Archive for July, 2009

Jack Welch is Right “There’s No Balance,” But His Reasoning Needs Updating

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As reported in The Wall Street Journal‘s The Juggle blog, Jack Welch was quoted at a recent SHRM conference as saying “There is no such thing as balance.”  While his comments set off a firestorm of response, fundamentally, I believe he is correct–there is no balance.   However, his explanation of “why” needs updating.

He’s right that we need to stop talking about “balance.”  The sooner we discontinue thinking that there’s a right answer or “balance,” the quicker we will see that every one of us has a different work+life fit at different times in our lives.  There isn’t one  way to make work and life fit together.  Only what works for us and the realities of our jobs.

But here’s where the “why” behind his argument needs to be updated:

Update #1: He, along with almost everyone else, is stuck in the land of  the “all or nothing / CEO or stay at home parent” which is not where most of us live: Unfortunately, Jack Welch and many of those responding to his comments online are still stuck in the all-or-nothing, all work-or-no work dichotomy. This  keeps us from seeing the many creative, flexible ways to manage our unique work+life fit that exist between the extreme all-work reality of a CEO like Jack Welch, or the no-work reality of a parent who chooses to leave the workforce for an extended period of time to care for their children.  That doesn’t mean work-primary CEOs or life-primary stay-at-home parents are wrong.  Their work+life fit choices work for them–but most of us live somewhere in the middle along that continuum.

Image how different this story would be if Jack Welch had responded to the question, “Look, I chose to become the CEO of GE therefore I had to give 100% of my time and attention to work.  That was my choice; however, that isn’t the only way of managing work and life if your goal isn’t to become the CEO of a multi-national company.”

Update #2: It isn’t just about moms and women. To be fair, Jack Welch was being interviewed at the SHRM conference by Claire Shipman who just wrote a book Womenomics, therefore, chances are the conversation was about women which is why he answered it in that context.  However, the fact of the matter is we need to stop talking about work+life issues as women’s issues.  In today’s economy, we all–men and women–need to strategically manage our individual work+life fit choices day-to-day and at major life and career transitions such as partnering, parenthood, elder care, and retirement.

Update #3:  It’s also about flexibly redefining success. Just as there’s no one right way to combine work and life, there is no longer one rigid, linear definition of success.  Welch did reference the fact that if you take a career break “you may be passed over for a promotion,” and “that doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice career.”  What he’s saying is there are many different ways to define success personally and professionally, at different times in our lives.  Yes, you may choose to pull into the slower lane from the fast lane when passed over for a promotion but that doesn’t mean later when your circumstances change you won’t raise your hand and pull back into the fast lane (as you define it).  Remember, Welch was a CEO; therefore, anything less than that would probably be a “nice” career to him, but a very successful career to everyone else.

Bottom line,  it’s work+life fit, not balance.  There is no right answer.  It’s not all-or-nothing, either be a  CEO or a stay at home parent.  There are countless flexible, work+life fit options in between which is where most of us live.  And that’s where we need to focus our discussion and problem-solving.  It’s not just women, it is all of us at all stages of our lives.  The sooner all of us, including Jack Welch, realize this, the faster we will begin to have a productive, up to date dialogue that moves us forward.

Thanks, Jack Welch, for keeping this important “there is no balance” debate on the radar screen.  What do you think?

(Update: Since writing this post, I’ve learned that Jack Welch is recovering from a very serious spinal infection.  My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family for a full recovery.)

White House May Not Be “Family Friendly,” But It Is Work+Life Fit Aware

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You could read the recent New York Times article,“’Family Friendly’ White House Is Less So for Aides,” one of two ways.  As a commentary on the disconnect between what the Obamas say about managing work and life in the White House and what is actually happening.  Or, and perhaps more accurately, as an innovative case study on the possibilities and limits of flexibly managing your work+life fit in a high-pressure organization.  Here’s what I think the article has to tell all of us:

Our language needs to catch up with our present-day work+life reality if we are to avoid misunderstandings. Part of the problem with the Obama Administration’s efforts is the language they are using.  “Family friendly,” and “balance” are outdated terms that aren’t used by most work life experts because we’ve learned that they don’t accurately describe reality.  Think about it, what exactly does “family-friendly” mean?  Does it mean mothers, or all parents?  Does it include people with eldercare responsibilities?  And what about people who consider their pets to be members of their family?  And what exactly does “friendly” look like?  What looks friendly to me might look very unfriendly to you.

It is much clearer to talk about a flexible work environment that allows people to manage their work and life in a way that meets their needs as well as the needs of the business.  Notice I didn’t say “balance.”  There is no balance, especially not in a global, 24/7 organization like the White House that’s dealing with a major recession and two wars.   So instead of saying the White House is “family-friendly,” President and Mrs. Obama could say, “we support giving people the flexibility they need to manage their important jobs with their responsibilities at home in the context of what it means to work in the White House.”

