Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Watch Out for this Workaholic Behavior

Dr. Greg & Steve Harrison at Quantum Leap

Dr. Greg and Steve Harrison at Quantum Leap meeting

I almost let a cool and flattering opportunity derail me from my most important deliverables. I was in Philadelphia at Steve Harrison’s Publicity and Publishing Workshop. As is generally the case at one of Steve’s events, I met amazing people. The second night, I had a chance to pitch literary agents about my new book.

New book? Yes I’m working on a new book, and this time I plan to write it quickly. The working title is Mussar: The Ancient Jewish Philosophy for Personal Ethics (A Beginners Guide). Mussar is a thousand year old spiritual practice that was almost lost in the Holocaust. Mussar teaches how to find those things inside you that always get you into trouble, and enables a series of small adjustments to bring your life into balance.

Two of the agents were excited about the book, and want to see a book proposal. I was so jazzed that I was ready to stay up all night and write the proposal. I’m really glad that I didn’t. In the morning I had a video shoot planned, and if I’d stayed up, I would have been a wreck. In fact, I left the event early to get to bed. But on the flight home, instead of sleeping, I worked on the book proposal.

Watch out for this workaholic behavior!

Sound familiar? A new exciting opportunity comes up and bam, off you go to make it happen.

I’m sorry to say this is one of my unhealthy workaholic tendencies. I tend to chase the shiny new object, especially if someone has given me a nice piece of personal validation to motivate me. “Amazing idea. I like it a lot.”

Not good Greg, you needed that rest. And didn’t you just make a plan last month to only work on your top 3 professional priorities?
You know, you’re right. Last month I did set my top three professional priorities:

1. Make sure my clients are successful
2. Write the book for a fall publication (see note below)
3. Line up speaking engagements

The agent who was most interested assured me it would only take me nine hours or so to get together a good proposal.

A small voice in the back of my head whispered I don’t see writing a book proposal on that list.
“No worries,” I told myself, feeling some anxiety. “You can squeeze it in, it may delay the book a bit…”

Thank goodness I have a writing coach (also through a Steve Harrison program). She set me straight. Mishael reminded me that the agent has a different agenda than I do. It’s no skin off his back if I delay the book. He gets paid under the old publishing model. I decided to independently publish my first book because I did not have a large enough platform to interest the traditional publishers. The same dynamic holds today. More likely than not, I would delay my efforts for months, only to go ahead and self-publish anyway. Plus, even if a publisher did buy my book, it would not be out for at least a year.
So, I’m back on track.

Sorry Mr. Agent, you’ll have to take a number and wait your turn.

Update I wrote the book proposal in December 2014, and submitted it to the agent in January 2015. He liked it, and I signed a week after sending it to him. 

If you like this post, you’ll like my book  Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.

Beware the Visionary in “Silicon Valley”

In the new HBO show Silicon Valley, Mike Judge sets his sights on, you guessed it, Silicon Valley. Judge is a comedic genius at nailing and exaggerating the small details. Who can forget “Is this best for the company?” from Office Space. In fact, its cousin “You Need to do What is Best For the Company” helped me recognize my corporate idolatry, and changed my life my life for the better. So it was with great excitement that I watched Silicon Valley. The show is about some nerds in a startup that suddenly gets hot. It started slowly, with a lavish party to celebrate someone selling their company for $100 million. Kid Rock performs, and the new millionaire toasts changing the world through better software hierarchy. Sounds like the valley I know. My favorite characters where the two visionaries who get in a bidding war for Richard’s super hot algorithm. Gavin Belson runs a company called Hooli, and at one point is asking his spiritual advisor why programmers always travel in clumps of five? Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist, gives a teary-eyed TED talk explaining why people should skip college and just go to work. HBO has put the show on YouTube for free. Ever work for a visionary? I worked in two companies run by

visionaries. In my first company, the president talked every Friday afternoon, and I was inspired. I loved the Kool-Aid. I’ll say this – he was genuine, and has a track record of founding companies that really have changed the world of healthcare. It was quite a shock for me when he left. It wasn’t soon before I thought this was a good thing, to let us get past vision and on to execution. Well, let’s just say that good execution cannot save a flawed business plan. But that didn’t stop those of us in the trenches from working like crazy through the never ending reorgs and new strategies. In my second company, we also had a visionary. I just didn’t realize it because he rarely spoke to us. It wasn’t until I had been there for five years that I realized that his vision began and ended with the widget he invented. Software, usability, robustness were not perceived as valuable. The company has super highs, which led to super lows as new technology came about to displace what they stubbornly stuck to. We wouldn’t have successful entrepreneurs if they were not visionaries, people who can see the world as it could be. But too often, the vision comes at a high cost to the people asked to carry it out. After all, the destination does not come with a map on how to get there. What do you think? Would you choose to work for a visionary? You might also like this post about a visionary CEO who was a nightmare to work for

How Corporate Idolatry Negates a Rich Life

I can’t tell you how many people told me to drop corporate idolatry from my book title.

