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Work-life "balance" and career planning


This is the final week of Diana Bilimoria’s Coursera MOOC on Women in Leadership. It’s been a short, but interesting course. As a whistlestop tour, the major issues and dismal statistics have all been covered, but the course hasn’t dwelled on them self-pityingly. Instead, the focus has been proactive, starting from the basis that knowledge is power.

Week 1: Developing your Leadership Identity
Week 2: The State of Women’s Leadership
Week 3: Your Presence as a Leader
Week 4: Tools for career advancement


There were only two readings this week: a Harvard Business Review article from March 2014, Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life; and a chapter by Bilimoria et al on profiles of women’s career development over time.

I love HBR, and this article was no exception. Based on thousands of interviews, its focus is on how leaders can get away from ‘firefighting’ and towards making meaningful, deliberate decisions about how they work that can enable them to have more time for family and community, “vigilantly manag[ing] their human capital”. They draw out five main behaviours:

  1.  Defining success for yourself;
  2. Managing technology;
  3. Building support networks at work and at home;
  4. Travelling/relocating selectively; and
  5. Collaborating with your partner.

For me, the most interesting of these is managing technology, as I’ve written a lot about incorporating technology into my academic life (acwri tools), working practices (particularly time planning), and hobbies (particularly running). ‘Managing technology’ in HBR’s context describes “corralling” emails, calls, and other messages as part of “deciding when, where, and how to be accessible to work”. 

The article links this very personal question to the dangers of 24-hour availability from a work-performance perspective. The article emphasises the increase in creativity that can come from being focused on mundane tasks rather than the issue at hand, as well as the importance of effective delegation for empowering teams. The issue, then, is not so much managing the technology as managing how we decide to use it. A leader who checks their emails compulsively because they want their team to run every decision by them has a problem not with their smartphone but with their leadership style (or with their team!). Our uses of technology say much more about us than they do about the technology!

The chapter by Bilimoria et al builds on the idea of there being three chronological career phrases: a ‘sprint’ idealistic achievement phase; a ‘marathon’ pragmatic endurance phase; and a ‘relay’ reinventive phase. Alongside this is a parallel model, whereby women in an early career phase focus on challenge, developing into a focus on balance mid-career, and then a focus on authenticity in later career stages. The chapter offers three composite profiles based on interviews with women in these various phases. I actually found something a little sad in these profiles and the presentation of the two models. It had the air of a self-fulfilling prophecy about it, as though women would inevitably find their workplace sexist or demeaning, or otherwise disempowering. 


The first exercise was to evaluate how we currently spend our time between work, family, friends, self and community, and to compare it with how we want to spend our time. It also invited us to define what success might look like, including what it will enable us to achieve, and what we need to do in order to reach that goal.

I often think about my life as a narrative, and ask myself whether choices I make will enhance it, offering coherence, variety, depth, etc. Focusing on my life as a story about who I am and what I have achieved means taking a long view and being willing to critique my own actions and choices. Success, for me, means writing an impressive, diverse life story that offers me insight, and that can hopefully inspire others through my mentoring and coaching. To achieve it means seeing my time and attention as resources that need to be invested wisely, and not depleted, reminding me to focus also on the actions of self-care that replenish my internal resources.

* Image taken from The Job Crowd: http://www.thejobcrowd.com/news/who-are-best-employers-work-life-balance.


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