We can find it very easy to feel consumed by our jobs, especially as nonprofit leaders. If you’re like me, you’re extremely passionate about executing your mission, one you consider crucial in today’s world. Yet you may also feel there’s never enough time to do it all, and fires constantly popping up further increase your time demands. Your job’s pull can quickly take over all your time – both professional and personal.
Clients frequently ask me for advice on how to find the elusive balance between career and home life. I always share what I call the “Power of No” – a lesson I learned myself seven years ago.
I’ve always prided myself on being the “go-to guy.” I was the one who would work whatever hours necessary to satisfy a client or agree to jump on a plane with 24-hours’ notice to make a meeting. In my second year as a CEO, the difficulty of integrating my work and personal life had become very apparent, and this way-of-being was becoming increasingly unsustainable.
That year marked the arrival of my first son, Benjamin. At the end of my wife's maternity leave, I decided that I was no longer going to consult on Mondays but rather use it as a “Daddy Day” with my son. (This tradition continues today with our second boy, Finn). Around that time, a colleague asked me about the most important lesson I had learned as a parent. Without thinking, I quickly responded, "The power of no." This wisdom of knowing when to say “no” to professional demands has helped me effectively integrate work and life, and I promise it can help you, too. “Integration” means ensuring that you are able to accommodate both work and life as best as possible. Sometimes you have to engage in life when other people are traditionally working, and vice-versa.
I learned that reserving Mondays as “Daddy Day” and functioning in a household with two working parents meant I needed to start saying “no” to some client asks, and I quickly became quite adept at it. Consequently, my organization continued to grow larger, I was happier, and I felt like I had avoided short-changing time with my children as well as productive work-time. To accomplish this, I have adopted three primary strategies that I consider crucial to helping me realize life/work integration.
I’m happy to share the 3 key ways I’ve discovered to better integrate your personal and professional life:
- Set Boundaries – The first step to saying “no” is to set clear boundaries and metrics for yourself and your organization. The boundaries can be obvious, such as my saying "no Mondays," but I also recommend metrics for other things important to your organization’s culture.
Here's a prime example that comes up all the time: travel. When most people meet me, they assume that as a consultant, I'm constantly on the road. In truth, I'm not at all – I rarely travel more than 10 days a year for work. This is a conscious decision I made, not only to keep me connected to my family, but also because it positively impacts profitability.
For many nonprofit leaders, more time traveling means less time to devote to actively leading the organization. When speaking with a leader who is concerned about travel, I always suggest setting a metric that aligns to their business model. For example, “No more than 10 days traveling per year” or “No more than five days a month.” Having such a metric will help you to assess when you should say “no” to a new commitment or suggest a date for the following month instead.
- Maximize Flexibility – Another strategy I use involves staying flexible about where and when I work. When we talk about work-life integration versus work-life balance, the key difference lies in when and how you're doing your work. Work-life balance means making clear divisions between home and work life, whereas integration is about maximizing the time for each and interweaving them. This might mean being very cognizant of which tasks you must do during normal business hours – even if they are not the most urgent – and holding off on other tasks until evening hours or weekends. This trade-off could allow you to leave space during prime daytime weekday hours to pursue the activities most personally important to you.
- Rely on Your Team – Finally, it proves important to consider how you can best use your team to complement your time. For example, if you know you’re going to be traveling or focused on a particular project more than usual, ensure you have a plan for who will provide any needed support during this time. That way, if something urgent comes up or a meeting needs to be called, the need can be addressed without alterations to your plans. In other words, always make sure you have good back-up. The result from the customer, funder, or stakeholders’ perspective is seamless service – they might not even know you’re not available.
Two last thoughts: First, know that there is a cost to life-work integration. Leaders sometimes have to say “no” to some projects or additional scope if it impacts their organization’s life-work integration culture. In most cases, customers will respect your commitment to maintaining a positive work environment for your organization and may even see it as a good sign of strong character and self-worth. In my own case, I’ve only had one client ever say no to working with me because of my decision to stay home on Mondays with my son. By and large, there has been no measurable negative impact on my business.
Second, this is not an exhaustive list – other seasoned leaders have developed many other effective strategies to successfully integrate their personal and professional lives. I simply ask you to focus on the main question: How are you saying “no” and integrating life and work?
Comment below and help your peers (and me) benefit from your ideas.