+24 Rules for Work-Life Balance
This article appears as the feature story in the fall 2017 issue of Smith Business magazine (PDF).
Americans excel at many things. Vacationing isn't one of them. Year after year, labor surveys reveal that millions of U.S. workers fail to take their allotted time off. A study from the U.S. Travel Association shows that 54 percent of Americans ended 2016 with unused vacation days.
Collectively, the nation skipped 662 million days of annual leave during the year, including 206 million days that cannot be rolled over or exchanged for money.
The overriding reason is fear. Survey respondents report concerns of falling behind at work as the No. 1 deterrent to taking time off, followed by fear that no one else can step in and do the work in their absence.
Smith alumni know the pressure. They hold leadership positions in every industry and sector. But they also have families, friends and personal interests.
Taking time off to rejuvenate is just one consideration as they strive for work-life balance. Feeling whole requires adherence to a range of guiding principles. Here are 24 suggestions from the Smith community — one for each hour in the day.
Employees worried about falling behind often stay late in the office, check emails during dinner or work through the weekend to squeeze out extra results.
J. Gerald Suarez, Smith School professor of the practice in systems thinking and design, says people do better when they pace themselves. They can stave off job-related accidents, errors, stress, fatigue and illnesses.
Taking a much-needed break can also boost long-term productivity and creativity.
“There are benefits to recharging and to looking at old problems from new perspectives,” Suarez says. “We are more prone to make new connections and thinking of new ideas when we have the capacity to step back and look at old problems with fresh eyes.”
Unfortunately, slowing down can be hard when everybody else is racing to get ahead. Suarez says fear of looking bad in comparison to peers keeps many people grinding away.
“In a culture that values accomplishment, that rewards superstars, where there is only one first place and you have winners and then everybody else, the temptation of trying to optimize every day is very real,” he says.
2. KEEP IT SIMPLE
A person feeling overwhelmed might need a weeklong vacation at a mountain retreat or beach somewhere. But certified mindfulness meditation trainer Klia Bassing, MBA/MPP ’04, says pausing for even a few seconds can calm the nervous system.
“When I start feeling anxious or stressed, I take three full breaths,” she says. “It seems too simple, but it’s very powerful.”
Bassing, founder of Visit Yourself in Washington, D.C., has taught group and individual classes online and on-site for 12 years. She says many clients come back after one week and tell her how much it helps just to pause and give attention to their breathing.
“We have this tendency to think that solutions need to be complicated,” she says. “But it’s often quite simple.”
3. VISIT YOURSELF
Going for a walk, chatting with a friend or staring out a window for a few minutes can also help people reset their minds and bodies during a hectic workday.
Bassing says the key is to “visit yourself.” The phrase, which became her company name, occurred to her when she worked at the World Bank and saw energy levels rise every year on Take Your Child to Work Day.
“There was a sense of connection and aliveness that wasn’t normally there,” she says. “I starting thinking, ‘What if you could visit yourself at work.’”
4. FACE YOUR FEAR
Bassing says many people spend so much time in the future, worrying about what they will do next, that they forget to visit themselves.
“They forget to enjoy life as it actually happens,” she says. “They’re just lost in the story that they need to be really, really busy.”
Bassing says people gain power to change the storyline once they become aware of it. But to really find balance, they must confront their underlying fears of inadequacy, failure and rejection.
“It takes some courage to get real with that fear,” Bassing says. “If we never realize, ‘Oh, I’ve been afraid,’ then we’re basically driven by this fear and we can never get off the hamster wheel.”
Visiting yourself becomes a group project when individuals share their lives with others.
Moving to Poland in 2015 made sense for Shawn Rantas Rodriguez, MBA ’09. She was already traveling to Poland about once a month as a senior supply chain manager for Raytheon, and taking an expatriate assignment would boost her international credentials at the U.S. defense contractor.
But she had other people to think about.