“People don’t want to hear about religion at work.” Or “Idolatry is a mortal sin, and I’m offended that you associate my hard work with idolatry.”

The most common objection is this: “Idola-what? I can’t pronounce it.” As a ten-year marketer, you’d think that I’d jump to modify the message in response to this feedback. Except isn’t that what Coke did when they developed New Coke in the 80s?

Coke’s rival Pepsi had a famous advertising campaign, the Pepsi challenge. It was a blind taste test, and people overwhelmingly picked Pepsi over Coke. The Coke executives panicked, and developed New Coke, a sweet soda like Pepsi. It was a disaster. Everyone hated new coke. It turns out that in a one swallow test, Pepsi wins. But if you ask people to drink an entire glass, Coke wins.  Oops. You need to be careful on how you interpret the data, and not to put too much weight on only one data point.

In the case of corporate idolatry, when I explain to people that corporate idolatry is a metaphor for overwork, heads start to nod. When I explain in detail, as I will below, people either smile or scowl. It is not unusual for arguments to break out, or for a discussion to go on for thirty minutes. Along the way, we’ve covered issues like missing family events for work, or the fear of a backlash if you say “no” to the bosses’ last minute request. An idea that sparks a deep discussion about priorities and values, by people who normally don’t think about these issues, is something to hold on to.

An idea that sparks a deep discussion about priorities and values, by people who normally don’t think about these issues, is something to hold on to.

Have you ever heard a phrase like “you need to do what is best for the company?” Let me guess, it wasn’t in the context of giving a promotion, planning an office party, or giving everyone a week of extra vacation. We use the phrase “best for the company” to justify an action that is unpopular, like canceling a project, or a decision that is perhaps unethical, like shipping a product that you know will not meet customers needs.

Doing what is “best for the company” is not the same as doing “what is best.” Every time we say yes to a company request that results in long hours is a no to someone else in our life. I know for what I speak, for there was a time when I was working 90 hours a week, and I thought that I was a family first person. It was a sobering moment when I realized that you cannot be family first AND work 90 hours a week. For example, when my cell phone rang during dinner, I told my family I had an important call and left the table.

Doing what is “best for the company” is not the same as doing “what is best.”

Which brings me to the real reason why people don’t like the phrase corporate idolatry—it hits too close to home. It is far easier to complain about how hard we are working. It allows us to play the victim:

  • I didn’t have any choice.
  • The job market is really competitive, and I don’t know if I would even get an interview if I were to apply today.
  • I am having a big impact, and there is no one else who can do what I do.

This last point illustrates the most insidious thing about corporate idolatry is that it warps the way we see the world. We agree with the company’s definition of what is important, and we buy into illusions that are no more real than the belief that sacrificing a goat to a statue could make it rain.

The real reason why people don’t like the phrase corporate idolatry—it hits too close to home.

To accept corporate idolatry means that we are no longer the victim, but an agent making choices. I am choosing to answer the email that comes in at 10 PM. I am choosing to take the phone call during dinner. I am choosing to eat lunch at my desk instead of leaving the office and meeting a friend for lunch. I am choosing to be at the regional sales meeting in Europe instead of at home for my kid’s birthday.

Yes, recognizing corporate idolatry can be painful initially. But it also provides the path to a more balanced life. It opens the space to start putting people first. We choose not to answer the phone, or to accept the lunch invitation from a friend, even when a large deliverable is due the next day.

Just don’t tell your boss that the company is no longer the most important thing in your life. Instead, use your political skills to defer, delegate, or de-scope deliverable requests. No point getting burned at the stake just to make a point.

This post originally appeared on the blog Switch & Shift

Are You Working This Thanksgiving?

Twin Toms by eye of einstein

Twin Toms by eye of einstein

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It is a day to cook, eat, watch football, and spend time with family and friends. As a kid we’d drive from Syracuse to my grandmothers in the Catskills. One year we got caught in a snowstorm, and were forced to stay in a crappy motor lodge. They refused to give some milk for my baby brother. For years, my family gave them the finger whenever we drove by. Now, I can be a bit more understanding. Maybe they were pissed off because they had to work on Thanksgiving.

