David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Work and LifeStyle Balance – Can a firm Give Options?

post # 135 — July 18, 2006 — a Careers, Managing, Strategy post

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?

paperback edition cover of David Maister's book, 'True Professionalism'

I first wrote about the issue of shared intensity in my book TRUE PROFESSIONALISM in 1997. Here’s an excerpt, from a chapter called How Firms (Should) Add Value:

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?

Not really.

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.


Kent Blumberg said:

David, I think you have it right. I just don’t know how a single organization would work with some folks putting in long hours and others on flex time – at least if the rewards were the same for both groups.

My experience, across seven companies and 11 different sites is that each place had its inherent rhythm. You either fit the rhythm, or you find it pretty uncomfortable. And that isn’t just for folks who want alternative hours in a high-intensity place. High intensity folks in a more relaxed atmosphere have similar problems (at least I did).

posted on July 18, 2006

James Bullock said:

Yes, in my experience so far it is so, and yet I wonder . . .

Isn’t there some possibility of an organizational design something like Handy’s “Shamrock Organization” where intensity varies by which piece of the organization? In Handy’s model the “core” of the shamrock does whatever the company’s core mission might be. For professional services firms, this might be the partner track full of accountants in an accounting firm, lawyers at Boston Legal, or business strategy consultants if we’re playing “Consulting Demons.” (Great book in the sense of watching a train wreck.)

And yet, why couldn’t such a firm also accommodate people who are working at a different intensity, perhaps not on the same career track (at least just then?) Handy’s model provides two ideas that bear on this intensity question, in among a lot of other provocative thinking.

– First that different people can have a different “contract” with an organization. Folks in the core may be highly identified with the company. Folks not in the core, may be less so. I see no reason why these folks with different contracts can’t be paid by the same people, as long as the contracts – implicit and explicit – are known. In an interesting twist, in Handy’s example, professionals are leaves of the shamrock not the core, since in most organizations professionals – lawyers, accountants, etc. – are not the core of what the business does. They – we – are hired guns. In this sense the professional services firm is a special case.

– Second, he implies but doesn’t say straight out, that individuals may legitimately want different relationships with their company and with work at different times in their lives. Why not accommodate that?

Speaking for myself, working mainly with technology organizations, I would like more choices. While time matters, and the competition is intense, you also get much more than half the work from someone putting in half the time for many kinds of work. This works for well organized design, coding, and many other things. The few, the proud, the must always be there are to me a sign that the development process and likely the organization have problems.

This is actually a test I use for diagnosing development organizations: Can we switch people arbitrarily to half time and have it work? Can we have them off site and have it work? Most of the time the answer is “no” and usually it is because the organization and development team don’t understand – haven’t agreed – how they are doing the work. That is an immense waste of time.

The need for a great deal of intensity for an organization to function at all is at least suspicious. Nobody can sprint all the time and survive (except maybe Lance Armstrong, and he retired eventually.)

So, how much of the social issues that compel one intensity are a symptom of how the work is organized including how we compensate for it?

posted on July 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

A thoughtful post, James. I don’t know the answers, either, but I’m only a little in sympathy with your insight – or Handy’s – (that those in non-core roles can be given different deals than those in core roles.)

My experiences in work like my PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH book, (which contained 9 profiles of supersuccessful businesses) showed me that in high-achievement outfits, everyone on the team, side-to-side, top-to-bottom, had high expectations of everyone else – that sense of being “a fully-integrated member of the team” -whether you were a secretary or a shareholder – was critical in getting the organization’s work done.

Of course, it is legitimate – more than that – for people to want different relationships with their work and their organization at different times. The question I’m intrigued by is how far the organization can go and still maintain its purpose, unity and its excellence.

Socially and morally, one would HOPE for being able to go a long way, but I just don’t think it’s yet been proven.

