The power of focus

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We live in a distracted world. We check our mobiles phone countless times during the day while FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) keeps us addicted to social media. Even while working we experience countless email distractions and our #AlwaysOn technology means we’re accessible to others 24/7.

The upside of this technology is that it’s made parenting and caring easier. We can be connected to our teenage children in ways that were not available to our parents – so we can stay at work longer knowing they’re safe. In recent months I’ve even been introduced to the idea of a family WhatsApp group as a way of keeping in touch.

The downside is that it limits our attention spans and makes it difficult to do what Professor Cal Newport calls the “deep work” of creativity. It’s becoming increasingly clear that multi-tasking doesn’t work – it simply pulls our energy in too many directions and leaves us exhausted. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to focus. As the saying goes:

Energy flows where attention goes.

Before we can focus we need clarity. What do we want to accomplish? As our children grow and our parents age our own role within the family will change. And as we progress our career we find the nature of our work also changes. So as we approach the end of another year let me ask you:

  • Who do you want to be in 2018?

  • What do you want to achieve in the coming year?

You may want to start – as many of us do – by reviewing how 2017 went. If so you’ll find this blog entry from the end of last year helpful.

Clarity requires us to review and adapt our behaviours. We may need to be more mindful. And separators are likely to find focus more easily than integrators.

Cal Newport maintains a novice is only able to do deep work for one hour at a time: to work for longer requires training. Attention is a skill that can be cultivated; and you will get distracted.

When you do take five minutes to refocus with this short visualisation adapted from the work of Piero Ferrucci:

Take a slow deep breath and bring to mind your main focus for 2018 – whether at work or home. Close your eyes and imagine a long straight clear path reaching directly to the top of a hill where the object of your focus lies.

On both sides of the path are beings who will try and divert you from the path and prevent you reaching the top. They can do whatever they want except one thing: they cannot directly obstruct your path.

These entities represent the various people and situations in your life that divert you from your focus. Experience yourself having the clarity to keep walking your path. When you reach the top enjoy the positive emotions you experience at having reached your goal. Think about what this goal means to you – how achieving it makes your life better.

Open your eyes and make any notes you need to remind you about the distractions you’re likely to face during the day and how you will overcome them. Notice how doing this impacts your energy.

To quote Cal Newport:

It’s surprising how much you can do in an eight hour day when you’re not distracted.

Wishing you a more focused and better balanced 2018.

Being more playful

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Children are a powerful reminder of the pleasure and potential of play. As we watch them try on ‘pretend’ roles and navigate relationships in team games we know they’re building future skills. Some of my most joyful memories are ones of how my son and I would play together as we walked to his pre-school.

According to play researcher Stuart Brown play not only lifts us out of the mundane but also helps us make new cognitive connections useful for our everyday lives. Through play we can learn new skills without being directly at risk.

Our human need for play is such that Brown asserts the opposite of play is not work but depression. Despite this our need for variety and challenge can get buried under an overwhelming sense of responsibility as we grow to adulthood and take on caring roles.

Women – in particular – can often feel they have little time or energy for play. Life becomes a constant juggle between work and home responsibilities. If that’s you then you may want to treat yourself to a copy of Barbara Brennan’s book ‘The Gift of Play – Why Adult Women Stop Playing And How To Start Again’. In it she describes her own journey back to “heart play” – the kind of play that speaks to your heart and soul.

Play is not only essential to recovery – a critical factor in maintaining good work-life balance – but can also be a powerful tool for reinventing our careers and ourselves.

In her book Act Like A Leader Herminia Ibarra suggests we engage in what she calls identity play as a way of exploring new possible selves and stepping into bigger leadership roles. As she explains: when we work we’re serious but when we play we meander, change course and have less purpose. When we’re playing with who we might become we’re exploring new possibilities without committing to any of them. We hold our future selves lightly and assess our options.

According to Ibarra

 

“playfulness changes your mind set from a performance focus to a learning orientation”

 

We become less stressed, more curious and more open.

Brown believes play also has improvisational potential since we’re not locked into rigid ways of doing things. This opens us to serendipity and chance; and can be a powerful asset in navigating life’s uncertainties. He says:

 

“When people are able to find that sense of play in their work, they become truly powerful figures.”

 

Will you make a little more time for play in your life? Will you focus on being a little more playful in your approach to daily tasks – both at work and at home?

