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Julia Hanigsberg is vice-president of administration and finance at Toronto’s Ryerson University. (Karim Romero)
Julia Hanigsberg is vice-president of administration and finance at Toronto’s Ryerson University. (Karim Romero)

LEADERSHIP LAB

There is no such thing as work-life balance Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Google is a wonder. Type “work-life balance” into the search box and in 0.31 seconds, 235 million results pop up. It is safe to say that this topic generates a lot of interest and opinion, not to mention research and controversy.

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Without a doubt, the intensity of the modern workplace is a factor in the frenzied search for the so-called work-life balance. You aren’t imagining it, work intensity has increased over the past 20 years. According to research by Linda Druxbury of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Management, technology, with its joys and perils, contributes to that intensity, as does a relentless drive toward efficiency which, in many cases, leaves everyone with more work to do and less time to do it.

I have a spouse, three teenage children and a demanding job leading nine divisions at Ryerson University. I am also committed to giving back to my community, so I make time to volunteer. Have I achieved work-life balance? Is it a myth to start with?

Here are some strategies that have worked for me in work and life.

1. Jettison the idea of balance

Balance is an invitation to failure. In my experience, not only is balance hard to achieve but it is also the least likely to satisfy anyone. Does your child with the 103-degree fever want you to be 50 per cent there? How about work, the week that you’re closing a $33-million deal? Fifty per cent won’t cut it there, either. Instead of balance, strive for the right fit. Determine what mix of work, family, play and giving back optimizes your talents and happiness, and set your own formula for success. Think more like the tower-of-blocks game Jenga than a scale; it may not be pretty, but it’s grounded in reality and more likely to work.

2. Know thyself

You can’t truly understand your optimal life mix without knowing yourself and identifying your priorities. This takes some introspection and honesty, as well as good communication with loved ones and colleagues. You wouldn’t run your business without strategic objectives and priorities, so there’s no reason to think you’d be any more successful running your life without them.

At work, I know I need a dynamic, engaging environment where I can always be learning. At the same time, I put my family and my health at the top of the list. That means I’m up at 5:15 a.m., while my kids are still in bed to get in a workout. It also means that I won’t miss a Friday night dinner with my family because something unexpected has come up at the office.

On the other hand, housekeeping and from-scratch cooking take a back seat at home. And yes, I do e-mail on the weekends (but I schedule what I write so it doesn’t arrive in people’s in-boxes until Monday – Boomerang is a good tool for Gmail users). You can’t do it all, all at once.

3. Be prepared for the curveball

You can plan and prepare as much as you like, but also be ready for the unexpected. When life throws you a curveball, don’t be afraid to swing for it.

For example, when I was on maternity leave with my twins, I got a call out of the blue offering me an exciting promotion upon my return to work. While my first instinct was to say “no way” (not with three kids under four years of age). But with some soul searching, good advice and a supportive spouse, I decided to take on the role having negotiated a 9-to-5 schedule with a great boss who trusted me to get things done – and I did (luckily those babies were great sleepers).

4. Play the long game

I love to travel, and my job affords me plenty of opportunities for it. But with three teenagers at home, being away a lot does not optimize my productivity at work or at home. Having said that, I know the day will come when the demands on my time will change and I’ll be able to squeeze that professional travel in. It will pay off to be patient.

5. Lead by example and surround yourself with others who do the same

That same boss who offered me a great job when I was on maternity leave was a great mentor. A senior executive and mother of two, with a spouse suffering from a chronic illness, she was willing to take a chance on me, likely based on her own ability to have a successful career while meeting the demands of her home life.

With the “people first” culture I lead at work, I don’t pretend to be perfect but I always try to be authentic. That way, I give others in my organization the space to be truthful about their own challenges. We problem solve together to find solutions. Some solutions are individual, some require smart policies and procedures, and others require whole teams to work together.

Julia Hanigsberg (@hanigsberg) is vice-president of administration and finance at Ryerson University (@RyersonU) and chair of the board of trustees of the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

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