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How CEOs balance work and life

Achieving work-life balance is more difficult than ever in a day and age in which technology means you can be constantly reached – emails are only one click away. How do 10 CEOs achieve this in practice?

“When you are faced with big and difficult life experiences, you must take a deep breath and realise that business experiences are seldom the end of the world. This also allows you to step back and make better decisions”

 - Mitch Garber, CEO Caesars Acquisition Company

In April 2016 in France there was talk of a '6pm email ban' where employees were expected to turn off all work communications between 6pm and 9am the following morning. Granted, they didn’t follow this through, however it highlights the common need to be able to "shut your front door” on work when you get home after a long day.

In reality, this is idealistic. All sorts of people work all sorts of hours and arguably, if you want to work 24/7, you should be able to without being restricted. CEOs, who notoriously work incessantly through high pressure situations, need to actively put things in place to make sure they reach some sort of work-life balance, and don’t arrive at their deathbed wishing they’d done things differently.

We interviewed many top CEOs, asking them what they do to maintain this balance and came up with 10 top tips. You can read the full interviews in our book, The Secrets of CEOs.

1. You’re ultimately responsible

“I’m firmly of the view that it’s possible to have a work-life balance but you need to draw some very clear lines…I have a 'cordon sanitaire' between work and home. I don’t need my wife to make my business decisions” 

- Steve Crawshaw, former CEO, Bradford & Bingley bank

“The train seems to be going faster and faster, and every now and then you need to apply the brakes so that it does not become a runaway train." Tony Davis, former CEO Tiger Airways

Even when there is no abnormal event, the fact is that when you’re looking after a whole company – perhaps hundreds/thousands of people – there’s always something that might go wrong or a project that could be improved. Modern technology, far from being a useful tool, can seem to create a treadmill of urgent priorities with no end in sight.

Paul Walker, CEO of Sage, says that you can in fact run a wildly successful company and be in control of other aspects of your life: "It is possible to organise life in such a way that you can balance private life and business. If you work hard and have the right people around you, you can make it work. If you delegate, put in controls, you can have a good home life."

At the end of the day, as a leader, you’re ultimately responsible for your own life – not the company, not the employees, not the shareholders, you! If you don’t take responsibility, it’s your fault.

2. Make time for you as well as the business

“It is totally possible to have a balance and in fact it’s essential…It’s totally easy to become stale when you don’t have time to sit with family and friends. Treadmills do not make for good leaders and managers; stressed people do not get the best results…What’s work-life balance about? It’s about managing your time…You need to ask yourself: ‘What am I doing two weeks from today'?"

- Sir John Parker, chairman Anglo American 

You are paid to be smart, not tired, so keeping mentally fresh and alert is part of your job.

3. Create protected time every week

“One shouldn’t be too responsive. I’ve taken to walking to the train from home. It takes 35 minutes, but gives me time when I’m not on the Blackberry and I can think, really think. You mustn’t let technology control you"

- Harriet Green, former CEO Thomas Cook Group

Richard Baker at Alliance Boots similarly put aside a “thinking day” each week, to reflect on events and gain perspective.

Yu Minhong, from New Oriental group, divides his time into three equal parts. "One third is family time (time with my wife, my kids and on my own). You need personal time to cool down or you won’t have time to reflect on philosophical matters. The second third is spent in our field offices around China. The final third’s at head office”.

4. Know what can refresh you daily

“The antidote to exhaustion is not rest but doing something that makes your heart sing"

 - Alan Watkins, founder Complete Coherence

CEOs told us that there are three must dos that most miss.

  1. The intensity of the effort made during a big push has to be matched by the intensity of the effort made after that push; effective recuperation is vital
  2. CEOs mustn’t miss out on significant personal moments i.e. births, deaths, critical childhood successes – business has got to wait
  3. However tense it gets, you have to demonstrate to others that it’s not your life. You need to show that you still keep time for the family – keep the family together, check in on them

“I go to the gym and play tennis frequently…I’m also a fixer. One of the kids kicked in the swimming pool light over the weekend. I pulled the part out, stripped it down, found the faulty part…and I’ll spend 20 minutes installing the replacement tonight. It matters to me that I can still do ordinary things – that’s important. " Keith Butler-Wheelhouse, former CEO Smiths Group

5. Set simple rules that impose structure on your life

“Twenty years ago, I set two very simple rules for myself: I do not take or make calls in the evening and I take my vacation. These rules clear time to think and be with my family, and they are all I need. I advise everyone to come up with rules that work for them and apply them carefully"

-  Cris Conde, former CEO Sungard Computer Services

Have bright-line rules. The old rules of work were: spend 80% of your time managing stuff (emails/meetings etc), 30% of your time doing the work you should’ve done whilst you were in the meetings, and the extra 10% of your time was a sacrifice you made to your family and home life.

