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Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk tweets that no one changed the world working 40 hours a week. He rarely sleeps or sees his kids and had a famously public meltdown. Apple’s Tim Cook is on email before the sun rises. And billionaire Mark Cuban worked until 2 am launching his first business and didn’t take a vacation for seven years.
These intense work styles are often celebrated as the only way to get to the top and be a super-productive leader. Indeed, surveys show that managers and executives describe the “ideal worker” as someone with no personal life or caregiving responsibilities. And a majority of leaders themselves — the ones who set the tone for organizations and model behavior for everyone else — think work-life balance is “at best an elusive ideal and at worst a complete myth.” In an interview, three CEOs rated as top performers by HBR said the job was 24/7 and admitted they weren’t great role models.
But does it have to be that way?
That’s a question Jessica DeGroot sought to answer nearly 20 years ago when she started the nonprofit ThirdPath Institute, an organization dedicated to helping people find time for work, family, and life. She formed a group of about two dozen men and women in senior management at law firms, public and financial service entities, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, Eli Lilly, Marriott, IBM, and Ford who wanted to challenge the notion that work-life balance is impossible for leaders. “We all wanted to do work and life differently,” DeGroot told me. “But weren’t sure how.” They had no role models. And few people she talked to, she added, thought they could.
In regular phone calls and meetings for nearly two decades, as well as a biannual Pioneering Leaders summit, the group has been helping each other figure out how to work more effectively so they could have time for their lives, sharing successful strategies and learning from failures. During one of their monthly webinars I observed, the group began by sharing photographs of their families and talking about their lives outside of work. Then the group launched into an intensive discussion of boundaries, episodic and chronic overwork, and how they’re managing their work-life balance in the face of work or life emergencies — and sometimes both. One man, juggling work with caring for a sick child, said he’s now reaping the benefits of all the years he’s communicated and modeled how work-life balance is one of his core values. “It’s enabled me to have a bond with my daughter now that’s really amazing,” he said.
It is part shared confessional with peers and part trading research, strategies, tips and lifehacks that DeGroot collects and analyzes for best practices. For instance, DeGroot noticed that a handful of the pioneering leaders were really good about taking vacation, being able to turn off work, connecting with their families and friends, and returning refreshed. Their strategies have since become the “Vacation Checklist” DeGroot shares with others at the nonprofit. Some of the most effective strategies, they’ve discovered include planning vacations, where possible, around the seasonality of work; delegating and reviewing essential team work two weeks before leaving; creating a “what can wait” list one week before vacation; and avoiding scheduling meetings and phone calls one day before and one day after vacation to concentrate on essential priorities.
She’s done the same for strategies to create concentrated quiet time to focus on priorities at work rather than be in constant firefighting mode of responding to e-mails, meetings and emergencies, for managing email overload, for setting priorities and other thorny issues. “We kept trying. We kept tweaking,” DeGroot said. “Then we started to see, ‘Oh, this is not only a better way for me to work, this is a better way for everybody to work.’ And when you get leaders to behave differently, it sends a signal to the rest of the organization that they can behave differently, too.”
For leaders to stand up to status quo pressures and make work-life balance a priority, DeGroot discovered, these pioneers had to cultivate skills around three relationships: learning to work differently with their teams at work, making a plan with their families to put home and family first, and shifting their own mindsets to not only believe change is truly possible, but to give themselves permission to try, and speak up about it. The stories of three leaders exemplify how this can be done.
Learning to Work Differently. Like many men of his generation, Ivan Axelrod, 72, a managing director of a financial management firm in LA, spent most of his life climbing the corporate ladder as a work-focused primary breadwinner. It wasn’t until he became a grandfather that he decided to change. His own parents had died when his children were young and never knew them. He wanted something different for his own grandchildren. “I wanted them to know their grandfather.”
So, when his daughter began lining up child care and preparing to go back to work after a three-month leave, the two grandmothers offered to take two days a week each. Axelrod volunteered to be the caregiver for the fifth day. He had to sell the idea to both his family and the other managers at work. “I said, ‘I have good people here. I’m going to push more responsibility onto them, which should help them develop faster. I believe it’s going to work,’” Axelrod said. “Reluctantly, they said OK to me. That was in 2008. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
As a result, Axelrod has worked to create a culture where everyone can have time for work and life, promoting flexible and remote work and opening an office closer to where people live to cut down on commutes – efforts which have reduced turnover and recruiting and training costs, and increased employee morale and productivity. “If you have a structure that allows people some flexibility, they will produce better results for the organization. I see it all the time,” He said. “The bottom line increases when you make these changes.”
