Real Leaders Have Real Lives

For years I’ve been working on helping companies to see how work, home, community, and self (mind, body, and spirit) can be mutually reinforcing; this is the “four-way wins” approach I describe inTotal Leadership. I often encounter skepticism, but some companies get it. My experience with Target should bolster anyone’s case that you can be a committed A-player executive, a good parent, an attentive spouse, a healthy person with time for hobbies — yes, hobbies! — and a community life.

In this post I describe a couple of case studies from Target executives who have been experimenting with creative ways to integrate the different parts of their lives — and how they’re teaching others to do the same.

David is a VP who is accountable for a multi-billion dollar P & L business. (All names have been changed and specific titles disguised.) He has structured several experiments to simultaneously improve his performance at work and his life at home. Now that he’s done a number of them, he says he’s learned that by framing these changes as experiments he can overcome what at first seems daunting. The first, he told me, “had a huge impact for me and probably an even more significant impact for my wife and family.”

“My initial challenge was this: I spend most of my waking hours at work and I’ve always shut down from work at home. But this was hurting my relationship with my wife because we didn’t talk about what was happening with me at work. We talked about the kids and that was what we had in common. The work problem was that I never had enough time to prepare for all my meetings. So the experiment was to look at tomorrow’s calendar and pick the biggest meeting for which I needed to prep. On the drive home I’d think about what I should do at that meeting and when I got home I’d talk to my wife about it.”

“This gave us something new to talk about, it gave her a much better understanding of what I do, it engaged her, and it enhanced our relationship because we were having richer conversations. Simultaneously, I was able to prepare and do a dry-run for my meeting. What was cool about it was getting an outside person’s perspective. My wife made some good suggestions! And I’ve had better meetings as a result. But the big takeaway was to question the way I was doing things.”

David said that the results of his experiments “have been astounding. I’m more productive and my wife is thrilled. Our company is also benefiting because of the effects on my team. I told my team that I was trying a change in my schedule and have been transparent about when they could expect to find me in the office. I was showing my team that there was a way that you could prioritize well-being holistically. This is leading them to think about some of the same things for themselves. I’m helping my team to be more engaged and to think more about their well-being, too. I’m developing better team leaders around me.”

“For example, because of the change I made, I found out that one of my direct reports was having a medical problem that was worsened by his work schedule, and we have now changed his schedule. One of my other team members told me that he feels more empowered to make choices to spend time with his family during the day. He feels more empowered — that it’s OK — and he doesn’t feel guilty about it. The example I was setting before was work first, work first, work first.”

“I might be here for slightly fewer hours now, but I’m making faster and better decisions. And, at home, my wife is now more understanding of those choices I sometimes have to make when work does have to come first. In the long-term, for Target this means that I’m a more engaged leader without an unmanageable tension between my wife and my work.”

Alan is a VP located on the West coast. He’s been in that region for 15 years and has three children, ages three, five, and seven. His wife is a finance director at another company.

“The first thing about Total Leadership that really had an impact for me was the stakeholder mapping,” he told me. In this exercise, you identify the people who are most important to you in your work, home, self, and community spheres. This is part of seeing your life not as just a random unfolding of events, but as a system you can change. “This was something that I had done intuitively on my own but I wasn’t maximizing it…. It was important to… connect with those people, find common ground, and learn what their expectations are.”

“With work I’m very intentional and so things happen, because it’s work. But if I’m truly accountable I would be taking the same approach in the other domains of life that I am taking at work to accomplish the things that matter. That was an ‘Aha!’ moment.”

“That’s why my experiment centered on time with my family; with my sister and her kids and arranging time together for all of us. I used some of the things that I do at work and applied them in this other realm. My sister owns a business and my brother-in-law has a property development job, so they have demanding schedules. Our kids are on different Spring breaks. We have a vision now (we didn’t until my experiment) of two week-long vacations per year together with the kids doing something — skiing or going to the beach — and then a couple of long weekends. Coordinating all that is difficult and so it just really wasn’t happening.”

“I was lamenting this, wondering how I might effect a change. It dawned on me that if this was work I would have all kinds of tactics. So I drafted an email to the key players (my brother-in-law, sister, wife, mom, and a couple of others) and I laid out a plan for a dinner, just the adults, to talk about what we wanted to achieve each year. We were able to come up with two week-long vacations, but planned well in advance, and then two long weekends. We set up some checkpoints and conference calls — the last thing you’d think of with family. We went away together the last two weeks of the year, and we bought those tickets in June. This was a success and an example that I’ve learned I could use in general: If a process works in one part of my life, then maybe I can apply it in other parts of my life.”

“If we’ve got leaders in the company who are able to apply skills from work to other parts of their lives and share these stories with their teams, then this can help us make our people happier and strengthen our retention of talent. We invest time and money every year training people. So when you strengthen retention and reduce that expense, then you have savings but you also have more experienced people who are more productive.

“I’ve come to realize that one of my challenges is taking time off, and ensuring that I am effective enough to do that and not miss a beat. This year I’m looking at six weeks of vacation. When I think back a few years I just wouldn’t have even considered that; this year I intend to take it all. If I only took three weeks, I would have people on my team see that as a signal. So I’m teaching others by example. Again, the stakeholder mapping and integrating the four domains in a way that works for me is important, and I also teach my team how to do that for themselves, in part so they can be effective when I’m not here. My goal is for them to be effective all the time. The more that I can lead that way, the more it means that if I’m gone for a week or two then the impact is minimal.”

Target is working on “starting a movement — not just a program” says one of the members of the organizational effectiveness team. But changing those norms isn’t easy. Max, the VP who now runs the largest P & L business at Target, admitted that he “saw a couple of eyebrows raised” when he told his team, on his first day in his new position, that he comes in late two mornings a week so that he can “go to the gym and have breakfast with my kids.”

But when senior executives are modeling healthier behavior, it lets a grassroots movement take hold. For instance, David’s boss checks in on his experiments regularly. “She’s given me tips and shared her experience on what she’s learned,” he says. “I talk to her about it to hold myself accountable. She’s reminded me that each new job is bigger and more demanding so it will be critical to continue to get better and better about managing my time and calendar as I develop throughout my career.”

When steps like these are taken to improve performance and reduce stress, and employees see that this is a legitimate and fully authorized activity, then an increasing number of them are going to generate experiments of their own. Slowly, the culture changes as new models for what’s expected emerge, and as people at all levels demonstrate that it makes good business sense to take care of all the things that matter in your life.

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