingency. They realize that one soldier cannot and should not be the only person who can perform a particular job or who knows critical information. I was reminded of this mission when I worked with the AEC (Army Evaluation Command) training their executives (civilian and military) on how to present with more power. They made sure to include multiple layers of their executive team in the training program. This added insight made for a more interesting program and allowed their entire management to value the importance of powerful communications.

Cross training and delegating effectively has helped make REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.) the number one place to work in the USA for 2007 based on FORTUNE's 100 Best benefits list. CEO Sally Jewel works out nearly every morning so she can do the work of her billion-dollar company, serve on several boards and attend to her family. Every quarter a member of Jewell's executive team serves as her backup, with full authority to act in her stead whenever Jewell is on vacation or unavailable. This gives other executives a better understanding of the CEO's job while also exposing them to board members, who can weigh their merits as potential successors. She keeps her eye 'on the substance of things' and not on her actual role. Jewell's strong set of core values translates into, "Maintaining a personal balance that requires devotion to family, work and community." She tries to spend 1/3 of her waking hours at work, 1/3 with family and 1/3 for the community." During Jewell's tenure since 2001, the company swung from a 141 million dollar debt to 150 million in cash at the end of 2006. It's interesting to note that #1 ranked REI and #2 ranked, American Century Investments both offer paid sabbatical programs.

Emotionally Vacate
Another benefit from an extended vacation or sabbatical is that it helps executives emotionally vacate their positions. If you check in with the office, it's as if you never really left. In a new study of knowledge workers, Lexmark International found that 92% of respondents make or take work-related communications outside of work, including on vacations. Nearly 75% stay switched on during the weekends and a fifth of them have been interrupted during a date for work purposes. This 'constantly on' approach only leads to burnout and away from true sense of self. During an expedition to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, I met the CEO of a publicly traded company who was traveling for over three weeks without being in touch via voice mail, e-mail or via any other means. He purposely traveled to distant lands where he would not be tempted to check in with the office nor could anyone get in touch with him either. And since he delegated effectively like Sally Jewell at REI, the organization got along fine without him. This is in sharp contrast to what Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia told employees recently. As crazy as it sounds, the company said employees should flat out leave the company if they were not prepared to work weekends and long evenings over the coming months for no extra reward.

In a 2005 survey of 55,000 workers, Alcan, based in Montreal, revealed deep dissatisfaction with heavy workloads and long hours, says Steven Price, Alcan's human resource director. In a series of self-correcting steps, a half-dozen top executives got coaching on how to be better role models, partly by speaking up about their own challenges managing workloads. Executives began encouraging managers and employees to 'push back and say I'm not working on weekends and such.' Even IBM has over 50 different programs promoting work life balance and 40% of its employees today work off of the company premises. I noticed the lack of traffic at IBM's main offices in Gaithersburg, Maryland recently when I trained key executives. I worked with some of their executives on developing simple, yet powerful messages, weaving these messages throughout their presentation, and then properly rehearsing the delivery of their presentation for more power and action.

Other organizations offer similar incentives to foster work life balance in small steps so that when executives want to take longer vacations or extended time away from the office, the action of emotionally vacating becomes much easier. American Century, #2 on FORTUNE's 100 Best Places to work list based on benefits, said, "achieving this national distinction is a direct reflection of the caliber of our people, our values-based culture and our unwavering commitment to our investors." American Century also pays adoption expenses and the cost of home fitness equipment for its employees. Some employees at Dell, Inc. have eliminated set office hours by handing over to employees how and when they achieve goals. A results oriented work environment (ROWE) was also initiated by Best Buy, Inc. at its corporate offices in Minneapolis in order to allow most of their employees the space they need to get a reasonable amount of work accomplished while at the same time paying attention to family and personal obligations. I was told a similar program for retail stores is under development.

Own the Moment
One of the best ways to practice an effective work life balance is to keep being reminded of the power of Stephen Covey's Quadrant #2. This is the most important quadrant and those organizations that win the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award spend at least 70% of their time in this 'important, but not urgent' area. A great way to spend more time in this area is to set appointments with yourself to check in with e-mail, voice mail and the office. Stephen Crawley, an HR Executive, decided to take Covey's advice. He eliminated all voice mail, pulled the plug on his e-mail and stopped using his cell phone as the primary way for people to connect with him. This forced people to find him in person only when it was important. He said, "It worked, the more off of the grid I got, the better our sales and margins, while staff domestic morale improved."

