Mary’s Story – A non conventional approach to finding work and life balance

 A wonderful insight provided by guest blogger and executive coach Rob.

Ever overheard top executives remark, enviously or sarcastically, that everyone in the office has lots of time to socialise and spend time with family except them? Blame is usually attributed to expansive responsibilities.

Responsibilities which tend to distance them from spontaneous and more extensive family and social opportunities available to other employees. Our top people sometimes operate remotely from their families. Often the family is cushioned in relative but distant luxury. This was certainly the case for Mary, head of a large UK children’s charity. I worked with Mary during the summer of last year as her coach. Her situation was so intense and the stress so immense that she was on the brink of resigning from her city based job. She had plans to re-join her family in the country. I was intrigued by what prevented her from applying this drastic remedy. After some deep reflection, she realised that her values, especially those connected with improving children’s lives, were the source of her perseverance. But her affection for her family was equally if not even more potent.

So did Mary survive?

Well she thrived and still continues to lead a very successful organisation.

The first glimmer of hope emerged when I sketched out this very simple model. Incidentally, my borrowed motto is: ‘All models are false, but some are useful!’

top of the pyramid

As Mary explored the implications of the sketch she realised that impulse and spontaneity were no longer a feature of her family and social agenda. Instead, her infrequent leisure time was planned and formally diarized. She also made the connection that work itself could possibly provide an antidote.

Exploring Recreational Opportunities

This led her to explore and identify the potential for more recreational and relaxed activities offered by work itself. First, she spoke about a monthly business lunch with a Chief Executive of another charity, Susan. Mary and Susan met to discuss strategy for a number of partnership projects involving both organisations. On further reflection, Mary realised that the lunches also provided space for informal and mutual coaching. Neither of them had realised the value or full potential of confiding in each other. This was something Mary explored and developed further with Susan.

 They still have their regular lunches, but they also invited a number of other top executives to attend six monthly forums. The agenda is far from formal. Instead, the emphasis is on learning from each other, gleaning from each other’s practical insights and experiences.

Walking through the local park to and from work also provided Mary with some brief solace. This insight subsequently led her to conduct some short al fresco meetings in the greenery and sunshine! Mary was careful only to make these outdoor sojourns in appropriate circumstances. Initially, her people were surprised, thinking this a little eccentric.

Mary continues with her open air meetings and the practice has been adopted by other members of her senior team.

What other things did Mary do to readdress the balance?

One real passion denied for a number of years was her love of the theatre. She knew that her organisation had set up a programme of theatre workshops for children. She became more closely involved, attending a number of workshops. It soon emerged that the children wanted to attend big theatre productions. Mary got her team to look at possibilities and some months later, in partnership with two other charities, block reservations were arranged for 500 children to attend a number of ‘big shows’. Mary also went along to a number of these. At first she struggled with her conscience, suspecting a selfish motivation on her part. Soon afterwards it became apparent that the children genuinely wanted to meet representatives from all three charities. The knock-on benefit for Mary was that she was able to meet and talk with the ultimate beneficiaries of her organisation’s efforts.

This re-connection was like a breath of fresh air for Mary.

Work also offered a variety of other recreational opportunities – award dinners, sporting occasions, prominent speakers, more theatre events and so on. Mary spotted the legitimate opportunity to invite members of her family to these events, extending their time together.

So what’s the point in Mary’s story?

Well, adopting a conventional approach to work-life balance just wouldn’t work. Imagine asking Mary to complete a time log. You’d probably feel it connect with the back of your head on the way out of her office. Similarly, notions of planning, delegating, saying ‘No’, simplifying life etc would receive a hostile reception. Instead, do something that’s not often explored around the issue of work-life balance – discuss the importance of the individual’s value system. Mary’s values for deprived children and those for her family created real tension. When someone in her family was in trouble or sick she would always drop everything and run home. Guess what – she felt guilty about deserting her work!

Mary realised that she polarised her values to the extent that she couldn’t fit everything in. Now she knows that she can’t have everything and that’s perfectly acceptable. Instead, she now reviews and refines her priorities for work and family to achieve more of a feeling of being balanced

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