The new rules of work: spend 70% of your time mentoring, 20% of your time doing your own work and 10% extra time for your family and home life.

6. Be as serious about time 'off' as time 'on'

The most important thing is my family and friends: I take every holiday I’m entitled to"

 - Richard Baker, former CEO Boots

How many of us are guilty of being chained to the phone/emails by the holiday pool? A critical piece of advice from CEOs is to make sure you do take time to let your internal spring uncoil completely.

Brad Mills, CEO Mandalay Resources, is even more extreme and has developed a technique of complete isolation. “As for me, I go for two weeks each year hardcore fishing…I leave my wife and kids and don’t take anyone with me. You need to recharge your spirituality and you cannot do that easily in an urban environment or working situation. When you are sitting in a stream, and your cellphone doesn’t work, and there’s absolutely no way that anyone can contact you, your mind roams around for the first few days. Then you can get on with it. Fishing is meditation for me."

7. Know your source

Philip Green marries the physical, the spiritual, and business in how he seeks satisfaction, which boils down to the “5 Fs – Faith, Family, Fitness, Fun and the Firm where I work. My Christian faith is at the core of who I am and the first three are the bedrock for my own performance and allow me to be at my best in my role”.

He is one of a small but increasing group of CEOs who are explicit about how their faith underpins their leadership. There is also a growing number of CEOs who draw on spiritual values in leading their businesses – especially in the emerging markets.

8. Building an active support network

As Tim Cook, CEO Apple, commented, "(The CEO job), it's sort of a lonely job. The adage that it's lonely — the CEO job is lonely — is accurate in a lot of ways. I'm not looking for any sympathy. You have to recognise that you have blind spots."

To avoid this loneliness and achieve some sort of work-life balance you’ve got to build the right support networks around you. More than half the CEOs we spoken to say so. And most of the rest admit that they’d be lonely if they hadn’t taken deliberate action to build the support networks they need. Many CEOs draw on a tailored support network in their professional and personal lives.

CEOs also need to be able to get a perspective on themselves, their colleagues, and the performance of the fellowship as a whole. They draw on three principle elements: their chairperson, external coaches, and their family and friends. Finding the right blend of support – chairmen, coaches, mentors, family and friends – depends on your preferences and needs. Top CEOs were insistent that building and maintaining the right support network is essential and takes careful thought and the investment of quality time.

9. A coach for gaining perspective

“It’s extraordinary to think you can be excellent at something without a coach. The notion that Roger Federer would not have several coaches is ridiculous…As a CEO, the idea you can do it on your own is extraordinarily arrogant"

 - Richard Baker, former CEO Alliance Boots

About 40% of FTSE100 CEOs have used coaches and an even higher proportion advise their top teams to have one. You need to get a CEO coach who is either a former CEO, or really has experience in coaching top CEOs; a confidant who can give you great coaching on business, personal leadership and setting your life up so you can ‘enjoy’ while still being CEO.

10. Family and friends to keep you grounded

My support network is my wife, because she’s in charge of all the things that are really, really important. I don’t lie in bed worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow. My business is on my mind all day, but the next business day does not arrive until 5am, the next day"

 - Terry Duddy, former CEO Home Retail Group

There has to be more to life than your job. Having a happy family is good in itself. However, if you need a cold business reason to justify creating room for a family life, the truth is that spending time with family can get you back to the business refreshed and refocused. You also need to show your colleagues that you have more to your life than your work, otherwise you look like a deal-junkie or a megalomaniac!

You have to think too, you’ve got to nurture your family relationships for another reason: if your long term happiness becomes entirely bound up in your job, you’ll find it very hard to recover at the end of your career.

Surely you want to have a satisfying personal and family life, and achieve work-life balance? CEOs and their closest advisers tell us that there are three things you need to do to achieve just that:

  1. Take responsibility for your own life - Don’t let the business drive you
  2. Build an active support network
  3. Ensure you’re always at your best

The old way of being a CEO was to be lonely at the top, but the new way of being a CEO is to surround yourself with "all stars" who really care about you and your company.

Don’t forget, being a CEO is now a team sport.

Steve Tappin is CEO of Xinfu and a coach to many of the leading CEOs in the world

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