I lead an Executive Horizontal Mentorship Program and part of what I do is facilitate group sessions where all the executives come together to share their insights, questions, and thoughts on a new topic each session.
Our most recent group conversation focused on innovation and how we would like to become more innovative with our work. As with most meetings, I lay out the topic, but the executives can take the conversation in any direction the group chooses.
I hypothesized a few ways I thought the discussion would go. I expected it to revolve around people management. We would discuss ways to be a better leader, how to foster psychological safety with direct reports, or how to improve a specific skill and perform their role better (all of which are great topics!).
Instead, many of the group sessions went in a very different direction when discussing innovation.
In this case, the conversation revolved around priorities, balancing our values, and discussing what we find most important in our lives.
An exchange between two executives sticks with me: one executive mentioned, “If I spent time innovating in my family life like I do my work life, I would be much happier and have greater balance.”
To which another executive chimed in: “If you ask me for my priority list, I would say family comes first, then work. But, if you were to ask me the amount of time and emotional energy I put into my work compared to family life, it wouldn’t even be close to a relevant comparison”.
A third executive jumped in to reply: “But our work allows us to live the family life we want to have. But, I will admit that I struggle to enjoy my family time when the majority of my focus and energy is on work.”
This was a really interesting and unexpected direction for this conversation to go. There is a shift in work mentality from the old school bragging about how many hours one has worked in a week (the notion of asking about or even mentioning how many hours one has worked in a given week indicates this). Instead of leveraging the response of “busy” as the default response to ‘how are you?’, the mentality is trending where family life is starting to be conscientiously prioritized above work.
Based on this group discussion, we still aren’t there yet. But the fact that this stemmed from a conversation on innovation shows where we are headed: there is beginning to be a conscious push to have more balance between work and home.
The overarching question that arose from the discussion is “can we innovate in our work in a way that reduces the amount of time and emotional energy required to get the same amount of work done?” AND, instead of replacing that time with more work, can we instead divert that time and mental/emotional energy to family?
The open question here is: can this be done?
Based on the feedback from the executives in this group meeting, yes, it can be done. People become more efficient and effective in their roles all the time. Whether through new technologies or improved prioritization of time and tasks, improving the efficiency of both time and mental inputs for work can definitely be accomplished without sacrificing work quality.
The second question is: if this can be done, why do we fill that extra time with more work versus family?
There is a natural drive to keep pushing the needle forward; it manifests as a growing fear that if I am not working hard, the next person in line could be working harder and eventually take my spot.
This drive also leads to a natural tendency for executives to not fully celebrate wins, and instead simply move onto the next task. When we don’t give ourselves credit for hitting a milestone, we rob ourselves of the deserved reward that we crave for getting the job done. And the people around you notice this: “If my boss can’t take a break to reward himself for a job well done, why would I deserve a reward?” This might be motivating for some people in the short term, but eventually, that kind of ambivalence to success drains the satisfaction in a job well done.
Lastly, most executives justify more work as an effort to help their families live better lives. A perfect example of this is from the television show Breaking Bad. If you haven’t seen the show, Breaking Bad follows a high school science teacher who is recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. After realizing that he can’t afford the treatment, he decides to start cooking and selling meth to cover the cost. He justifies sacrificing his time, his emotional well-being, and even his morals into this endeavor because it is going to be “better for his family” (something he determined without their input!). Eventually, he comes to realize that he was lying to himself: it wasn’t about supporting his family; it was about his greed masquerading as providing for his family. I doubt many of your situations will end quite as dramatically, but I’m sure many will recognize some familiarity with that example.
Most executives don’t want an outcome like this! The fact that they are consciously aware that they are spending too much time and mental/emotional energy on work and not enough time on their family is the first step to creating more balance.
So the third question is: what can executives do to ensure that their newly found time and energy doesn’t simply get used with more work?
Create Standard Operating Procedures around work and life
As executives, one way we grow our impact and scale our performance is by creating SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for our team. So why can’t we do that for ourselves when distinguishing between work and life?
Oftentimes executives choose not to commit to this type of action because it “deters flexibility when emergencies happen”. And this is a fair point. But just like creating SOPs for a work team, you can build in caveats for emergencies. AND most executives know that this excuse is pretty flimsy: if there weren’t any SOP’s in other cases, inconsistency and quality control issues would be endless.
Therefore, if we, as executives, don’t set SOP’s for when we are working versus when we are with family, then we are always working. Why? Because family time is a longer-term drive. There rarely are deadlines that occur with family time, but because work is typically filled with short-term deadlines, we prioritize those over the longer-term rewards from spending time with family.
SOP’s help take the emotion out of the decision of how best to distribute your time. An SOP is like a computer; it will do what you tell it to do – no more, no less. If you are firm with your work and life SOP, you will not have to worry about circumstantial judgment calls. It either fits into your SOP or it doesn’t.
Devote specific time to family
This is more like action 1A as it falls within the work and life SOP. Time with family is powerful. You could be doing absolutely nothing, but the fact that you are there with family is what counts. This sounds like an obvious point, but if it were so obvious, this article wouldn’t be relevant. It is easy to quantify work output and less easy to quantify family time output. You don’t earn “points” for attending your daughter’s soccer match or your son’s recital. You do it because it makes you happy. Even if you don’t have any plans on the docket for your family time, that isn’t an excuse for getting back into work during the time that you have already decided is for family.
Devote specific mental and emotional energy to family
This is more like action 1B as it falls within the work and life SOP. Simply spending time with family is not enough for that time to be meaningful. Our executives clearly distinguished between both time and mental and emotional energy. If you are physically “with” your family, but you are mentally and emotionally “checked out”, can you really consider that time valuable?
Family time deserves as much mental and emotional intention as we are willing to put into our work. And it probably deserves more!
If executives can begin to implement these actions into their lives, they will become substantially happier and aligned between their work and family time value system – at least according to our executives in our group meeting.