My hypothesis is that if you’re Wachtell Lipton (one of the most profitable, rspected and hard working law firms) you have fewer choices in this regard than a middle-market law firm in the heartland which, I believe, can afford to offer more choice and accomodate more personal preferences.

Similarly (and I’ll do a Larry Summers here) there’s an interesting question: can an elite institution like Harvard give as much work-intensity choice of option to its faculty, compared to say, Podunk U.?

There IS a relationship (complex as it may be) between tolerance (a wide range of options) and organizational accomplishment.

posted on July 18, 2006

Leo J Bottary said:

I understand what you’re talking about, but I can’t help wonder if that means flexibility connotes lack of intensity – it shouldn’t at all. And if you’re saying it does, then I’d suggest that this is a major stumbling block to leveraging all the talent this world has to offer. I don’t believe the world is better served by having Denise Howell, or others like her, getting fired.

posted on July 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Leo, your point is right on target, but my argument is not that THE WORLD must not offer flexibility. It must, (and it does.)

In this discussion, I’m not trying to make social or moral points. If they were what was being discussed, I back off entirely, since I have no grounding as a moralist, sociologist or political philosopher.

The question is what is the right policy for a single organization trying to accomplish a mission?

posted on July 18, 2006

Leo J Bottary said:

And I just thought I was being practical. The world is what we make it, one organization at a time.

posted on July 18, 2006

Jeff Risley said:


Although I haven’t read your books (yet), I’ve been following your blog and listening to your podcasts. Outstanding stuff. Some of the most practical leadership and management advice I’ve encountered.

I agree with your post. In my 15 years of work experience spanning five industries with six different organizations, you’ve explained what I’ve encountered. High-intensity or low, the wrong mix of people creates termoil.

I believe there’s no such thing as balance. “Balance is bunk,” said Fast Company magazine, and I think they’re right. There are always sacrifices. You either work intensively, advancing your firm, but sacrificing time with family, or you choose to work in a place or profession that allows for a less intensive schedule, but you’ll likely sacrifice advancement. Choose one or the other, but don’t expect both.

posted on July 18, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

What then are the implications for the very large firms that exist around the world? It would seem to me that the larger the firm, the more difficult it becomes to find a group of people with the same desires and dreams.

Even in countries with large and concentrated populations, such as the US, it would be difficult for a large firm to arrange things so that everyone is rowing in the same direction in this regard. Consider the number of factors that are already in play during the recruitment process – skills, relevant experience, qualifications, areas of interest, availability – then add to that mix the requirement that the person be matched in terms of commitment to excellence and intensity (or lack thereof).

If it sounds as if I am criticizing your theory, I am not. My observations working in firms of all shapes and sizes actually back up what you are saying. The inefficiencies and frustrations of working in multinationals and other large firms are often unbelievable; it is hard to believe that they can make a profit, and yet somehow they do.

I wonder if it simply means that smaller is better – surely it is easier to find two or five or ten people that share common traits than it is to find two or five or ten thousand?

While the big firms may make large dollar profits, I wonder how they compare to smaller, well managed, firms on a profit per partner basis. I also wonder how the level of happiness of their employees (however you measure that) compares with that of smaller firms. I suspect that this is information that large firms would prefer is not published.

posted on July 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Tim, I think YOU’RE on to something. when I did my PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH STUDY, one of the major findings was that super-success was almost never a firmwide phenomenon. i found pockets (individual offices, individual service groups, individual industry groups) that matched what we’re saying.

Other parts of the same organizations were filled with very competent people doing very comeptent jobs (what I called in my post above medium intensity businesses.) These were not failures, but reaffirmed your observation that there MAY be a limit to the size you can reach and sustain a commonality of high intensity. After that, the demands of size mean you have to start compromising on intensity, and that may inhibit your overall “global” success, while still allowing for pockets of super-achievement.

Maybe that’s part of the “window of escape” that James Bullock in his comments above was searching for: dividing the organization into groups that diffre in tgheir intensity level, but all belong to the same umbrella organization. I KNOW for sure that that is goin on in the real world.