There have always been people who work on Thanksgiving – doctors, police and firefighters to name a few. These people provide essential, life-saving services, and part of the deal is to work on a holiday from time to time. Others, like the folks at the long forgotten three acres motel just had to work, because a motel never closes.

Retail is another matter entirely. No one’s life is depending on having Best Buy open on Thanksgiving. By now you’ve probably seen an article or three about retail stores opening on Thanksgiving to get a jump on the holiday season. As illustrated on this chart from the Inlander.com,   retail stores have been pushing their black Friday opening time earlier and earlier since 2006.

The pattern is clear. Every year a few stores open earlier, and the next year more stores open at that time, except for a few who push it even earlier. Why are the retailers opening earlier? It is a push to increase sales in a competitive market. Most retailers make 20% to 40% of their yearly revenue during the holidays. For a company in trouble like Best Buy or Sears, holiday sales may determine whether stores need to close or worse. As unpleasant as it may be for all involved, some would argue that staying open on Thanksgiving is what is best for the company.

As I wrote in Busting,  “best for the company” is a sign of corporate idolatry. Best for the company is usually measured in terms of the short term gains, and often comes at the expense of long term health. My advice is to put people first. Let the employees enjoy Thanksgiving, and come in fresh on Black Friday. A refreshed and relaxed workforce can outsell a tired and frazzled group of workers any day. Some companies like Apple and Costco seem to agree.

ifo Apple Store reported a detailed description of  Apple’s decision to keep most stores closed on Thanksgiving“Over the objections of the Market Directors, Apple CEO Tim Cook cancelled the plan to keep several stores open on Thanksgiving. Cook’s specific objection was that it’s important for Apple retail employees to be with their families on the holiday. On the other hand, the Market Directors were reportedly motivated by large potential holiday-quarter bonuses based on performance targets, adding to their $400,000 salaries. The last calendar quarter at Apple retail is always the busiest and generates the most revenue, leading to the largest bonuses.” Good for you Tim Cook!

Maybe those Market Directors will look for a job at Walmart, who is pushing the opening time earlier and earlier every Thanksgiving. Walmart is a company that consistently prioritizes money over people.  In a particularly perverse development, Walmart will be serving a free Thanksgiving dinner to it’s employees during their breaks. What has been a celebration with family is now being co-opted by the company. I can just imagine the managers having to parrot the company line about how much Walmart cares. At least they are giving the employees extra pay for working on the holiday. In an equally bizzare development, some Walmart stores are having a holiday food drive to support other employees who do not make enough money to buy food for their families.

One VP of marketing at Walmart said how excited employees are to come in to work that day. Stephanie Ritter who works at a Walmart in Colorado begs to differ. She started a petition on Change.org, asking Walmart to close its stores on Thanksgiving. Ms. Ritter writes

Most businesses are closed on Thanksgiving, I understand that Walmart is a staple in many towns, but everyone survives it being closed on Christmas. As a single mother, it breaks my heart to know that I won’t be able to spend that time with my son.

Support Stephanie Ritter’s petition .

What kind of company do you work for, a Walmart or an Apple? Share your story below.

What Does the Fox Say At Work?

What does the fox say? It’s a question 144 million plus have been asking on YouTube over the last few months. (And if you really want to know the answer, you can see it here.) The song describes what a fox looks like, and runs through a bunch of gibberish versions of what a sound the fox makes. Is it funny? Yes, a bit. (Although if you ask my tween daughters, they will tell you it is hilarious.)

When I hear the song, I think of a different kind of fox, the fox in Aesop’s fable the Fox and the Crow. This kind of Fox is a flatterer, someone who can convince you of anything. In this respect, the song “What Does the Fox Say” gets it right. When we are watching the video, we sing and laugh along, and we may even parrot what we hear to others. But if we stop and think about it, we say to ourselves Huh? It no longer makes any sense.

Have you ever had the experience at work of being talked into something that turned out to be really stupid, either for you or for the company? And then, the person who talked you into it is nowhere to be found. I write about the Fox in Busting Your Corporate Idol, because the consequences of trusting the untrustworthy are monumental.

The Fox is particularly dangerous, because he or she will say whatever you want to hear. The Fox is primarily out for him or herself, but unless you have dealt with this type of person before, you may not be aware.

I worked for years with a Fox, but didn’t know it until things got rough, and I was left holding the bag. In many respects, it was my bag to hold, BUT the Fox had advised me what to put in the bag, and where to carry it. So when the Fox went out of their way to point the finger at me, I wanted to cry fowl.

I stood up at a meeting to explain it all, and all that came out of my mouth was “Ring ding ding ding ding dingeringeding.” It made sense when the Fox said it to me. I should have known better.