As Brown says:

 

“It can be transformative.”

Tuning your radar

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Living and working in balanced ways often requires us to navigate restrictive corporate cultures that tell us “it won’t work here”. Overcoming these barriers can feel challenging – particularly if we believe we’re pioneering something new. However, in many cases perception differs from reality.

Working with corporate clients I’ve come to learn there’s often more going on under the radar than is at first apparent. When it comes to flexible working, HR policies may offer limited options; while the corporate culture insists these are only appropriate for junior roles. Rather than becoming frustrated we need to re-tune our radar so we can tease out valuable information that will support us. Specifically we must focus on three questions:

Where can I find suitable role models?

Not all flexible working happens in plain sight. People will often agree an informal arrangement with their boss on the proviso they keep it to themselves. If they work in other parts of the organisation we may never know that the off-site meeting this afternoon is actually attendance at a child’s sports day; or that a key member of another department always works at home on Mondays.

In an ideal world every employer would publicise their flexible working Role Models and make life easier for everyone. But we know this doesn’t always happen so we need to ask around. Internal networks that support women and parents are a good place to start.

Who has the expertise to help me shape my working pattern?

When I begin a corporate assignment one of my first tasks is often to identify what managers already know about flexible working. Typically I’ll ask them to share their experience – both within the current organisation and with previous employers.

I’m always surprised by the breadth of knowledge that emerges. This then becomes a key resource for developing innovative flexible working arrangements that suit the business.

What behaviour does this organisation reward?

Psychologists will tell you

“the behaviour that’s rewarded is the behaviour that continues”

So we need to understand what’s currently being rewarded and in most cases to change it. Far too many workplaces continue to reward presenteeism and long working hours.

Over the years I’ve come across employees passed over for lucrative assignments because they were working at home. Truly a case of ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Equally at risk are those who work less than full-time. There’s often a perception that stretch assignments require an individual to ‘put in the hours’.

If that’s common practice in your workplace what strategy can you develop to ensure you’re not penalised? One simple step is to ensure you’re clear about the outputs expected of you and broadcast your achievements. Such behaviour may feel uncomfortable for many women who see it as boasting. But maintaining a firm focus on outputs and achievements can change conversations. And conversations in turn can slowly change expectations and behaviours.

The more we know about what’s already working under the radar in our organisation the more powerful we can be in progressing our own balanced working. We can refute the “it won’t work here” claims and explore new possibilities with colleagues who’ve ‘been there: done that’.

 

Propel yourself to Balanced Leadership

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Becoming a Balanced Leader challenges us to hold a vision of living a balanced life as the foundation for our plans and actions. To succeed we need strategies and tools that work for us; together with a map to point us in the right direction. Over the past few months I’ve been pulling my expertise into a structured model which serves to do exactly that. On the eve of National Work Life Week if you’re in the UK and Work Family Month if you’re in the US I’m sharing that model.

I chose the acronym PROPEL as I know that following my model can literally propel your career to new levels.

P is for preferences in the way we choose to manage our work-life balance. While some of us are avid integrators others feel uncomfortable as technology and corporate expectations push us further and further in that direction. These are the separators who prefer to keep firm boundaries between work and the rest of life.

R is for the roles we play and the ways in which we play them. We begin to understand we have choices and that role scripts can become outdated. We can focus on combining roles in ways that enrich our lives and reduce the conflicts we may feel.

When we work through these first two steps we become much clearer on how we want to structure our lives and manage our boundaries. We can then begin to explore possibilities for redesigning our work.

O is for the options open to us within the culture and practices prevalent in our workplace. While some cultures openly embrace working from home others frown on reduced hours at senior levels. Gently pushing the boundaries of what’s currently acceptable is more likely to succeed than proposing radical changes that make people feel uncomfortable.

P is for possibilities. For considering how we can craft our work role to make the most of our key skills. So we become an even more valuable asset to our employers; and more productive and efficient into the bargain.

E is for the essential skills we need to make a success of all this. Many of these skills will already be in our portfolio – we may simply need to upgrade them. A small number – such as job crafting – may need to be learnt. The good news is that these are the same essential skills we’ll need to be successful leaders in both our workplaces and our lives.

L is for the leadership qualities we’re cultivating and the Balanced Leader we’re becoming.

