When Steve was offered the role of CEO of an American company, he faced a dilemma. The job was enticing, but it meant relocating, and he wasn't keen on moving, having children in school and many friends in the city where he lived. So he opted for what most of us avoid in such situations: He bargained. He told the board he would only accept the post if he could avoid relocating.
Of course, after the board agreed, he still knew that meant commuting every week to head office and being away from home most of the week. But he set three boundaries on the sacrifices the position was requiring of him. He scheduled meetings to allow him to leave home Monday morning instead of Sunday evening and return Friday before rush hour. He established himself in a hotel conveniently near his office for the work week, with clothes and personal items. And he made sure to keep in constant contact with his family, speaking to his wife a few times a day and speaking or text messaging his daughters every day or two.
Bill Barnett, who led the strategy practice at McKinsey & Co. for many years and who teaches career strategy at Rice University, uses the example of Steve (a pseudonym) to highlight the importance of setting boundaries to control our work-life balance. In a recent blog at Harvard Business Review and in an interview, he stresses that whatever your level in the workplace, you must assess the sacrifices demanded of you, determine the boundaries beyond which you are not prepared to be pushed, and negotiate with your bosses to find a satisfactory resolution.
"A lot of people never even think of boundaries because they assume the secret to success is unyielding sacrifice. And there are times in life when that is true. But in my own life I realized that you need at times to step back and see if the obligations you are taking on are really necessary," he says in an interview.
In his career strategy course at Rice, and before that instructing at Yale, he has been dealing with highly motivated professionals climbing the ladder in their organizations and eager to make an impact in the world. He found that about a third of them, when they faced a career choice, were confronted with the issue of sacrifice and boundaries.
Those sacrifices come in three categories:
- Work intensity: This covers long hours, being on call all the time including vacations, and a high-pressured working situation.
- Business travel: The intensity magnifies when you are constantly, or often, away from home, a situation Mr. Barnett understood firsthand from his 23 years as a McKinsey consultant.
- Relocation: Moving for work – whether to take a post with a new company, or to grasp a new opportunity within your existing firm – can pose considerable personal challenge.
"The first step is to realize that setting boundaries might be possible," he says.
He distinguishes boundaries between what he calls a "100-per-cent rule" and a more fluid guideline. An example of a 100-per-cent rule is the single parent who must pick up his or her child every day from school at a given hour. The parent may be able to work from home afterward, but being at the school at 3:45 p.m. every day is a must.
But most boundaries are more flexible than that. You may want to pick up your child most days, but perhaps a neighbour or relative can help out on occasion. You crave the joy of seeing as many of your child's soccer games as possible, but accept that 100 per cent is unrealistic – 90 per cent would be sufficient. "For most jobs, most times, boundaries are guidelines," he says.
Most people, of course, don't want to declare boundaries. They are afraid their boss will object. But Mr. Barnett says in a competitive job market, companies want to hold on to talent and will make concessions.
"They may want you to work in the New York office, but will work out an arrangement to have you work out of Cleveland rather than lose you," he says. "Or for the 28-year-old who just had a baby they will make accommodations to her schedule to try to keep her a full-time employee, if she can come up with a plan. People with high talent can get accommodation on these points."
Of course, accommodation has its limits. You can't enter the consulting field with an attitude that you don't intend to travel. You need to assess the field you are entering or are in, and what the main requirements are. He also suggests when interviewing for a position not to raise your boundaries at the outset, unless specifically asked. Wait until the job offer to talk about your situation and conditions.
Sometimes you can take matters in your own hand. In consulting, he tried to find as many clients as he could in the cities where he lived over the years, to reduce his travel. He scheduled his children's events on his calendar where they would notice his absence, and did his best to attend most of them. When he travelled, he worked at night so he could have more time at home on weekends.
"A successful career isn't easy. You'll have to make some sacrifices to accomplish a lot and to get ahead. Some sacrifices, however, may be simply unacceptable," he writes in his blog post.
Know what those are, and if they don't run contrary to the ethos of the company and industry, negotiate them.