And maybe some kinds of business do not require the same levels of intensity, so the rule can be “If you don’t like the pace here, join one of our other groups but stay in the family.”

I think there’s alot of that going on, but I do wonder what it means for the overall brand image of “the family.”

If the larger organizaton contains within it groups of diffrent intensity, what kind of market reputation does the overall firm have?

That of it’s strongest group? It’s weakest group? It’s average” Or none of the above?

posted on July 18, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

It’s interesting that you found these pockets were able to outperform even though they were part of a larger corporation.

I read your book, which I thought was excellent. I have a recollection that the businesses that you found to be high performers were geographically isolated from the remainder of the organisation. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself that they were not small businesses, but rather part of larger organisations. I always pictured them as “stand-alone” businesses.

Did you find that the high performing businesses were geographically isolated from the rest of the corporation, or could the high performing teams create outstanding results even if they were simply a “logical” unit within a large office?

My intuition tells me that to be a high performing team you need to be physically separated from what you call “medium intensity” businesses, although no doubt there are many factors at work, including the ability of the heirarchy to decentralise its operations and allow autonomous operations to flourish.

posted on July 18, 2006

David (Maister) said:

You’ve got it, Tim. To create a high-achieving operation there does (a) need to be a sense of being “self-contained” and in charge of their own destiny and (b) geographic separation helps.

Most business researchers and authors would report that in effective organizations, there’s a limit to the size of a group that people can feel a bonding or identity with. Some argue that it’s based on the numbers established in the Roman Army – the cohort, the legion, etc. (My history isn’t good enough to rememeber the details.) My recolection is that 25 and 100 are important cut-points, at which you form separate sub-groups.

However, what I’m really struggling to say is that while geographic separation helps, it’s not the only way of building common group identity with common group intensity.

Think of a hospital with different wards: the cardiac care team will have one subculture, while the accident and emergency team will have another, and the geriatric team a third. What matters is that each team shares operating beliefs (pun?) and is internally cohesive, even if they are in one organization and in the same building.

posted on July 19, 2006

Dennis Howlett said:

How I wish I’d understood all this in 1993 when I split from my firm. In reality – we all behaved like a-holes but the split was for the best for everyone. We all went on to prosper in our own ways.

posted on July 19, 2006

Fred Wiersma said:

Ricardo Semler, CEO of the Brazilian company Semco, wrote 2 books on his company. He describes some pretty interesting ideas which were implemented, such as employees who choose their own manager, their own work, their own career, and, in the theme of this post, their own work-life balance. I’m very curious how this works in real life!

posted on July 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Fred, thanks for the reference. I did not know this work and see that Amazon refers to his first book as the “all-time best-selling nonfiction book in Brazil’s history.” I can’t wait to get my copy!

posted on July 22, 2006

Jennifer said:

In a narrow way, I think I agree with you that everyone in a firm must have the same “intensity”, but I’m not sure that I would equate “intensity” with “willingness to work long hours until you drop”.

In my old firm, the number of hours you worked had very little correlation with your focus on client service; in fact one of our better associates was someone working three days a week who managed her clients’ and co-workers’ deadlines superbly so that they barely noticed. In contrast, the partner she worked for, while full time, had to be actively managed to make sure he actually responded to clients’ questions.

I agree with one of your other commenters; if I add intensity (defined by willingness to work long hours) to the characteristics needed for my employees, than I’m going to find it close to impossible to recruit in my market. People in my profession get paid well enough (and have enough sense!) that to get good people with all the other right client serving attributes, I have to compromise on working hours.

posted on July 22, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Jennifer, you’re right that many people in your business (and in others) translate “shared intensity” to mean work long hours until you drop. I don’t and I don’t believe in it and I certainly don’t live that way personally.

I also concur wholeheartedly, that someone with higher qulaity standards who works fewer hours is worth much more than someone with lesser quality and higher hours (or higher status.)