Her husband, Paul Rodriguez, MBA ’08, had fewer prospects overseas. He was retiring from the U.S. Coast Guard and looking to grow his side business as a consultant. All of his clients were based in the United States, so living in Poland would add distance.
The couple also had two children to consider, a toddler and newborn.
Work-life balance requires tradeoffs, and the challenges multiply when both partners in a relationship have career and family aspirations. For Shawn and Paul Rodriguez, who met during MBA orientation at the Smith School, the key is communication.
“Paul and I share a philosophy that we are partners in this,” Shawn Rodriguez says. “We have to be very clear about what we want and what we need.”
6. THINK LIKE AN MBA
Having two MBAs in the family helps. When facing work-life decisions, Shawn and Paul Rodriguez collect data, analyze risks and calculate future value.
“I do a spreadsheet for everything,” Paul Rodriguez says.
The couple also weigh qualitative information, which factored heavily when an oil and gas company recruited Paul Rodriguez to do consulting work for its Arctic drilling program in Alaska. The job would have been lucrative, but it also would have required extensive time away from home.
“We sat down and re-evaluated what was important,” Paul Rodriguez says. “We decided that wasn’t the right path for us.”
7. TAKE TURNS
Shawn and Paul Rodriguez also understand that balancing two careers in one family requires sacrifice.
Shawn Rodriguez stepped away from a good position at Raytheon in Washington, D.C., when the Coast Guard reassigned her husband to Cape Cod, Mass., in 2012. She eventually found a new position at Raytheon offices in Massachusetts — which led to Poland and her husband’s turn to put his career second.
“We realized that during the course of our marriage together, there will be times when one of our careers is going to be taking the lead, and the other one might have to compromise or be secondary,” Shawn Rodriguez says. “That ebbs and flows.”
8. BE PRESENT
Former construction superintendent Jeanette Jordan, MBA ’09, didn’t relocate to Poland. But she and her then-husband did pack their belongings in Fairfax, Va., and drive across the country in 2014.
Jordan had no job waiting for her, but she moved to Silicon Valley to grow her tech career after starting a professional transformation at the Smith School.
“If things didn’t work out, it would be like a really cool vacation, and we’d turn around and come home,” Jordan says.
Changes have come fast since then. As director of product marketing for Factual, a location data company with Silicon Valley ties, Jordan travels at least one week per month. At home she’s recently divorced with a toddler and infant, both born in California.
Most of Jordan’s family and support network live on the East Coast, which adds to the complexity of work-life balance. Jordan knows she can’t do everything, so she focuses instead on doing one thing well at a time.
“Wherever you are, be present,” she says. “If you’re in mom mode and doing something with your kids, be there and be focused on it. And if you’re at work, be there and be 100 percent focused on that.”
9. LET IT GO
Jordan says new managers and new parents often make the same mistake. They want things done right, so they cling to control.
She recommends a different approach. “You have to focus on the most important things — your relationships,” she says. “Then you have to let go of the rest and not worry about if it’s perfect or executed the way you would do it.”
At Factual this means giving people room to experiment. “It’s a big shift going from being an individual contributor to being a manager,” Jordan says. “Things aren’t necessarily going to go the way you want, but having my team feel empowered and supported is important.”
At home Jordan has a nanny who also needs space to do things her way. “I can’t micromanage her,” Jordan says. “That would undermine the relationship.”
Overall, Jordan has had to let go of many tasks commonly associated with parenting. “There are certain aspects of being a mom that you’re not going to outsource, but there’s no shame in getting a laundry service or a housecleaner,” she says. “Everything that you don’t specifically have to do, don’t do.”
10. RECRUIT A VILLAGE
Jordan’s advice comes with a caveat. Delegating important tasks to unvetted or unqualified individuals would be reckless. The strategy requires due diligence.
“You must surround yourself with great people,” Jordan says. “You can’t work at this level and be a dedicated parent without the help and support of a strong community and team.”
11. JUMP IN
Bank executive Heath Campbell, EMBA ’12, leaned on his support network when he jumped into his executive MBA program at the Smith School.