On Mondays, Axelrod takes his two grandchildren, now 11 and 9 years old, to school, works at home, picks them up afterwards and takes them to activities like swimming lessons. “I’m heavily involved in their lives. It has been huge for me, and terrific for them,” he said. “When I’m gone, they’re going to have a lot to remember.”
Believing in Your Plan and Speaking up. With few role models, and cultural expectations arrayed against them, someone like Axelrod had to first imagine something new: how he really wanted to combine work and life. Then he had to believe that not only was it important enough to try, but also — through a series of trials and errors — actually possible to sustain over the long-term.
This was also true for Michelle Hickox. In 2004, Hickox was a certified public accountant in Texas and at a crossroads in her career. She loved her work and wanted to make partner, but the only role models she had were men with at-home wives, and one woman with round-the-clock nannies, all of whom worked all the time and rarely saw their families. “I didn’t want that,” she told me.
When her eldest daughter turned five, the transition from year-round child care to the traditional nine-month kindergarten schedule forced Hickox to think hard not only about how to manage child care in the summer months, but what she really wanted out of work and life. Her own parents had been teachers, and she loved the summers the family spent together. So she imagined something no one else had: taking summers off and staying on the partner track. She negotiated an 80% schedule and took 11 summers off in a row while her daughters were growing up, and still made partner. “I’m not sure when I first asked if I thought it would be successful,” said Hickox, now CFO of Independent Bank in McKinney Texas. “I learned I needed to speak up. That just because something didn’t exist meant maybe nobody had ever thought about it.”
None of this is easy. Like all leaders, Hickox has hit a wall. A few years ago, when her work had been intense and she was feeling completely out of balance, she almost didn’t come to the pioneering leaders summit I attended and first interviewed her for this piece. “I had such guilt. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m supposed to be one of these pioneering leaders and I have totally sucked this past year. I shouldn’t even be at this conference,” Hickox said. “But that’s when you need this stuff the most.” What she has found – and behavioral science research reinforces — is that having a supportive, like-minded network of peers via the summit and their regular conference calls makes it more likely for behavior changes to stick.
Hickox, now 51, has since become the kind of role model she was looking for. Flexible work, remote work, paying attention to performance, rather than when people come and go in the office have become the norm. When she discovered the bank didn’t have a paid family leave policy, a word to the CEO changed that. “The culture in the bank’s accounting and finance team has changed totally since I got here,” she said. “I don’t think you have to work like a crazy person to get ahead. I just think, in the time you are working, you have to learn to be effective.”
Making a Plan to Put Family First. Imagining a different way to work and live also means adopting a mindset that recognized both work and family were important. Will Rowe, 59, a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., and his wife Teresa, a pediatrician, began their marriage with vows promising to be equal partners and to put family, faith, friendships and flexibility first. They both wanted important, but not overwhelming careers. Rowe’s parents were workaholics, he said, who rarely saw each other and wound up divorced. So once Rowe and his wife started a family of their own, the couple committed to spending as much time with family as possible. Will worked four days a week, Teresa an alternate three, and a neighbor cared for their two children one day a week.
The flexible schedule has allowed him to be active in his neighborhood and faith community, and gave him the courage to ask his boss for a six-month sabbatical to travel the country with his family. As his kids grew and he rose through the leadership ranks, Rowe continued to work a flexible schedule, deftly juggling conference calls in the school pick up line, and “time shifting” his work to accommodate both his clients and his family. Being clear on family priorities, routinely talking them through and planning together as a family have been keys to making his work and family life work. “I sit down every week and color code my calendar. Family events and activities are in green. If I find it competes with my work, I will cancel, delegate or move work around,” Rowe said. “Some things in life are more important than work.”
What we see — our role models — shape what we think is possible. And right now, so many of us are stuck in the workplace overworking because that’s all we see in our leaders. So perhaps, if we are to change, what we need are fewer breathless articles about inhuman and insane CEO schedules that ignore the costs to health, families, and ultimately, innovation and business productivity. And we need to hear more stories like that of Alexrod, Hickox and Rowe. More about CEOs like David Solomon, the new head of Goldman Sachs who takes yoga classes with his daughter, led an effort to reduce punishing work hours, calls colleagues when they’re working too much to tell them to stop, and regularly performs and records electronic dance music as DJ D-Sol. More about how leaders like YouTube’s Susan Wojicki can run a $100 billion company and still be home for dinner at 6 p.m. with her kids.
Perhaps the more we hear stories of leaders like these, the more the majority of us who tell surveyors that we want both time to do great work and live a great life, people may start believing it’s possible.