Call It Work-Life Choices


By Jack and Suzy Welch Is it possible for a leader to be a top performer and still achieve work-life balance?—Christy Dobbs, Philadelphia

Not only is it possible, it happens all the time. Look, top performers are top performers for a reason. They're usually very talented: smart, creative, productive, and loaded with energy. And those qualities don't tend to confine themselves to work. If they're truly in a person, they suffuse everything he or she does. That's why we all know plenty of successful businesspeople who also have successful lives outside work, filled with family, volunteering, and hobbies. They've figured out what they want and how to make it all happen, usually with the help of well-honed "home processes" such as meticulous scheduling and back-up child care.

We take your question, though: We've heard it dozens of times. In a global economy wherein job challenges are constantly escalating, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by conflicting demands. And technology complicates matters. With your BlackBerry (RIM) in hand, you can constantly be on call for everyone. But feeling swamped is really just a default mechanism: It's what occurs when you don't face what "achieving work-life balance" really comes down to, which is making choices and living with their consequences. In fact, we would even vote to retire the term "work-life balance" and replace it with "work-life choices."

The problem is that "work-life balance" suggests there is one right ratio for how much time you spend working and not working, and we disagree with that. Sure, there's a lot of politically correct advocacy for a kind of perfect equilibrium, and it may well be that many people want a 50-50 split between work and life. But some people love work so much and find it so gratifying that they want to live a different equation, like 70-30, say. Still others want to work just enough to support a life of avocation. We have a friend who writes and consults about two months a year to pay for travel the other 10 months. He thinks his life is perfectly balanced.

Balance, we're saying, is a personal choice based on what feels right to you given what you want from life personally and professionally. With that choice comes consequences. When you choose to work 80 hours a week and you have a family, you're also choosing to give up some level of intimacy with your spouse and children. When you choose to work 35 hours a week in order to see more of them, you're also choosing to take yourself off the fast track to senior management. There's no right or wrong here. There are just individual choices and their trade-offs.

That said, we do acknowledge that work-life balance is usually a much harder goal for women with children. For them, there is about a 15-year period in their careers in which the choices they make are not about what they want from life professionally and personally but about what is right for their kids. It can be a fraught time, since choices and consequences are more complex. That, however, is a topic for another column.

But to your more general question: Yes, it is completely possible to be a top performer and achieve work-life balance. Most top performers have already made a choice--work is a priority--but their talent helps them forge a meaningful outside life, too, often with just the balance they want.

In a matrix environment, how can a functional boss give a fair evaluation to a person whom he doesn't see very often?—Anonymous, Baltimore

He can't. And in fact, your question nails one of the biggest problems with matrix organizations. For all the good they can do in terms of productivity and knowledge-sharing in multi-product-line companies, they can really fuzz up reporting relationships. And that lack of clarity can drive workers nuts, especially when it comes to performance reviews. Like you, employees want to know how they can be evaluated by someone who barely knows what they do.

Here's a solution to consider. Functional heads in matrix organizations should start thinking of themselves as quasi-temp agencies. Instead of trying to manage functional specialists in the product groups from a distance, they should focus on hiring those specialists, training them, deploying them to the right jobs in the organization, and, with the product heads, reassigning them when and if a better fit becomes available.

True, under this new approach, functional heads would still have input into any given specialist's performance evaluation. But the bulk of that responsibility would be held by product line managers, where, for clarity's sake, it belongs.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to answering your questions about business, company, or career challenges. Please e-mail them at thewelchway@BusinessWeek.com For their podcast discussion of this column, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm


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