Diversity and work-life balance

Most companies aspire and strive to become a high-performance company and believe high-performance leaders are needed to drive a high-performance culture, but what does that mean?

Growing up through my career during the eighties, nineties and into the new millennium, it was commonly accepted that for someone to become a senior leader, it meant long hours, tilting your work-life balance towards work, and sacrificing family and personal time to get ahead in your career.

Early in my career when my wife and I decided to start a family, we decided she would be a stay-at-home mom. This provided me some freedom and flexibility to work longer hours, travel as required, and generally fit into the demands of the corporate formula for getting promoted and rising up the organization chart.

But what if hadn’t had that luxury of spousal support on the home front? What if I had been a single parent or part of a two-career family or constrained by other personal circumstances?

Corporations of the last 100 years have been built with glass ceilings. For the first 50 years, male dominated leadership was driven by societal forces that viewed a man as the family bread winner and a woman at the centre of the home and family. This societal norm began changing after the second world war. By the time I entered the workforce in the late seventies, women were challenging these norms and seeking the same career opportunities as men, but our corporate culture stubbornly clung to our male dominated hierarchy and stereotypes of what it took to climb the corporate ladders.

So, as we approach 2020, I am struggling with how a business redefines itself, what it means to have a high-performance culture, what it takes rise to senior leadership roles and how much a company needs to change its historical expectations and norms to create diverse and inclusive leadership.

Many companies use the Olympics and competitive sport has an analogy for how to succeed in business. Like me, you have probably attended a company event at some point in your career, featuring a former Olympian or other sports figure, who inspired the audience with tales of their journey, dedication and commitment to be the best in their field. It is no secret that for these top performing competitors, there is no “work-life” balance. There is just work and practice, more work and practice and more work and practice to climb and stay at the top.

Is that really the model that we want in our companies? Is there even any other way? If this is the only way to get to the top, does that mean we must leave behind those who don’t have the luxury to tilt their work-life balance to get ahead and resign ourselves to glass ceilings forever?

If you agree with current business thinking that diverse organizations outperform homogeneous ones, then systematic barriers which prevent diversity at all levels in an organization need to be removed. It is easy to agree with this statement but what does it really mean? In the next generation of corporate culture, what is a reasonable accommodation to business practices and norms of the past that will allow all candidates regardless of personal situation, gender, or ethnicity rise up the corporate ladders based on merit?

Writing this blog started because I was meeting with a friend and I was sharing a story about a client who was trying to schedule a senior leaders meeting. They were struggling to find dates in the near term because they didn’t want their people to have to travel to or from the meeting on the weekend which basically ruled out starting the meeting first thing Monday morning and ending after noon on Friday.  The result was either the meeting had to be held mid-week or extended to be a three-day meeting to accommodate the Monday noon start or a Friday noon ending. When I was coming up through the ranks, meetings started Monday morning and Sunday travel was an expected part of the job.

My question to her was whether as a person rises in an organization, they need to recognize that their work life balance has to tilt and if they are not prepared to accept that, maybe they must forfeit their goal of being a senior leader. Her response was “what if they are a single parent or what if they are a woman and their family responsibilities don’t allow for their work life balance to tilt as much as a man’s might allow”?

When I acknowledged that I am be a dinosaur in my thinking, her next challenge to me was that I need to re-imagine how a company can become a high-performance organization and still accommodate to create a diverse organization at all levels in the company.

I am seeing accommodations slowly working into corporate life. I was facilitating a senior leader meeting for another client. My observation has been that very few all-day meetings are productive after about 5 hours. People lose focus and fatigue sets in, so I suggested we start the meeting at 9 and end in the early afternoon. Their response was they prefer not to start meetings before 10 so that their senior leaders who have family obligations in the morning can be accommodated.

How far does a company go to reasonably accommodate? At one end of the spectrum is the competitive athlete model for business in which you do whatever it takes to be the best. Common wisdom is that hard work prevails. At the other end of the spectrum, the common wisdom is that the smartest, most innovative and nimblest companies will win and building a diverse and inclusive culture is a key building block.

I don’t have a lot of answers at the moment so the re-imagining continues…

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