Reflections from My MBA Alumni Work+Life Fit Teleseminars

Last week, I conducted a series of teleseminars for the alumni of top business schools. Although most of my work is done within big companies, I am always trying to find new and creative ways to share the “work+life fit” strategy with a broader audience. Most people don’t work for my clients since approximately 95% of the U.S. workforce works for small or medium-sized companies.

I chose to target MBAs this time, in part, because I am one. But also because in my experience the stereotypical MBA model of “all work, and no life” doesn’t reflect the reality of most students and alumni. In the more than decade since my time as a student at Columbia Business School, countless MBAs, both men and women, have pulled me aside to say, “I’m not sure I can or want to give 100% to my job for the rest of my life.” Yet, only a small number of those people have been willing to say, “I need to do things differently.”

That all changed earlier this year when Universum released the results of its annual survey of MBA students. A remarkable shift in the historical MBA all or nothing model of work and life seemed to be underway. For the first time, male MBA students ranked “work-life balance” at the top of their list of career goals, ahead of financial and strategic influence objectives (the prior year work-life balance ranked #4.) The men joined the women MBA students who ranked ‘work-life balance” at the top of their list as well.

The survey measured the goals of current MBA students, but I thought it was time to bring the work+life fit conversation that had taken place “off line” with MBA alumni into the open. So when Aquent Marketing Staffing offered to underwrite a series of teleseminars for MBA alumni, I jumped at the opportunity.

My goal was simple: To help participants understand how they can use their valuable MBAs to map out a dynamic and unique work+life “fit” path through the transitions in their lives and career. In other words, contrary to popular belief, they don’t have to choose “all or nothing.”

How did it go? With three teleseminars down and one to go, I’ve met some very interesting people. And, together, we’ve challenged the old models of work in the MBA world. Not surprisingly, the issues that seemed to have the most resonance for participants were the same ones everyone faces when they try to create a new work+life fit reality. They put it this way:

• “It can never be done.”
• “They will never go for it where I work.”
• “Won’t it hurt my career to change my fit?”
• “What will my peers and colleagues say?”
• “I have no idea what I would even want.”

Here’s what I told them:

“It can’t be done.”

Maybe “work-life balance” can’t be done if you define it like most people, as a nirvana we’re all working toward but never achieve. But if you think of it as work+life “fit” rather than balance, then it can be done. What do I mean? Work+life “fit” is a solution based upon your unique work and personal realities at a given time. And as those realities change, your work+life fit will change too. You will move up and down the continuum between all and nothing. It’s a verb—finding your work+life fit is an active, dynamic process with an outcome that will be unique for everyone because everyone has a different set of circumstances.

And make sure you adjust your definition of “success” accordingly to match the fit you want to achieve, so you feel good about what you are doing.

“They’re never going to go for it where I work.”

Yes, it’s great if your employer has a comprehensive flexibility strategy. But even in that circumstance the most creative and effective solutions come from an employee-employer partnership. I’m talking about you, the employee, presenting a well thought out flexibility plan to your manager and working together to successfully manage it day-to-day. Anyone anywhere can have that same opportunity. In fact, I’ve seen and heard of creative work+life fit arrangements in all types of traditionally “all work, no life” organizations.

So, the bottom line is: ASK! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain especially if your work+life fit is so out of whack that you are thinking of leaving. Nine times out of ten you will be very pleasantly surprised. The worst they can say is , “no,” then you’re no worse off than before you asked.

“Won’t it hurt my career to change my fit?”

I hear this all the time, and I understand where it comes from. However, we need to think about it in another way. In today’s 24/7 work reality where companies can’t unilaterally set the boundaries around work, it actually helps your career to strategically manage your work+life. You may be thinking, “I’m sorry…what did you say?” Yes, you heard me correctly. Think about what happens if you don’t manage your “fit?” You become stressed, unproductive, personally unhappy, sick or leave. None of these outcomes help your career.

“What will my peers and colleagues say?”

Believe it or not, chances are they won’t say anything. Because you will have implemented your plan correctly by making sure it isn’t negatively impacting their work. And, if someone does say something, it’s usually because they are jealous. They would love to change their “fit” too and for whatever reason (mostly for one of the same reasons listed here), they feel that they can’t. Offer to share the strategies you used to change your “fit” and if they still can’t change their attitude, you have to basically ignore it.

“I have no idea what I would ever want.”

Here’s where we need to create new models of work+life to get beyond out traditional “all or nothing” thinking. You’ve got to leverage your value as an employee to create a new “fit,” whatever that may look like in the context of your particular job, industry, or level. In other words, an investment banker’s “fit” will look different than a consultant’s “fit,” etc. And, very often that solution won’t even mean doing less work, just working differently.

Be creative. This is hard to do because we aren’t taught to ask ourselves “How do I want work to fit into my life?” And we aren’t taught the introspective process to follow in order to answer the question. This is why I devoted three chapters in my book to how to create your work+life “fit” vision. Because once you have that vision, achieving at least some version becomes reality.

Bottom line: Top business schools, some of the most traditionally “all or nothing” institutions, are beginning to understanding that we all need to create a new dynamic model for strategically managing work+life. It’s another sign that perhaps we will finally begin to look at this issue from the perspective of how we all need to use flexibility to find our unique “fit” in today’s 24/7 world.

It’s not necessarily about working less, although sometimes that may be the case for a period of time. Mostly, it’s about rethinking work, and the role we play as individuals in setting boundaries in a way that considers our needs as well as the needs of the business. These are not mutually-exclusive objectives. They are mutually-reinforcing and critical to personal and organizational success in the 21st Century.

Let’s hope that as more MBAs begin to reinvent their approach to work and life, they will lead the way for more strategic work+life flexibility inside their organizations.