I’m not trying to enshrine hours or workload, and I don’t think you are trying to ignore it. Neither of us is making simple-minded arguments.

Like you (if your blog decription is still accurate,) I’m a social liberal but economic conservative.

For me that translates into being very tolerant at the social and personal level and celebrating diverse social choices – leave the other person alone to live their life according to THEIR sense of values.

But as an economic conservative (and pragmatic business observer) my original query remains: what’s the PRACTICAL reality of forming an organization which offers a wide choice on this stuff?

I have, in my own tiny operation, found it possible to do exactly what you say: work around someone who wanted to work fewer hours. I can see dealing with one or two special cases. I’m NOT AWARE of larger firms that have been able (sucessfully) to extend that choice to everyone.

Do you know of any? I’d loved to be proven wrong in the facts. MAybe an organization can pull it off, and you and I can reconcile our economics with our social tolerance. But can we?

posted on July 22, 2006

Jennifer said:

Thanks for your comment on my blog!

I can’t say I know of a major professional services organisation managing to pull off serious working hour differences. But the thing that I’m struggling with is recruitment compromises. I find it really hard to recruit in my market (my part of the actuarial profession has lost its glamour compared to other parts), and I’m toying with whether compromising on working hours (not necessarily intensity while in the office, or while servicing clients from elsewhere) is better than compromising on other characteristics (e.g. client focus, relationship building, technical excellence).

Maybe what I need to think about is building a group with shared, reduced intensity (albeit variable days), but I’d like to have room for the occasional, high quality, high working hours person.

In my case, it’s probably not exactly the same as building professional services organisations, as I’m now running an actuarial team inside a corporate, but I’m trying to take the best out of professional services in improving our customer service to the rest of the business.

I’m someone who thinks that business is collectively wasting a lot of talent by not making room for part-time workers, but I haven’t made it work really well in my own organisation,

so I’m really pleased to see this discussion here.

posted on July 23, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

I have been speaking with friends about this, and reading some of the posts, and without wanting to seem like I am splitting hairs, I think it would be worth defining the term “intensity” in relation to work/life balance.

A lot of people seem to immediately jump to the conclusion that high work intensity correlates with full time work, and that part time work automatically means low intensity work.

My wife works 4 days per week, which we consider a work/life balance arrangement. Yet this doesn’t mean that she works exactly 32 hours per week, refusing to work outside of the hours between 9 am and 5 pm that are in her employment contract. If necessary, she will do work at night (once the kids are in bed), at home on the weekend and take work related calls and e-mails on her day off.

I think her work is high-intensity, but the fact that she is nominally working only 4 days a week means that she might only do a maximum of 40 hours in the week instead of somebody doing 50 or 60 hours due to a “full time” work arrangement.

The other observation is that there are plenty of people that operate at half throttle for 60 hours per week, and many others that operate on full throttle for 45 hours per week. Which ones are the high intensity individuals – the ones that are in the office until 9 o’clock in the evening, or those that are highly productive in the time they are in the office? (Clearly there are others that work at full throttle until 9 pm as well).

What I am trying to say is I think work intensity is an attitude rather than a time commitment. I can’t see why one can’t be passionate and intense about their work while working in a part time capacity. There are practical limits to this (it’s hard to make a 1-day per week arrangement work for most professional roles), but time in the office isn’t everything.

posted on July 23, 2006

d said:

We do seem, in this discussion, to be hung up on saying again and again that work needs to be judged by more than just hours worked in the office. Granted. But is anyone in THIS discussion suggesting otherwise? I’m certainly not.

Tim, you’re right that it’s all about attitude. If you were a large-ish firm, how would you ‘operationalize’ that? Would you agree that everyone needs to haved a shared ‘attitude’, and if so, how would you judge it?

posted on July 23, 2006

Justin Patten said:


It might not very well not be possible for a business organizations to offer, in one firm, a wide variety of personal choices on work intensity but could there not be another issue beyond work-life balance which is even more important ?

