By Pamela Mendels Around 5 p.m. most Fridays, Lloyd Howell heads out of the office to meet his wife for their weekly date. It's no big thing, except that Howell, a vice-president in the management consulting firm of Booz-Allen & Hamilton, has made sure that people in his office know about the weekly ritual.
His openness does more than keep work from intruding into his Friday evenings. It also tells the 150 people he supervises that it's O.K. to leave work behind. "It sends a signal: 'Hey, I've got a life outside this place,'" he says.
If you, as the owner of a small business, also recognize the need for employees to have a "life outside," you could do worse than imitate Howell. Almost nothing better shows employees that the company is at least thinking about work/life balance than an example from the top.
FOLLOW THE LEADER. I thought about leadership by example last week as I viewed a videotape of a recent event where Howell and eight of his male colleagues -- all fathers -- discussed how they juggle work and family. The event, held at Booz-Allen headquarters in McLean, Va., to mark Father's Day, caught my eye because it showed a recognition that men, not just women, face daily struggles in meeting their obligations, both on the job and in their lives beyond the office. It was refreshing to hear men talk about finding time amid job demands for trips to the pediatrician or Little League games, and feeling guilt about that missed birthday party or other family event.
These aren't easy issues to discuss. And there are few easy answers. While Howell, for example, reserves his Friday evenings for dates with his wife, he typically puts in a 12-hour workday Monday through Thursday. The company, for its part, is trying to help address the work-family issue with its year-old on-site child-care center. Jean Callahan, the company's senior director of recruiting, says the subject has become so important that the "best and brightest" -- the candidates the company longs to recruit -- frequently ask about it at job interviews. To be able to interest these candidates, she says, "it's critically important" that the company shows an interest in work-life balance.
Regardless of the motivation, it's a good thing when companies begin acknowledging there's life beyond the job. And to me it's particularly striking when an effort to encourage balance comes from the very top. Booz-Allen CEO Ralph Shrader has been known to make references to his own work/family conflicts in talks to the troops. In one speech, for example, he related anecdotes about passing up business meetings so he could attend to family matters, such as a son's illness and a wedding anniversary.
A SOUND, SIMPLE MESSAGE. When these simple stories come from the boss, they can reverberate throughout the workforce. One reason that Craig Bozzelli, a principal in the company's information-systems unit, decided to participate in the fathers' panel was to send a message to other working dads. Bozzelli, who supervises 40 people, told me with pride about a recent incident that occurred in his unit. A "direct report" asked Bozzelli for a few hours off so he could go to his son's sixth-grade graduation ceremony, where the boy was to receive a special honor.
There are plenty of workplaces where fathers would have disguised that request, perhaps depicting it as a pressing out-of-office business meeting. Others would simply have passed up the graduation altogether. Not in Bozzelli's office. "He got to see his son get a special award," says Bozzelli, who adds with approval: "I thought that was pretty neat." Pamela Mendels is based in New York City. She wrote about small business and had a workplace advice column at Newsday, and has written about workplace matters for BusinessWeek, Working Woman, and the Web site iGuide.