Susan Cramm, the founder of Valuedance, an executive coaching firm in San Clemente, CA and the former CFO of Chevy's Mexican Restaurants said, "I fell victim to one of those 'full jobs' and, like many, hired others to do the personal work I no longer had time to do. I found that I used consumption as a pitiful replacement to living a meaningful life." She borrows her definition of a full job from meaning 'half as many people, paid twice as well, and producing three times as much' from author Charles Handy's book, The Age of Paradox. She feels that an executive's solution to work life balance must come from within. This solution should be one that makes the most sense while being true to your values. She goes on to further state, "We discovered something simple, yet profound -that work-life balance isn't about having more free time; it's about devoting your life, and the hours within it, to be consistent with your values and passions." This is exactly what Best Buy was saying to its managers. It's great that corporate is addressing work life balance and will eventually come up with a solution for its retail stores, but you need to set effective boundaries with yourself first.

How can you learn to set boundaries and to discover your core values? According to the Prana line of clothing, sold at REI stores, a great place to start is with the breath. From Prana's merchandise label is says, "Prana is breath, and breath is the beginning of every decision and action. Something as simple as being aware of our breath can bring us into the present moment - mindful breathing brings us home. It's is Prana's hope that this practice of mindful breathing can find its way into more individuals and one by one these positive 'invironmental' impacts could lead to environmental ones." When you get to know yourself better, you can then understand your employees, your organization and your family better too.

Practice Mutual Respect
One of the things I know about myself is that I tend to obsess about the little details before I leave to go out of town for longer than a few days. I do things like turn off all of the lights, take the trash out and set the thermostat higher than normal. Doing this list of little things almost made me miss my flight to Iceland recently. Even though I arrived nearly 90 minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off, all airlines oversell their seats. Luckily I got the very last seat in the middle of the airplane. Breathing a sigh of relief when I sat down, I noticed a young woman sitting next to the window.

She told me that she was going to Holland as part of a language immersion program for six weeks. She was going to live with a Dutch family and would not speak English the entire time. Beyond her 20 hours of language requirements per week, she was going to have plenty of time to see the countryside and to visit with her family in a nearby town. She bemoaned the fact that she has plenty of time to travel, but has limited funds. I said this was the opposite complaint from many in the working world. Most people have plenty of money, but limited time to travel. A main reason for the limited travel time is the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't have a vacation law on its books. Having a personal benefit of vacation that could translate form one job to the next like health insurance would encourage more executives to travel and would certainly increase their creativity.

In a May 2006 survey by the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), 85% of recruiters have seen job candidates reject a job offer because it wouldn't include enough work-life balance, and two-thirds of those companies surveyed are developing programs to help top candidates boost their family time without sacrificing their careers. In addition, 24% of those surveyed said they would turn down a promotion that would hurt their work/life balance while 87% said work/life balance is critical in their decisions to join or remain with an employer. It seems more executives are becoming inspired by the likes of the Sally Jewell's, the Rob McLoed's, and the Lee Scott's of this world. The more you practice mutual respect by setting clear boundaries around your work and life balance, the less pull your organization will have on you in your off hours.

One way to develop mutual respect is to keep coming up with reasons why it is healthy and advisable for your organization to allow you to travel on a regular basis. When my wife was the Director of HR for a financial services firm, she and I wanted to take a two-month sabbatical and travel around the world. At first she didn't know how she was going to convince the rest of the management team to let her take the time off. What she decided to do was to present her company with all of the benefits as to why our trip was a great business decision for her organization. She was going to come back refreshed and recharged, generating new ideas and gaining a fresh perspective. She also developed a coverage plan that started months before our departure. It involved cross training other executives and employees on her roles and responsibilities. I'm happy to report that she didn't even check in with the office once in two months!

Furthermore, her actions sparked an entire wave of other executives and employees taking extended periods of leave to teach English in China to going back to school for an executive program. This extra benefit helped to keep top managers and employees and greatly reduced turnover costs. When you set the pace for your organization, become the change you want to see, delegate effectively, emotionally vacate when not working, and own the moment, you will be strengthening your organization and improving the connection you have to yourself.