Senior executives can have a tough time achieving a happy and sustainable balance between their heavy work duties and their personal lives, so much so that many have come to think of such a balance as a chimera. Yet there are those who manage it reasonably well. New research shows that these are the individuals who make deliberate decisions about work and home life, involving their partners and families in their work decisions.
Boris Groysberg, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, last year conducted a study with assistance from Robin Abrahams into the work-family life balance, surveying nearly 4,000 executives from around the globe. He uncovered five common characteristics of executives who manage the balance relatively well. Analysis of these traits can be helpful to other executives looking to thoughtfully map out or make adjustments in their own lives, whether for the sake of better health, family relationships, productivity, or something else. These common traits are as follows:
It’s important to define, for yourself, what success looks and feels like, both at work and within your personal life.
Many find work success easier to define, with reaching project goals or KPIs common markers of achievement. Groysberg’s study showed that women and men tend to define work success differently, with more women interested in individual work achievements, gaining respect, making a difference, and being passionate about the work while more men are interested in financial achievement. Other possible factors to consider in determining your own idea of work success are organisational success and ongoing learning and development.
Success in one’s personal life can be harder to pin down. Again, male and female executives tend to differ in their definitions. Groysberg found that men tend to list just having a family as success, whereas women will describe the particular sort of family they want. Women are also more likely to talk about the necessity of friends and community for their personal lives to be a success. Both sexes however agree that the most fundamental indicator of success is having meaningful and rewarding personal relationships.
At the end of the day, executives with clear, personalised ideas of what success looks like are better equipped and motivated to pursue and attain their goals.
Successful individuals in today’s hi-tech age also manage the technology in their lives, and not the other way around.
A common idea among respondents in the survey as to how to achieve a good work-life balance is the compartmentalisation of communications. Many advocate the strict separation of work and home life communications; when at work be fully at work and deal only with work matters (save of course for family emergencies), and when at home switch off all devices and channels that invite work interruptions. In this way, they argue, you are fully present wherever you are, and it is this mental presence that makes for innovative, skilful work and full, good memories at home. Groysberg even identified a trend towards moving back to face-to-face interactions at work, with respondents saying this leads to better listening and more meaningful, productive engagement.
Roughly a quarter of the respondents on the other hand said that they see ICT as a liberator, helping them to multitask and manage their work and personal lives more effectively. All respondents, however are in agreement that the individual must master the technology they use, or it will master you.
Respondents reported that support networks are crucial to the successful management of their private lives. Much of this support is practical – babysitters, cooks, lift clubs, etc. – and was listed especially by female executives. Those without children mentioned the need for practical support when they have aging parents or suffer ill health themselves.
Emotional support is also vital – to both home and work life. Executives reported requiring strong private-life support networks, such as family to friends, as these are the people who will let them vent after a stressful day, offer an outsider’s perspective and advice, and just generally lend a supportive ear.
Emotional support is also required within the workplace, perhaps from a mentor or a trusted colleague. When an unexpected crisis at home arrives, everyone needs someone at work to hold down the fort, and when an unexpected work crisis arrives, everyone needs a partner, parent or friend who will help with home duties. The development of different support networks is therefore invaluable to managing and maintaining a good balance in life.
We’re all used to talking about time management when it comes to successfully balancing home and work, but fewer people talk about the need to manage travel and location, perhaps because it doesn’t affect all senior executives to the same degree. Yet too much travel can be incredibly stressful, both to the executive (who is separated from loved ones, whose health comes under strain from too much travel, etc.) and the family back home (who must manage the practical details and emotions of day-to-day life without one of its primary members). By becoming more selective about when and where one travels, executives report lower stress levels and better personal lives.
With travel becoming easier and more fluid, the temptation is to travel more often, but there is a definite trend towards staying put except when truly necessary, and many report having experienced work and personal benefits by doing so.
The work benefits should also not be overlooked. Irregular travelling hours make one inaccessible, add expenses, and can be disruptive.
Then there are relocations, which place the entire family under strain, as everyone must say goodbye to friends, family, favourite spots, the easy navigation of familiar places, and so on. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they’d turned down international assignments in order to protect their marriages, and 32% said they’d done the same to save their family the stress of relocation.
All that said, certain occupations require much travel and/or possible relocations, so individuals should choose their line of work thoughtfully, having a clear understanding of their own personality and what matters to them most. Those that value community, old friends, extended family and a particular city or environment would do better to set their sights on a more stationary type of career.
Many of the senior executives stressed the importance of having a similar vision or mind set as their primary partner in order to achieve a good work-private life balance. They said their work lives excel because their partners believe in them and encourage them to take risks and push in where necessary. They also said that having a partner with a similar vision of what life could be means they are free to put in extra hours in at work when necessary.
Another key variable to achieving a good balance in life is collaboration. Men in particular cited the value of wives who are willing to carry the burden at home when necessary to enable them to do well in the workplace. Only 10% of female executives said they have a partner at home full time, but they pointed to husbands who understand their commitment to work as an important support.
Those wishing to succeed in the workplace should choose a partner with a similar outlook on life and the same goals for best results, while those who find conflict in this area would do well to invest the time and effort required to find an alignment between their and their partner’s views.