Staying connected with your family: Life hacks for the busy CEO

3 years ago, Posted in Leadership

Is the most famous CEO on the planet also the world’s best Dad and husband? Since the birth of his daughter in late November, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been streaming his  paternity leave one heart-melting image at a time. This isn’t brand-boosting PR – it’s the genuine and admirable outreach of a proud family man. For other CEOs and executives out there who are struggling to balance the commitments of a fast-growing business and family time, Zuckerberg’s posts are both an inspiration and a challenge: “This is what’s really important. So why aren’t we doing it?”

Finding time for family while steering a company through hyper-growth isn’t easy. With my wife, I’ve done my best to help raise three young children – while growing my business from a raw idea into a different kind of family, with over 300 members (and counting). I may not have all the answers, but I’ve learned some lessons along my own journey. For other CEOs, and really anyone wrestling with work-life balance, I hope these thoughts can be helpful.

Work and family is not a zero-sum game

Building a business is a rush and extraordinarily addictive. It’s habit forming. And for exactly this reason I think it’s important to step back and recognize how foundational family life is – both in and of itself and to your business. Unfortunately, many CEOs never seem to make this connection.

There’s a virtuous work-and-family cycle … and it can easily turn vicious if ignored. It’s hard to work well, and remain inspired, without family support and a rich life at home. For CEOs, whose workload is so often outsized, this is especially true. Neglect family life and work tends to suffer. I don’t think there’s any getting around this, at least in my experience.

I’ve found that a good indicator of whether you’ve got this right or wrong is just taking a quick glance at your calendar. Is it showing 90-percent work obligations and only the occasional family activity? If so, there’s a very good chance you’re already burnt out, as are 96 percent of senior leaders. It’s also worth asking how your spouse or kids would feel seeing what a tiny fraction of your calendar they get.

This imbalance is bad for home life and, in turn, for your business. Extend this over the length of a career and, in my opinion, it adds up to nothing short of a tragedy. Sadly, I’ve had more than a few older colleagues confess to me – often in the face of a health crisis – that they wish they could have a do-over because they got the work-life thing completely wrong. It’s often too late for them, and it’s heartbreaking to see.

How to make it work. A few life hacks for the busy CEO

Of course, it’s relatively easy to say you value your family and are committed to spending time with them. The challenge is finding ways to pull extra hours out of thin air.

It can start with your morning commute. For me, it’s just 20 minutes, door-to-door. That wasn’t luck. As my wife and I were looking for our next home, this was perhaps the biggest factor of all in our buying decision. (That’s no small thing, living in one of the priciest real estate markets in the world). Those two hours (or more) you’re spending on commuting are two hours you could be with your kids. No matter how exorbitant the real estate (or how modest the home you have to settle on), this is a tiny price to pay to reclaim this time. If you’re spending more time with your car than your kids, you might want to think seriously about a move.

Equally important is management style. Early in my career, I was almost a walking stereotype of the overworked CEO, obsessing over every facet of the company. As we grew to 50, then 100 employees, obligations kept me at work later and later until (luckily) it just became untenable.

My COO walked into my office one day and told me point blank that I was the one holding our company back. I wasn’t fully utilizing the talent we already had available (including him). After that, things started to get better. Supported by the right team, BuildDirect was able to go global, finding ways to ship home-improvement supplies from around the world. This all happened, even as I got to spend more time with my loved ones.

As work grew more demanding, another natural inclination of mine actually turned out to be helpful. The people in my life know that when they have me, they have all of me. I’m not looking at text messages from family when I’m in the board room, and I’m not thinking about work when I’m with my wife and kids. This approach of being completely present isn’t a luxury or indulgence: it helps maximize the limited time you do have.

Finally, I’ve found that rituals are key – setting aside sacred times that are purely for family. Family dinners are an obvious one. (If Barack Obama can pull this off, anyone can.) This usually means working a few hours after dinner, but it’s well worth it. Sacred spaces can be just as important. My kids know that when we’re spending the night at the cabin, it’s all about swimming in the lake and playing guitar around the fire and that I’m not going to suddenly be pulled away for a call.

There are no shortcuts. Even as I write this, I realize how many times I’ve gotten it wrong. And  to be perfectly honest, making it work often requires cutting back on the one thing we could all use more of – sleep. But these are the sacrifices we make to take care of what’s really important.


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