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Mother's Day Disaster - Is Finding Balance Possible?

Ken Keen

August 2016

Achieving work-life balance is easy for leaders to talk about, but rarely easy to execute. The importance of achieving work-life balance was highlighted in a 2015 report on Millennials from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; it found that three out of four Millennials reported that work-life balance drives their career choices.

On 12 May 1996, I received a phone call from my Regimental Commander asking "What is today?" I quickly responded, ‘Sunday.' He went on, "I know that, but what is today and what are you doing?" I went on to explain to him I was in the field with the Battalion and we were doing a company live-fire exercise. Of course, he knew that, so he reminded me it was also ‘Mother's Day' and I was failing miserably to lead by example … giving me some very candid and honest feedback. Why had I decided to be in the field on Mother's Day, surely we could have planned around it? I had failed to find the right balance into one of our core values of "Mission First, People Always".

A few weeks ago, my wife and I saw my former Regimental Commander and his wife, the first thing he asked was whether I had ever made up for the "Mother's Day Disaster". It was a memory I preferred to suppress, but one I had carried with me since then and reminded myself of often over the years. Admittedly, I was never very good at this, but this moment had often reminded me of "I could and should do better for my family and those I serve."

The former Vice Chairman and COO of Coca-Cola said this about balance, "Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them - work, family, health, friends and spirit and you're keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls - family, health, friends, and spirit - are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life."

In looking back on my Army career, I was blessed to only have been scuffed and marked up for my failing to better achieve better balance between Soldiering and family, friends, and spirit.

So what can we do to achieve a better work-life balance and what does it really mean? If it were easy, it would not be one of the major areas most leaders struggle with where many rate themselves in 360 surveys as needing improvement.

It takes constant work, open communication with your leaders, family, friends, and developing a climate where feedback is welcome, and you must lead by example. I still struggle to get this right and seek self-improvement with the help of my family and friends. Here are some ideas that others have offered for consideration:
  • Manage your time with balance in mind. Look at your calendar over the course of a day, week, and month.
  • Take your full vacation time and insist that others do the same. Honor weekends, national holidays, AND Mother's Day.
  • Come to work at a decent hour, and leave at a decent hour. Make sure your team knows you aren't going to reward workaholics.
  • Respect your leaders and teammates' time. Don't send emails on the weekends. Save the drafts when a great idea strikes you, just wait until the next work day to send them. If you absolutely must talk with of one your leaders or team members during off duty hours, send them a text with the subject and ask them to call you when they're free so they have time to wrap up what they are doing.
  • Celebrate people, families, birthdays, life achievements. Your team will feel you value them as people.
Finally, with respect to balance between our work and family, it is not about the quantity of time we spend with them, but the quality. A counter argument to the work-life balance is what Matthew Kelly argues in his book "Off Balance". He says work-life balance is a myth, that they cannot be separated, saying it is about effectiveness and having "a satisfying experience of life". It is worth considering as we seek to achieve readiness in our organizations, however we can only define what constitutes a satisfying experience of life for ourselves, not for others.

True Growth Takeaway: Achieving balance in life is difficult; it takes constant work by leaders at every level.

True Growth Journal Question: What can you do to achieve better balance or a satisfying life experience?

About the author: Retired Lieutenant General Ken Keen is the Associate Dean of Leadership Development for Emory University's Goizueta Business School, teaching and coordinating leadership curriculum across four MBA Programs. Ken served 38 years in the Army. Highlights of his Army career includes Commander of the Office of Defense Representative – Pakistan, Commander of Joint Task Force – Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, Commander of the Military Group in Colombia, Commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, and Battalion Command of 1st Ranger Battalion and 1st 505th PIR. Ken served as a Special Forces Officer in Panama, as a foreign area officer, and on 3 U.S. Embassy Country Teams. His combat experience includes Just Cause in Panama and Desert Storm. Ken is a distinguished military graduate from Eastern Kentucky University and a graduate of the University of Florida's Master of Arts in Latin American Studies program.

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