A leader can set the tone, but he or she can’t give us the answer because our realities are completely different. Kudos to the Obamas for setting the cultural tone related to work+life issues.  They freely talk about how they try to manage their work+life fit, which makes it okay for us all to discuss.  They encourage the use of laptops to support flexibility (only for parents so far, however, I would advise expanding to everyone as soon as possible), and they walk the talk in a way that works for them.  Unlike other aides and staff members, President Obama works from home when he is in the country which does allow him greater, spontaneous access to his family.

While others are still trying to figure out their fit, they report a number of “small wins” such as accompanying a daughter on a field trip, or seeing soccer games.  If I could give them all expert advice, it would be to keep focusing on those small, flexible, day-to-day victories.  They make a huge difference.

Some are making adjustments to accommodate realities of their high-powered jobs that can’t be changed.  In-laws and spouses are taking on more.  Additional support is being hired.  Babysitters are bringing babies to work for a visit.  It might not sound appealing to everyone, but all that matters is it works for them.

Admittedly, there are those that still have a way to go in terms of finding their White House work+life fit.  Nighttime school visits and sightseeing aren’t going to work long-term.  But, it’s only been seven months, so testing the waters is to be expected; however…

This is a big job with long hours and sometimes it isn’t going to work for everyone. As the article noted, these are “prestigious posts that offer a chance to make an impact and unparalleled access to the President at time of recession and war.”   And the work is never, ever going to be done.

These are smart people.  They knew what they were getting into. The United States Government is a global, always on, always changing entity that’s currently guiding a country under great stress. Not surprisingly, a couple of staff members have already decided that it wasn’t going to work and have resigned.  Maybe they have a child or parent with an unexpected special need.  Maybe their partner got a new job.  Or, maybe it just wasn’t what they wanted after all.  They tried and realized it wasn’t for them, which shouldn’t be an indictment of the entire effort.

While it might not be everyone’s definition of “family-friendly,” there’s no doubt that this White House is much more work+life fit aware and supportive than previous administrations.  Is it perfect?  No.  Will they need to keep innovating?  Of course.  A year ago, would we have seen so many male senior administration officials talking openly about their work+life fit challenges?  I don’t think so.  That’s progress to celebrate.

The Administration is trying to create a culture that gives everyone as much flexibility as possible to manage their fit.  But in the end, they all still work for the White House.  And for some, that’s a fit that’s just not going to work.

What do you think?  Do you feel the White House work-life efforts are hypocritical, or do you see them as helping us all make the flexible management of our individual work+life fit part of the day-to-day operating model?

Fast Company: American Revolution’s Pamphleteers, Today’s Bloggers and Twitterers

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The celebration of our country’s independence this past weekend made the harrowing Twitter and blog posts of the resistance movement in Iran even more poignant. As they continue to challenge the legitimacy of that country’s elections and crack the foundation of the theocratic regime, it’s important to remember the role of “social media” in our own painful, violent birth. Iran’s bloggers and Twitterers are the modern-day offspring of the American Revolution’s pamphleteers.

More than 230 years ago, ordinary citizens across the colonies printed and distributed the passionate words of “amateur” writers to shape public opinion and galvanize the independence movement virally. Like the Iranians, these colonial social media pioneers faced violent suppression from a powerful ruling class.  But their simple pamphlets proved to be even more powerful.  They offer hope not only to the courageous Iranians, but to anyone interested in harnessing the collective for change.

My grandmother first introduced me to the bravery of the American Revolution’s pamphleteers through stories about one of my ancestors, Samuel Loudon.  In addition to publishing the newspaper The New York Packet, he was part of the underground network that printed and distributed pro-independence pamphlets This included the a popular response to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for which, legend has it, he was tarred and feathered.

This description of pamphleteering from 1940 by Homer Calkin for The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, could be about the blogs of today, “From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century the pamphlet was the chief instrument to carry one’s ideas to the public…The pamphlet, forerunner to the newspaper, was well adapted to this use because it was small and cheap and could reach ‘a larger audience than the orator in the House of Commons.’”

These childhood tales of how Samuel Loudon’s pamphlets changed the world may have helped me recognize the potential of blogging in early 2006 when I started my Work+Life Fit blog, way before most people even knew what a blog was.  At the time, I was frustrated.  For more than a decade, I’d been part of a vibrant, dynamic field that helped organizations and individuals partner to flexibly and creatively manage work and life.  Yet the broader world had no idea the field existed much less how our work could help them. I wanted to change that.

Almost four years later, both my original blog as well as my expert blog for Fast Company have exceeded my expectations in terms of helping to rethink work, life and business. Without fail, after every post, at least one person contacts me to say, “That made a difference.”  Huge.  And a few of my long time work+life colleagues have started excellent blogs including Families and Work Institute’s blog, Kathie Lingle’s Blog at the Alliance for Work Life Progress, and the Sloan Work and Family Network.  Further expanding the community.

Now, Twitter.  It’s been six months since I joined Twitter (@caliyost), and I’m equally as impressed by its power to share information, create community and drive change.  Tweeting for the pamphleteers of the Revolution would have meant printing and distributing eight to ten short 140 character statements daily.  Impossible.  But that’s what’s different about Twitter—it’s quick. It’s fast. It’s real-time.  It doesn’t replace the thoughtful, longer form writing of a blog post.  Twitter augments it by allowing you to: (Click here for more)