“I don’t think you can accomplish this journey without a phenomenal team around you,” says Campbell, regional president of BB&T in Atlanta. “That team is also very relevant at home.”
Campbell knew he wanted an executive MBA, but the timing seemed off in 2010. He and his wife, Kristi, already had a toddler at home and were expecting their second child.
His wife was working as a nurse practitioner, and Campbell was climbing the ranks at BB&T in Greater Washington. So how could they squeeze in weekend classes, homework and group projects?
The nudge to move forward came from his wife. “There is never going to be a good time,” she told him. “This is as good as any.”
So after much soul searching and prayer, Campbell took her advice.
“We jumped in,” he says. “I look back on it, and I can’t believe we did it when we did it or how we did it. But the end result was we became stronger as a family because we did it together.”
12. DO IT RIGHT
Campbell picked up some additional good advice from mountaineer Chris Warner, a BB&T client he met in Baltimore.
“Don’t go through life and reach the pinnacle, but miss the point of it all,” Warner writes in his book, “High Altitude Leadership.”
Campbell says life requires tradeoffs. But things of greater value should not be sacrificed for things of lesser value.
“I don’t want to reach the pinnacle and miss the point of it all,” he says.
13. SET BOUNDARIES
Keeping track of what matters most requires deliberate thought about values and the establishment of boundaries. Campbell refers to “rules of engagement.”
One rule is to make it home for dinner whenever possible, which often requires Campbell to shift his work schedule forward. “Maybe you schedule breakfast appointments instead of dinner appointments,” he says.
Campbell admits the process can be imprecise, and he still makes mistakes.
“There’s no perfect science, but there is some method to the madness,” he says. “You establish clear expectations on the front end, and then you try to live the best you can within that framework.”
14. GET CREATIVE
Bob Johnson ’80 and his wife, Lynda, set their own boundaries for work-life balance. Among other rules, they agreed to put down roots in one place when their children reached adolescence.
The family followed the script, settling in Potomac, Md., while Johnson climbed the ranks in the telecommunications industry in nearby Reston, Va.
Then a big test came in 2007. Sprint offered Johnson an executive position at corporate headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.
Johnson wanted the job. But he also wanted to honor the pledge to his family. So he got creative.
For the next 10 years he had an apartment in Kansas City and traveled home on alternating weekends. “It worked for us,” Johnson says. “It doesn’t work for everybody.”
15. MONITOR AND ADJUST
The arrangement worked, in part, because Johnson paid attention to feedback from his family and made adjustments when necessary.
Corporate jobs come with feedback built in. Performance reviews, raises, promotions and accolades provide indicators of success — or warnings when people stray too far from defined objectives.
Individuals have to set their own checks and balances at home. “Define your objectives,” Johnson says. “Then look for affirmation.”
16. HAVE A TIEBREAKER
When career and personal objectives clash, he follows a simple rule. “Tie goes to the family,” says Johnson, a member of the Smith School’s Board of Advisors who now lives and works full-time in the Washington region as chief operating officer at InSite Wireless Group.
17. OWN YOUR CHOICES
Susan Pearson, a retired Accenture partner and former Smith School Board of Advisors president, has a similar value system. “Health and security of the family is always going to take precedence,” she says.
Putting family first required a major adjustment when the older of her two daughters, Emily Pearson ’12, developed diabetes at age 5.
Susan Pearson and her husband, Doug, discussed lifestyle choices, and together they decided that he would stay home with the kids while she continued working full-time.
Her job required frequent travel, which sometimes triggered “mommy guilt.” She remembers the time her girls took her toothbrush out of her suitcase, thinking it would stop her from going on a business trip.
“There’s a pull when the kids want you to stay, and you’ve got to go,” Susan Pearson says. But she refused to beat herself up.
“I enjoyed and valued the work I did and was comfortable that my husband, their father, was at home,” she says. “He also had work and hobbies at home that he enjoyed. So we were able to find the right balance between work and family — one that worked for both of us and our children.”
