A Balancing Act
If you're like me, you've got the family, you've got the business -- and you've got only so many hours in the day. What can you do to stop beating yourself up for ignoring one or the other?
Let's talk about personal relationships. You remember those, don't you? Emotional involvements with people like your husband or your wife, and those little monsters who talk back to you, your children?
I have a vivid recollection of the frustration and anger I felt toward my wife for years when she stopped trying to understand the trials and tribulations I was going through to make my publishing and trade-show business go -- no matter that some of the problems were self-induced. I also remember that whatever rationalizations I used, I felt tremendous guilt -- that somehow I wasn't being the father or husband I should have been. My relationship with my family had deteriorated into the dreaded 5:30-p.m.-when-are-you-coming-home-phone-call-with-the-kids-crying-in-the-background syndrome.
I had my wake-up call in 1987. One day my controller marched into my office, his excitement almost uncontainable. He laid a mountain of spreadsheets across my desk and told me that for the first six months of our fiscal year, we had lost $200,000.
"Look," he said, showing me another set of columns, "you're insolvent."
"Bankrupt," he said triumphantly. "Technically speaking, that is." He was thrilled. He had never done a monthly statement before that added up to insolvency. Compared it to seeing Halley's Comet.
Six mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting months later, I finally sold one of my magazines, the first I'd started, my baby. Even though I still had the company to run, immediately after the sale I collapsed into a major-league bout of self-pity.
As I sat in my office moaning, "Why me? Why not the other guy?" I realized the truth about myself: I had unwittingly spent seven years competing with my father. I was engaged in a contest that had meaning only to me, a contest that ultimately would have been unwinnable because it masked the real issue: I was still angry at my dad for dying of cancer when I was only 13. It was also a contest that produced few tangible results. A failed magazine. Considerable personal costs. A strained relationship with my wife. Irretrievably lost time with my children.
I must confess to you here that I'm not what you would describe as a heavy-duty spiritual person. Nor am I prone to personal revelations or epiphanies. Still, it's amazing what a little insight will get you. The picture of myself, business, and success suddenly became much clearer, beginning with my rediscovering just what business is and, equally important, isn't. Business is a calculated financial risk in which we do not have control over all the variables. It occurs in a marketplace that is oblivious to personal needs -- emotional, financial, or otherwise.
After I experienced my revelation, I began to change. I have to admit, it wasn't easy. At first I was very self-conscious. What would my employees say when I came through the door, face beet-red from tennis? Would they demand the right to leave work early for their sports? Much to my surprise, I discovered no one cared. Though I might have subconsciously seen us as some kind of equals -- as in "we're all in the same army" -- they had an inherent understanding of the key differences between us, including that owners can come and go as they please. My relationship with my wife improved, and my sense of attachment to my three children also deepened.
I could end the story here and prove my point, but the personal-makeover gods were not through with me. A year or so after the new me emerged, my wife became ill. For two years she was treated unsuccessfully. When her condition continued to deteriorate, she was finally hospitalized. The first time for 10 weeks, the second for seven months, the third and fourth for three and four months respectively. All told, she was in the hospital for almost a year and a half over a three-year period.
The responsibility of taking care of my three children, who were only seven, four, and two years old when my wife first became sick, fell clearly on my shoulders. I decided, early on in my wife's illness, that she and my children were my priority. As the illness with its attendant problems and complications ran its course, not only did I become more convinced that I had made the right decision, but I discovered a new depth of richness and satisfaction in my relationship with both my wife and my kids. There's nothing like having your family really needing you and your being able to come through for them.
I ran the business for five more years after my wife became ill, but from a new perspective. I became a subscriber to the theory of the counterirritant. That's when you replace one pain with another so the first pain doesn't seem as bad. Well, my wife's illness became my counterirritant to the company. No matter how bad things got with the business, I always had the immediate reminder that it really wasn't so bad compared with what else was happening. The business was the same; I just began looking at it through a new lens.
Something else happened along the way; I became a better businessperson. Since the time I could devote to the company was significantly reduced, I had no choice but to delegate, I mean really delegate. Honestly, I thought I had been a pretty good delegator. But the truth was that until then, I had been maybe an OK delegator at best. Once I was no longer at work on a daily basis, I really had to let go. I could not be the big net under everyone. Nor could I be a model for my managers to be a big net under their troops. Much to my surprise, I discovered that good employees not only loved flying without a net but thrived on their own sense of greater responsibility.
With distance from the business, I also had a different take on it -- where it was, where it was going, where it could be. Simply put, I was no longer seeing only the trees and could finally see the forest.
There was another benefit, one that I'm marginally proud of. I projected a certain vulnerability to people in my company. In their minds, I no longer came across as this omnipotent tough guy, but I began to be seen as actually human. When I told employees I was having a bad day, I learned that they appreciated my candor. I was starting to be seen not just as "the Employer" but also as a real person who had real problems just as they did. Implicit within that, I suppose, was that they in return expected me to be more sensitive to and understanding of their own worlds. Much to my surprise, I was.
My two key guys, my chief operating officer and my controller, both were dealing with illnesses in their families at the same time. Though it was never explicitly stated, I believe there was an understanding that we all had enough to deal with in our lives, and if we were going to run this company, we might as well enjoy it.
Enjoy it we did. My last five years in business were my best. It was good from a financial perspective but even more so in terms of enjoying my work.
Four years ago my wife and I moved from Boston to Chicago so we could be closer to her doctors and our families. Though I was able to manage the business long-distance, I discovered I had less and less of a desire to travel, especially if it meant being separated from my wife and kids. As I cut back more on travel -- both to the office in Boston and to stay in touch with the marketplace -- I knew I was potentially creating a recipe for disaster.
Though I wasn't specifically looking for a buyer, an offer came in that I couldn't refuse. As soon as I heard it I knew I was in business -- or, rather, out of business.
That was about two years ago. The longer I've gone without running a business, the better I've come to understand two things: One, if there is a pie out there called life, business is only one slice. Right now it's hard to give up the rest of the pie just to own another company. Two -- and this is even more clear to me -- business is tough. Inherent in owning or operating a business or organization is a set of responsibilities that is inescapable. So when people ask me if I have any new ideas for a business today, I say, "Yeah, I get at least one every day. When I do, I lie down until it goes away."* * *
In 1993 Todd Logan sold his publishing and trade-show business. This column is from his book in progress, Help! I'm Being Held Prisoner by My Own Business .