As you indicate, Denise’s post deals primarily with work life balance issues but she does also refer to the “current attitude of law firms in general toward blogging and its ilk.”

Is there not something wrong with the attitude that many law firms have towards technology and staff in general which is different to the ways that other professions deal with their staff?

You wrote eloquently on the issue of poor lawyer management in this post


I agree with your sentiments when you write:

“The ways of thinking and behaving that help lawyers excel in their profession may be the very things that limit what they can achieve as firms…..Lawyers are professional skeptics: They are selected, trained, and hired to be pessimistic and to spot flaws. To protect their clients, they place the worst possible construction on the outcome of any idea or proposal, and on the motives, intentions, and likely behaviours of those they are dealing with. As Tony Sacker, my kind and gentle brother-in-law and a solicitor in the United Kingdom, says: “I am paid to have a nasty, suspicious mind.”


“Recently, I was advising a firm on its compensation system. They didn’t like my recommendations. Finally, one of the partners said, “David, all your recommendations are based on the assumption that we trust each other and trust our executive or compensation committees. We don’t. Give us a system that doesn’t require us to trust each other!”

I wonder whether Ms Howell would have been fired if she had worked in a non law firm.

She very well have not liked the work-life balance but I think she would have had more support and perhaps, worked in a more trusting environment.

I appreciate that this post is making quite a lot of generalisations about the legal profession! Also, we do not know the circumstances of her being fired.

Best wishes,

Justin Patten

posted on July 24, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Justin, thanks for joining in on this one.

As you suggest, none of us can really comment on the specifics of Denise’s situation, so it’s only appropriate that we discuss some general topics. I don’t think you (or I) need to apologize for generalizations if they are sincerely offered as hypotheses.

Picking up your topic, I would observe that the issue is not just that manyl aw firms are anti-blogging, but that so many are completely illiterate and uninformed about what the internet is.

One of my (eminent) law-firm clients recently asked me to review their external communiications strategy, developed by their in-house PR group. There was not a single reference to the net in it – it focused entirely on traditional media relations.

Make of that what you will!

posted on July 24, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

David (or is it “d”?),

I think my response to your (rather leading) question, is yes – ideally everyone needs to have a shared attitude.

As to how you judge this, I suppose it depends on whether you are talking about judging retrospectively (are employees exhibiting the attitudes that we require?) or preemptively (is this potential employee going to exhibit the right attitudes at work?)

I don’t know the answer to either question, but I would speculate that there are probably some psychometric tests that may provide some insight into the characteristics of people that predict or measure the relevant aspects of their attitude to work and related things. Other than that, I think our intuition is generally underrated, and finally, in the case of an existing employee, I would consider feedback from other employes (e.g. 360 degree surveys).

It’s interesting to observe some of the comments from Jennifer (and others). She states that she is considering a compromise on attitude to secure employees with other skills. I would suggest that attitude is the number one characteristic. It is easy to show somebody with a great attitude how to achieve technical excellence, but much harder to execute the converse.

posted on July 24, 2006

David Giacalone said:

My experience in the prosecuting arm of a government agency (where there was no profit motive, but there was the opportunity to accelerate one’s promotions and rate of salary increases with heroic performance) suggests that fulltime staff—who are subjected to long hours and deadline crunches—do indeed resent part-timers, whose days and workweeks have prescribed limits.

I saw this often, from numerous perspectives. Once, when a managing attorney announced that I would be joining his unit, but would—due to health problems—initially work limited hours (45 to 50 a week), there was an instant revolt by the rest of the staffers. They said they would only accept such a limitation if my assignments were basically limited to paralegal work (sorting through boxes of submitted documents).

It has always been my belief that the price of a top-notch, cutting-edge, exciting law practice is the acceptance of frequent (and maybe even constant) periods of long, open-ended workweeks.

posted on July 27, 2006