It is the biggest and busiest week of your life. The week when your first child is born. Twenty years ago I had that moment, except that my busiest week happened threefold. Firstly we finished the renovations on the house just in time for baby to arrive. Secondly, my daughter Suzie was born. Thirdly, I was offered a new CEO role in a new city in a different country. All in the space of five days.

I often wonder about the term “work/life balance”.  It seems to me that the real challenge is getting a “life” in the rather than the work. Maybe we should simplify and rename it “life balance”.

This week I have been looking at potential recruits for one of the businesses I chair.  In particular I’ve taken an interest in the testing that’s been done. You know the sort.  We’ve all done them.  Intelligence tests; aptitude tests; square pegs in round holes; all that sort of stuff.

The last one I did was several years ago. But even then, after three or four CEO roles, I still learned something.  Apparently I have an extremely high “orientation to duty”.  Put simply, that means that I try very hard – harder than most – to meet my obligations, be on time, to do what I say I will do, be prepared, volunteer for stuff and so on.

On the receipt of that information a number of things suddenly became clear.  Like, why I would fly home from an overseas meeting on a Friday night so as I could be home with my young family, when the rest of the meeting participants would stay on in Hong Kong, Singapore or some other exotic location for the weekend.  Or why I am always reluctant to leave a project or for that matter a job until I have completed what I went there to do.

But there is another priority – another area of life where your orientation to duty becomes ever more pronounced.  Family.

You see, in order to get some perspective and balance in your life, you have to establish some priorities. Most of us try to operate the following:

– number one priority – family
– number two priority – business
– number three priority – self

Of course it doesn’t always work out that way.  If I think about the times it has worked for me and my family, it’s been when all three of those considerations are constantly revolving in terms of the priority level.  In other words, it’s not one thing or another that always sits at the top of the pile.  They move.  You have to spend time with the kids, have a night out with your wife or partner, get the management report completed, hire a new person, and go for a swim or a bike ride.  Sometimes, all in one day.

Part of the solution is setting expectations of those around you.  Those people at work know that you have a family and that there are times when they are the priority.  Meanwhile, your family knows that sometimes business has to take priority.  After all, that’s how we pay for the best of family times – holidays.

Someone asked me recently “how do you do ocean swims and triathlons, and raise great kids while turning broken companies around?”  I’m not sure if my answer is perfect, and there are probably some behavioural psychologists out there somewhere who will do a better job of answering the question than me.  But when I thought about it, I realised that I had developed some unwritten rules over the years. They go like this.

  1. Go home as soon as you can. Business travel often puts pressure on families and guilt on the traveler.  I’m not sure that you ever overcome that but you can minimise it.  My approach has always been to go away on business, cram everything I can into the tightest possible timeframe, and go home when I’m finished.  As tempting as it may be, I don’t like to hang around and play tourist when there is a family to go back to.  Spend extra time with them now and do your travelling with them when you can.
To illustrate:New Zealand is about as far away as it’s possible to get. However you can fly out on Sunday night and be in London, showered, suited and ready to go by 9 a.m. Monday London time. Returning home after the close of business on a Thursday night London time, you can walk in to the door of your New Zealand home in the early hours of Saturday morning, just in time for the kids to get up and you all go off to Saturday morning sports.
  1. Leave the office. Get out of the office at the end of the day and get home in time to see the family before bedtime.  If they expect you to be there, it becomes as important for them as it does for you.  For me that has typically meant getting out of the office around 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. at the latest.  Of course there are exceptions, those times when you just can’t leave, but we must try to keep them to a minimum.
  2. Stay home. Before I was married I used to go to the office on weekends.  However, that changed when I had a wife and thereafter a daughter. So ever since then I have made it a habit not to go to the office on weekends.  Sure, I take work home, and there have been times when I seem to have spent half the weekend working at home.  But at least I’ve been there.  We all want to be part of our family’s lives, and the stress between work priorities and family priorities can be hard to manage.  But you can only be part of your family’s life when you’re with them.  And chances are, they won’t be at your office on the weekend.
  3. Look after number one. We all need some “me time”.  Looking after our minds and bodies is important, especially if you want to be able to perform in business and in life.  In my case that means exercising.  I try to keep a reasonable level of fitness in order to enable me to participate in the ocean swims, triathlons, and the occasional game of golf or tennis that I enjoy.  Some people say that they don’t have time to exercise.  Others suggest that their partner gets cranky when they want to go and have some “me time”.  Like everything else it’s about setting expectations, often with your partner.  In my case I’m lucky that I married an athlete who understands the need for exercise and the benefits it brings.  But there’s a limit. I’m sure if I suggested that I prepare for an ironman while working 60 or 70 hours a week that support might diminish. So like everything else it’s about balance.  In my case that means a couple of swims and bike rides a week which is enough to stay fit and do all the things that I like to do.
  4. Get to the “big events”.  You know the ones.  Birthdays are critical.  If you have 3 kids, it’s only a couple of hours at the most, 3 days a year.  Then there’s swimming sports, speech competitions, the School show or the music recital.  It feels like a big effort to make it to these.  They mostly happen in school time which is of course, work time.  It will take a couple of hours out of your day.  You are meant to be in a meeting.  The boss might wonder where you are.  BUT …. your kids will remember that you were there long after the boss forgot that you weren’t.  And alternatively, the kids will remember that you weren’t there and that someone else’s parent was.
  5. Make time for your partner, spouse, husband or wife.  There is no doubt that the combination of corporate life and family life puts pressure on relationships.  How many times have you heard something along the following lines:  “Once the kids left home, we realised that we didn’t have anything in common any more.”  Keep in mind that there will be days when your partner is secretly jealous that you “escape” each day to go to work.  So, if you can, hire a babysitter or a relative to look after the kids while you get away for a long weekend every now and then.  Or a ‘date night’ every second week, where just the two of you go out and do something together.  Keep in touch with each other and keep some things in common.  In my case we cycle most weekends and compete in the odd swimming event or triathlon together.  And we go out, drink wine, eat and talk.

Once you establish life balance in your business and personal lifestyle it becomes important to share the philosophy with others.  Of course the easiest way to manage anything is to set the expectations of those around you.  That might mean implementing some simple rules.  I always try to remind my teams to go home at the end of the day.  Despite what the occasional lawyer or investment banker may tell you, it’s actually okay to go home at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.  You don’t need to be there until midnight to prove that you’re working hard.  In fact if you’re there until midnight I would suggest that something is wrong.

We should all set aside some times as sacrosanct.  Things like getting home before the kids’ bedtime at least three days a week, a date night with your partner once or twice a month, being around on weekends and of course holidays.  And don’t forget your exercise time.  It does take discipline.  But you can work a 70 hour week and still do this stuff.   And let me assure you that your big long list of the many things that can go wrong if you’re not at the office probably won’t happen.

There’s old saying that goes like this: “No one ever laid on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office!”  And then there’s another one: “happy wife, happy life”.

Here’s something else for you to consider.  Just as my parents did for my brother and me, I have spent a lifetime standing on the sidelines at kids sports.  I’ve also spent plenty of time participating with, refereeing or coaching other peoples kids.  You only have to watch how much harder a child tries when their parents are watching, to realise how important it is to them that you are there.  Try it.  You might notice that yourself.

Take care and look after the ones that matter.

This article first appeared in 2015. It has been updated and represented because I continue to be asked about this issue.