Work and LifeStyle Balance – Can a firm Give Options?
Denise Howell, a long-time blogging lawyer, announced on Saturday that she had been fired by her mega-law firm and used the occasion for a stimulating post about the apparent inability of many (all?) businesses to really offer flexible work-lifestyle balance options to those seeking an alternative to flat-out careers.
Her blogpost elicited numerous comments on her blog and across the blogosphere. Virtually all of them provided sympathy and support, and took business (especially law firms) to task for failing to deliver on the promise of work-lifestyle balance options.
Since it is my normal role to be the provocateur, can I risk (without any lack of sympathy for Denise) exploring the opposing point of view, that it might not be possible for a business organizations to offer, in one firm, a widevariety of personal choices on work intensity?
The importance of having something shared is illustrated by a firm which asked me to moderate a retreat between its two warring factions. One faction was involved in a transactional, high-intensity, premium-fee type of practice which demanded significant dedication including long workdays and frequent weekend work. The other faction had a more small-business, relationship practice where the pace and the rewards were lower. These two groups labeled themselves the “Sharks” and the “Flounders.” (These sound like David Maister labels, but I didn’t invent them – they did!)
We struggled mightily at the retreat to establish firm policies which would accommodate both kinds of practice. All concerned hoped that differences between the groups could be resolved through compensation system adjustments. Of course they could not, and the firm eventually split up – which was probably the right outcome.
Neither group was wrong in any real sense. One group wanted the excitement of a fast-paced practice and the rewards that flow from it, and the other was willing to forego high rewards for a more normal lifestyle. Either group could be happy and get what they wanted in a firm of like-minded souls. Neither could live with the other. Differences in intensity could not be papered over with dollar differentials. At bottom, there was no reason for these groups to be in partnership with each other.
(I’ll be discussing this example a little more in my new podcasting series on strategy.)
In another chapter in the same book, I reported a similar real-world experience:
The importance of shared intensity is also illustrated by my experience working with a consulting firm aiming (they said) to be the “truly excellent and clearly a leading firm”. We spent months figuring out precisely how to get them there, and came up with a plan that, all agreed, would work. But then one professional, in front of the whole group, said: “We are all saying we want to be the best, and we agree on how to become that, but are we really willing to accept that much change in how we practice?”
I called for a secret, anonymous vote with the following scale: Vote “5” if you really want to “go for the gold”, and vote “1” if you just want to make whatever changes we have to make to avoid ruining what we’ve got. Or you can vote something in between.
The result? The vote was split between one group with “4’s” and “5’s”, and another with “1’s” and “2’s”. In preparing their strategic plan, they had all acted as if they wanted to be “truly the best”, but when push came to shove, half of them didn’t really want that much change in their lives. Was either group wrong to make their choice? Of course not. It’s each individual’s free choice as to what to do with their professional lives.
However, the firm now had a problem. How was it to proceed? One approach considered was to attempt to use the compensation system to accommodate these differing preferences. Those who wanted to “Go for the gold” (and succeeded) would be compensated for their efforts, while the others (who wanted a different lifestyle) would accept the financial implications of this choice. We named this the “Tolerant” approach.
However, the more we explored this possibility, the less feasible it appeared. Even if the right compensation levels could be determined, how would firm decisions on investments be made when there were fundamentally different goals? How well would people of different intensity levels work together? Could one really apply two different performance standards?
The more we discussed, the more it became apparent that to function effectively, the firm needed its professionals to share an intensity level (be it high or low). There needed to be a shared “Social Compact”. The firm needed to agree on a set of values, goals, and performance standards and then be intolerant about everyone working to fulfill those goals and meet those standards.
Neither side was wrong – not everybody has to aim to be world-famous, and not everyone has to make a lifestyle choice. But it is hard to achieve anybody’s goals (income, prestige or lifestyle) if you’re in partnership with others who do not share your goals. It was no-one’s fault – they were just in the wrong marriage.
Those were my experiences and views in 1997. Has my perspective changed?
Please note that I am NOT arguing for everyone working themselves to death. My argument is that a single, given organization, if it is to be cohesive and stick together, must have a SHARED, common intensity – whatever that level of intensity is.
It should be possible for all the people who want medium-intensity career choices to leave their high-intensity firms, join together with like-minded people, and run a medium-intensity operation, accepting the trade-offs that come with that choice.
Like most business leaders (who, contrary to popular opinion are not all venal monsters) I would love to believe that a single business entity could offer choice of intensity – but I’m not sure it can if it is aiming to be among the best in its field.
Can the Olympic team let people decide what work-life balance they want to choose? I don’t know the factual answer to this next question, but I’d love to know: can a mission-oriented organization like the Marines or NASA offer work-life balance options?
Forget “management.” In a high achievement context, would the rest of the team (the colleagues and co-workers) really be willing to let individual choices be made, without giving in to resentments that some people are not seen as carrying their “fair” share of the burden? I’m not arguing that such resentments are valid – but I am reporting that they are virtually unavoidable and poisonous when they do occur.
Is it really possible, as many (including Denise) would hope, that an organization can offer a Chinese menu of work choices and benefits (take one from column A, one from column B and so on), I doubt the practicality.
I’m reminded of one of the lessons of Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” that to cover the gap implied in the title of the book, it is first necessary to (and I quote) “get the right people on and off the bus.” In other words, in you want to come on our ambitious journey, fine. If you don’t that’s also fine, but we’re going there and your either with us or – you’re not with us.
Now, I could easily have got this factually wrong. Maybe it IS possible to both be the best and offer intensity options. If so, I’d love to be directed to real-world examples.