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The Myth of Balance

The Myth of Balance

I attended a national sales meeting a few years ago and had the opportunity to hear a past-president of our company give a speech after being recognized for his leadership and accomplishments during a key period of growth for our company. As is the case with many speeches of this type, he thanked several people for the part they played in the opportunities he had been given over the years, recalled a few stories from the “early days” for comic relief and then concluded with the one outstanding regret that success and promotion had wrought on his life.

He explained how the amount of time that he put into his job kept him from spending the time with his son that he desired. Specifically, that he wished he had attended more of his son’s games, and that if he could “do it over again,” he would get that time back with his son and attend those games he missed.

The meeting closed, and I left with a deep sense of curiosity about the comments I had just heard. This was not the first time I had listened to a successful executive capture the regret that this gentleman had over his corporate accomplishments; however, it was the first time that I recognized a pattern: Success and promotion in corporate America means the “giving up” or the “loss” of something that subsequently can’t be recaptured. We know that we can’t turn back time, but we somehow, looking back, wish that we could—or do we really?

The tension so often spoken about is that tension between work and family—how to balance the needs of both, how to honor both. Companies even do their best to create documents that decree the need for that elusive balance between work and family. They advocate for balance. The operative word is always balance. They frequently issue surveys to ensure the balance is being kept and senior leadership; issuing the survey recognizes and supports this balance.

The problem is that this balance is fundamentally a myth. There is no balance between work and family. As the past-president recognized, consciously or not, there is only sacrifice—a sense at the end of the day, that something precious has been given up. The question is where will the sacrifice lie? Where will the sacrifice be applied? What will be given up—will it be work or family? This ultimately is the issue and question facing us, and the answer must be wrestled through in a very intentional and honest way. And it must be wrestled through and decided upon before we take the proverbial stage, so that when we arrive, there is no sense of regret. We can speak loudly and confidently that we made our choices, lived them out well and understood that consequences would be had either way.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that corporate America should change its posture or position on the balance between work and family to accommodate the multitude of needs that exist in the workplace. It ultimately is not our companies’ responsibility to define or manage the relationship between our work and our family. It is our companies’ responsibility to seek productivity, efficiency and a fair profit and return to shareholders, as well as chart a course that lays out what that balance looks like within it’s unique culture.

Recently, I had a conversation over lunch with a company director. We talked about this very issue, and he mentioned that a company that values too much family over work is a company that won’t last long as it will quickly become unprofitable. This misses the point entirely. It is not about either having a healthy work/family balance or not. Rather, it is about how to value both family and work productively and profitably. It is this, I maintain, that it is not the responsibility of the company; it is the responsibility of the individual employee—regardless of title or level of responsibility.

The issue is examining at the outset what we will choose to value most, and, therefore, what we may potentially be giving up. Will we choose consistent, weekly time with our family? Will we choose to sit down at the table for dinner with our family? Will we choose to have at least one night a week out with our spouse, son or daughter that they will appreciate and value? Will we choose to be present at the games and recitals? Or, will we choose added responsibility, promotion, recognition, raises, stock grants, etc? Either way the questions are answered, something will be given up; something will be lost.

We then make choices and decisions around those values with a greater sense of awareness and ownership about what those values, choices and decisions will invariably yield.

To illustrate how this works itself out in life, I recall a conversation I had at our headquarters with a gentleman who had just received a promotion. He would be one of two Sales Directors in the United States reporting directly to the Vice President of Sales. I asked him about his rise and how he ended up where he was. He remarked that he had started with the company at the same time as many of the other VPs and had been asked during the course of his career to accept promotions that would have undoubtedly positioned him for VP opportunities at a much earlier age than most. I asked if he had any regrets about his decisions, and he said that while it was difficult to turn down the opportunities at the time, he knew in his heart that to accept the promotions and do the job well (which is critical to executing any job at all), he would be upsetting some priorities that he and his family agreed were important to them at the time.

Ultimately, this gentleman will have had a very productive career, a number of significant promotions and will likely retire earlier and with greater financial resources than most. But, he will not have achieved the status of title that was clearly within his control. He will, though, sleep well at night, knowing that he lives out his values well. And in doing so, he honors both the company he works for and the family he lives with. And both parties will benefit from the strength and courage of his decisions.

This, then, is the essence of the issue. It is that we don’t seek balance; because when we settle for balance we only end up with regrets, disappointing others and ourselves. Instead, we seek the courage to make decisions that reflect our pre-determined values, and in living out those values we become more productive, motivated and valuable employees, and at the end of the day, an example that our co-workers and families can be proud of.

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