When it comes to work-life balance, 99% of C-suite execs are typically the wrong advisors on work-life balance for anyone who is not a C-suite position-holder.
Yet our media feeds are packed full of upbeat sound-bites on how we could, or should, emulate these demi-gods by managing our careers and life commitments they way that they do.
CEO's - the truly good ones - are vital. But they're not the life blood of the company. The work-force is.
And without a flexible work-force that is committed to customer service and following sound operational protocols, that buys into the vision of the business and is led by values, no CEO would achieve success.
So are CEO's really the people to whom we should turn for advice about work-life balance?
Well, in theory, they shouldn't be. Because while we might regularly recognise the logic of what they advise (and it's undeniably good advice), all too often, in reality, the only audience who can regularly practise what they recommend, and be successful, is the audience that comprises their own peer group.
In other words, for the majority of the working population around the world, their findings (like those in the linked article below), are more often than not aspirational rather than practical.
This is because CEO's have deputies, teams, and other folks to whom they can delegate duties during 'time-out' periods, like holidays. It means that for CEO's, options like not taking calls on evenings and weekends, being confident and comfortable about letting the mobile phone ring without answering it, setting 'hard' rules about when you can be contacted and ring-fencing time in your day that is 'me time', are all feasible.
Of course, there'll be exceptions when these rules are broken with that CEO's consent, but the more fundamental point is that these CEO's are in a luxurious position of power to be able to run their professional and personal lives this way.
As a consequence, they can choose to control their diaries. It also means that there may be times when they feel that they can afford to make someone wait or even to risk losing their business altogether. And provided they have shareholder/investor confidence, nobody is going to call their choice of approach 'unprofessional' or unacceptable (in fact, they're quite likely to be applauded for it amongst their peers).
They're generally not expected by customers to be the first voice they hear on a call or the immediate respondent to a general online enquiry. They're not the person expected by anyone to handle the vast majority of operational matters within the business either.
But the majority of the workforce are.
So what about the workforce?
For those in any industry, services especially, where clients expect customer service excellence at all times; where technology has made everyone contactable pretty much anywhere in the world, regardless of holidays, sickness absences or family needs; and where, in highly competitive markets, hungry rivals circle like jackals at the fringes of any business relationship that isn't instantly serviced, how can we possibly follow this advice?
That unanswered call, email or absence from a meeting could spell an opportunity lost, to a competitor's benefit. It could mean a moment of internal, career-benefitting business profile lost, and along with it, the next potential chance for promotion.
For the ambitious and/or conscientious amongst us, the fear of being judged for being as good only as the last task done (which is naturally present in the ethos of many enterprises and their management, and is implicit in the demands of many of their increasingly online rating-and-reviewing customers), means that advice such as that embodied in the linked article typically isn't practically feasible - if you're a worker.
Even if you don't care so much about your working life or present role, given that we are all judged in the main by how hard-working we are and how much initiative we demonstrate, and that bonuses are increasingly rewarded for performance over and above the job description (not just for turning up and going through the motions), it's a very rare worker with this kind of attitude, who can sustain the sort of approach that is promoted by these CEO's, and remain consistently employed with good prospects of salary gain and greater job satisfaction.
I have lost count over the years of the number of times successful, conscientious friends, and respected colleagues, have nearly lost their cool because of their lack of control over 'when we jump and how high'.
Because nobody wants to be the one explaining to the CEO why something hasn't worked or wasn't won. And none of us would want that explanation to be grounded in an excuse that we didn't answer the phone when it rang, respond fast enough, didn't stay to fix a problem because we don't work in the evenings or we are part-time, or even because we weren't on site because we were grabbing 'a breather'.
Unlike a CEO, those factors aren't judged as wise practices or unavoidable consequences, in a worker, they risk being perceived by managers and senior executives as uncommitted or perhaps even incompetent at best; reckless, negligent or deliberately sabotaging, at worst.
Still, that's not to say it has to be this way for the workforce. There is a means to achieve work-life balance for workers as much as for CEO's. And this is significant not least because many of today's workers will be tomorrow's C-suite execs; what they learn and experience today will be what guides them as they climb the ladder and become increasingly responsible for others.
Leadership holds the key
This is a leadership conundrum and it needs resolving by leading from the top and properly ensuring a comprehensive practice of work-life balancing measures.
This is where the CEO's role is vital in generating a work-life balance for the greater good. While it may not be a magic formula as such (since good leadership can be practised in many different ways), great leadership is the magic key to workers being supported to achieve a healthy balance.
Here's the combination of factors that I believe leads to this:
1. CEO's must empower their own staff to practice what these CEO's preach, at all levels of the corporate hierarchy
Leaders should ensure that what they themselves practise, they then empower their own workers to emulate, without fear of criticism or complaint.
