The Entrepreneurial Balancing Act: Making the Best of a Good Thing
Many working parents who must answer to bosses and abide by organizational rules may think it is easier for entrepreneurs to juggle the sometimes conflicting demands of work and family life. Many fantasize about leaving their jobs to become entrepreneurs. In the early 1980s, when I was in that same position -- the juggling made worse because I had a chronically ill child -- I acted on those fantasies. I left my job at an educational-consulting firm, and, in 1984, I started Work/Family Directions Inc., aiming to help working parents like myself and the companies that employ them. In doing so, I found that being one's own boss actually does live up to its billing: It's a better way to balance home and office.
The reason is control. As an entrepreneur, you are in charge of your most precious resource -- your time. Free from time-sapping duties, such as answering to bosses and gingerly abiding by rules that don't fit your life, you can use that time instead for family and friends. In my own case, it enabled me to live my philosophy of not keeping the two spheres of my life separate. As an employee, I loathed making those early-morning calls to my boss to say I wouldn't be in, when my child, who has asthma, suffered another attack. As an entrepreneur, by contrast, I am able to intersperse client calls with those from my child, now a 19-year-old college freshman. Or I can leave work early for dinner with friends, with whom I've made it a point to keep in touch since college days.
I'm not saying that entrepreneurship is a panacea. I'm only saying that for me it is a better way. As an entrepreneur myself, and as someone who has now encountered work/family concerns from the employer's point of view, I believe there are steps that you, the entrepreneur, can take to make the best of a very good thing. What follows are those techniques that have worked for me.
Set a bottom line: Although you, as an entrepreneur, have more control over your life than you would ever have as an employee, you also could more easily fall into the trap of allowing the demands of work always to come at the expense of your family. Don't. At WFD, when my two children were young, I set a few rules that guided my use of time. First, when I was working in town, I would walk out of that office in time for dinner -- even if it meant finishing work for the next day later in the night. Second, I limited my travel. Basically, I tried hard not to be out of town more than two nights a month and saw most clients on day trips. Even though I wanted my Boston-based company to develop a national reputation, I initially did not build close personal relations with clients located beyond Chicago (with one exception). My bottom line was limiting travel that involved crossing more than one time zone or required two planes. Buttressed with a handful of other common-sense decisions -- such as living no more than two miles from my office -- these bottom-line rules became the foundation for my dually focused life.
Get help: Making a good life even better means coming to terms with the fact that you, the entrepreneur, who by definition is inclined to think you can do it all, must learn to delegate. In my case, I "gave away" the duties I didn't personally need to do, attending only to those that couldn't be handled by anyone else. On the home front, when I could afford it, I hired a housekeeper to clean and eventually even to cook. What required my personal attention, by contrast, was tending to my children's emotional needs: Whenever they needed to talk, no one but my husband or me could listen. On the job, as WFD expanded, I "gave away" the job of running the day-to-day operations. I hired a president who is far more management-oriented than I am, so that I could focus on promoting the company and setting its future direction.
Focus: For the entrepreneur caught up in the all-consuming details of building a company, the downside of my philosophy of not keeping work and family separate is that it is easier to lose focus. Don't let it happen to you. When you are on the job, be on the job. And when you are at home, be at home. Recognizing this potential conflict -- and it is as much a waste of time as reporting to bosses had been in your employee days -- is the first step toward getting a grip on it. You're reading to your toddler, for example, when you realize that if asked, you couldn't paraphrase the story. Or you're "listening" to your adolescent when suddenly a hand is waving in your face and a voice is saying, "Hel-l-o-o-o, is anyone home?" When that happens, bring yourself back to the here and now. Learn to live in the present to make the best of your very good life.
Level with clients: Whenever a conflict arises between my commitment to a client and my need as a parent to be there for a not-to-be-missed event, I don't hesitate to level with the client. While doing so can be risky, I believe what makes the difference is the way you level. I wouldn't advise ever saying to a client, "No, I can't do that." But what you could -- and should -- say is something like this: "It would be difficult to do this when you're asking me to, but perhaps we can work out a schedule that works for both of us." Leveling with clients hasn't enabled me to solve all conflicts: I can recall a birthday or two that I've missed. But it has permitted a situation that is as good as it's ever going to get: I can't recall a special event in my children's lives that neither my husband nor I didn't attend.
Making the best of a good life, in short, doesn't guarantee perfection. It only ensures that the myriad and often conflicting ties in your life -- to work, spouse, children, and friends -- will loosen and flow more easily, one segueing into another, rather than binding into a woefully unmanageable knot. So set your bottom line. Learn to delegate. Focus. Be honest. And pass the spirit on to your employees: It's the entrepreneur's critical advantage. With control, you can create a workplace that is flexible.
Fran Rodgers is founder and CEO of WFD Inc. (formerly Work/Family Directions Inc.), a Boston-based consulting firm that helps companies ignite employee commitment and gives assistance to employees reconciling the demands of work and family life.
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