18. FIND THE JOY
Some people measure work-life balance by counting hours, but Susan Pearson rejects the built-in assumption that work is something people must endure so they can enjoy their personal time.
“For me it wasn’t a dichotomy,” she says. “You need to choose the type of work and the job that you love doing — what brings joy — and do it.”
19. MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Another key is to create value, which means treating people well while doing meaningful tasks. “Put more into this world than you get out,” Susan Pearson says.
This is what she loved about her work at ETS, which led to opportunities at Andersen Consulting, which became Accenture. She not only helped her clients improve their businesses, but she helped build a business that ultimately hired thousands of people.
“It’s nice to look back and see that you made a difference at work, you have long-term friends who were both clients and co-workers, and your family is happy,” she says.
20. JOIN A BOOK CLUB
Having a stay-at-home dad, meanwhile, worked well for Emily Pearson.Her father managed home routines and attended fieldtrips and other school activities. “It was him and all of the other moms,” Emily Pearson says.
Susan Pearson attended family events when she could. But she also found ways to support her daughters remotely. One solution was to read the same books assigned to them in school. “So when she read my book report, we could talk about it,” Emily Pearson says.
The coordinated reading included other books not assigned in school, which led to safe discussions about sensitive topics. “We had a mother-daughter book club,” Susan Pearson says.
Emily Pearson is now forging her own career path. The journey started with a range of internships during her undergraduate program at the Smith School.
More recently, as a University of Michigan MBA student, she explored financial technology opportunities at Citigroup during a summer 2017 internship in New York City.
She also volunteered to lead a club that organizes international trips for first-year MBA students. Working across time zones, she collected money and managed logistics for 500 participants in 29 groups headed to every continent except Antarctica.
The commitment was bigger than expected, but she learned a lot about herself along the way. “You can’t do what you love until you discover what spurs your curiosity and keeps you going,” she says. “That’s basically what I’ve tried to find.”
Lines between work and family often blur for Dana Ritzcovan ’93, managing director and head of human resources for the Americas region at UBS.
She and her husband, Alex, both have careers and responsibilities at home with two teenage sons. But rather than trying to keep her life compartmentalized, Ritzcovan strives for a healthy integration.
“Work is part of my life,” says Ritzcovan, who also serves on the Smith School’s Board of Advisors. “They aren’t two separate things that must be balanced.”
Sometimes, this means taking a work call in the bleachers at a high school football game. Other times, it means stepping out of a business meeting and taking a personal call.
“If one of my kids texts me, I’ll never be ashamed to say, ‘I need to take this call,’” Ritzcovan says. “There are sacrifices on both sides.”
23. EXTEND THE FAMILY
Managing human resources at one of the world’s largest banks means that Ritzcovan must consider work-life issues for herself, but also for thousands of employees.
She says people respond when their workplace starts to feel like an “extension of the family.” At UBS this means career development workshops, mentoring programs, community service opportunities, elder care resources, new parent coaching and other support.
UBS also focuses on hiring and promoting from within, so employees have internal mobility. “People need to feel like they are investing in themselves,” Ritzcovan says. “It has a payoff in the long term. The level of commitment changes, and productive hours increase. That’s different than counting the number of hours in a chair.”
24. CELEBRATE PROGRESS
Ritzcovan has worked in human resource management since the early 1990s and has watched work-life attitudes evolve — especially toward women. “A generation ago, women tried to hide their family situations,” she says.
Today UBS is reaching out to women turned off by traditional corporate culture and inviting them back. “These women are incredibly talented and competent,” Ritzcovan says. “What they sometimes lack is confidence. We give them that confidence, and they are so appreciative.”
Many organizations offer more flexibility than in the past, so women and men with personal commitments can structure their lives in ways that work best for them.
“There’s nobody judging you when you’re on a call and they see you’re at your home office,” says Ritzcovan, who works from home most Fridays. “As long as you get the job done, it doesn’t matter where you do it.” /DJ and KJ/