In the words of Bryan Dyson, the former CEO of Coca-Cola, who puts it so well:
“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – Work, Family, Health, Friends and Spirit and you’re keeping all of these in the air.
"You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – Family, Health, Friends and Spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these; they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for it.
Work efficiently during office hours and leave on time. Give the required time to your family, friends and have proper rest. Value has a value only if its value is valued.”
It's a reminder and a remedy that we all need, from C-suite to coal-face and in equal measure.
2. CEO's must invest time and effort in clear and logical organisational structures, good succession planning and sensible, well-tested business continuity measures
Regardless of size or activity, teams should be as well structured as they can be; with succession and business continuity planning in place, enabling workers at all levels to take time off, have proper breaks, to feel confident in their roles and understand their career progression opportunities, should they wish to pursue them.
3. Personal time must be demonstrably respected & not undermined
Holidays and sickness absences should be honoured and respected.
Unless personal time is respected, many workers will not be able to set logical, beneficial rules around when they check messages, finish tasks, take calls and mentally switch off. They will never feel fully rested or perhaps even sufficiently secure that in their absence, others are not disingenuously taking the opportunity to make decisions, or to take initiatives that would and should not occur without their involvement.
Good workers at any level should feel comfortable that in their absence, they will not be unfairly criticised, undermined, usurped, harangued or let down by less professional or committed colleagues who permit customers or tasks to suffer.
4. CEO's must ensure meaningful, transparent measures of staff assessment (KPI's) and honest, thorough application of them by all managers
Staff should always be clear on what is expected of them and what rights they have. This should not be a tick-box exercise or a matter of hiding content somewhere in a policy document or handbook that is never accessed or is difficult to find.
Staff should be rewarded as much for the tasks they complete as the manner in which these are completed; meaning that a high achiever who causes a great deal of collateral damage to others, or other elements of the business, in the pursuit of his or her goals, should not be rewarded or valued as highly as someone who achieves results in a collegiate and responsible, values-led manner.
5. CEOs should 'publicly' endorse the role models within their businesses
I once asked several senior executives in a business where I was working if they would mind providing me with a LinkedIn testimonial. It wasn't a random request to people who didn't know me. With the exception of one executive, they all readily provided one.
The final exec, who had consistently given me excellent feedback and encouragement, declined on the basis that if he endorsed one good employee, he'd come under pressure to do it for others, and he wanted to avoid awkward conversations in those cases where he didn't rate the employee. So he had long-adopted a rule that he wouldn't do it for anyone.
At the time, while I fully understood his desire to optimise his time and not end up drowning in 'administrative tasks', his approach troubled me. Because although personally, I knew how he rated me, that factor was not transparent to others who mattered. It wasn't a question of my ego - it was what having that testimonial from him (not a generic company recognition piece), would have meant to our pitch target customers, to my team and to other important influencers for our business - as well as to me personally of course.
(Equally, had he felt that I was unworthy of the testimonial, then we could have had a sensible discussion about why, so that I would have known where I might have been falling down and been able to work up to being worthy of such an endorsement.)
I've never been afraid of praising others publicly/on the record, as well as during internal appraisal processes and through regular feedback on the job. However, after that episode, I've probably been even keener on saying yes to requests for public endorsements for colleagues at any level in whom I believe. And volunteering them too. The power of endorsements and testimonials for generating new business, contacts and credibility, benefit a business and the endorser as much as an individual.
Very importantly, when testimonials are given by someone in the top suite, they enable the individual worker and the rest of the workforce to tangibly experience what matters and what is truly measured by a company's leadership, empowering and motivating workers to follow that same approach in relation to their own teams and contacts.
Testimonials, from those in positions of authority and influence, to those who have genuinely earned the praise, are a currency in which every CEO and leader should generously and fearlessly trade.
You're on our blog and updates site, which is hosted by elXtr, a leading digital hub powered by the award-winning lawyers at LHS Solicitors LLP. Bringing you real law, made easy.
Law for the online generation starts here.
Achieving work-life balance is more difficult than ever ... Only in April this year in France, there was talk of a “6pm email ban” where employees were expected to turn off all work communications between 6pm and 9am the following morning. Granted, they didn’t follow this through, however it highlights the common need to be able to "shut your front door” on work when you get home after a long day. In reality, this is idealistic... CEOs, who notoriously work incessantly through high pressure situations, need to actively put things in place to make sure they reach some sort of work-life balance, and don’t arrive at their deathbed wishing they’d done things differently. We interviewed many top CEOs, asking them what they do to maintain this balance and came up with 10 top tips.