So there it is: the evidence based road map to becoming a Balanced Leader. Straightforward, easy to understand and built on twenty five years expertise!

Men as Balanced Leaders

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I started this blog for two reasons: Firstly my passion for and belief that work-life balance should be universally accessible. When we lead balanced lives we benefit and those around us benefit.

Secondly – and as importantly – because the enduring lack of balanced working options at senior levels continues to block the progression of many women.

Social attitudes towards parenting have been shifting rapidly but the belief that taking care of children – and elderly relatives – is still primarily a woman’s responsibility continues. As long as corporate cultures refuse to acknowledge the challenges this poses women continue to be forced to make choices between career and caring.

Until now most of my posts have been written with working mothers in mind. So I felt it was time to acknowledge the increasing challenges faced by working fathers.

Last month the American Psychological Association published research findings showing that men and women around the world experience similar levels of work-family conflicts. The struggles of men are – however – largely unreported.

The role of fathers has shifted dramatically in one or two generations. Younger men generally want more day to day involvement in their children’s lives. Professor Caroline Gatrell of Lancaster University calls this ‘involved fathering’.

And legislation is increasingly supporting them. For example, the UK recently introduced Shared Parental Leave.

When they opt to become Balanced Leaders men face many of the same challenges faced by women. Men are also worried about how a desire for work-life balance will penalise career progression. And those entrenched social expectations make it difficult for them to talk openly about the issue.

At the Wharton Business School Professor Stew Friedman has been running the Total Leadership Programme since the early 1990s. The programme guides and supports both men and women to balanced leadership in every area of their lives.

Programmes like Stew’s are rare. Senior male role models are rare – although high profile men are beginning to step up as visible champions of balanced working. Men are being challenged to both redefine masculinity and the status quo of outdated corporate cultures. In many ways they are as much pioneers as the women I’ve written about in earlier posts.

When we support men to be Balanced Leaders we support their wellbeing and we provide new role models for the next generation. And as Balanced Leadership slowly becomes the norm it will also positively benefit women’s career progression.

Connecting with our power

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Faced with archaic corporate cultures that demand we choose between a senior role and a balanced life it’s easy to feel dis-empowered. Many of us are juggling life to the max and balk at taking on the additional challenge of operating as a Balanced Leader. In our frustration it’s easy to give in to our limiting beliefs and lose sight of how much power we really have to change things. So let me remind you of the truth.

We have the power to set our own boundaries.

Healthy boundaries are essential for our own well-being and a precursor to good working relationships with others. I’ve written about boundaries before and make no apologies for doing so again – because this is where we begin to build our foundation for a balanced life. It’s not simply about ‘finding me time’ or ‘learning to say no’. It’s about understanding our preferences for managing the work/non-work interface and where our current priorities lie. And about negotiating to get our needs met in respectful, adult ways.

We have the power to negotiate an acceptable flexible working arrangement

and we do this by first recognising our value to our employer. For far too long flexible working has been seen as a favour granted by the organisation; and one for which we should be grateful. But let’s be clear about this. If the alternative to working flexibly is that you’ll have no option but to leave then your employer will suffer financially. Recruiting your replacement requires time and money. You have the power to identify the unique value you bring to your work and to develop a flexible working schedule that benefits both you and the people with whom you interact.

We have the power to redefine what ‘Professional’ looks like

and overcome our fears that asking for flexibility will be read as putting our families first so we appear ‘unprofessional’. (That’s called stereotype threat by the way.) Within a flexible and more balanced arrangement it’s still possible to be professional. Think about Accountants, Lawyers, Bankers and Doctors for example. These are all professions that have redefined themselves over the past fifty years. For the most part they’ve become more approachable and more human; and chatting about families with them doesn’t reduce their professional standing in our eyes.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of experiencing our workplace structures as disempowering when we seek power outside ourselves. But when we dive deep into our inner qualities we discover we already have the power we need to rebalance our lives. And as we become more comfortable with accessing that power we also become the authentic leaders the world is looking for.

We find the power to literally re-write our story: from one of undervalued skills and frustrated careers to one of pioneers with the courage to become Balanced Leaders.

And we become role models that empower successive generations.

Two secrets to a successful flexible working arrangement

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Access to a flexible – and balanced – working arrangement is one of the important fundamentals for supporting the progress of women in the workplace. At managerial levels the two most viable options tend to be job-share or a bespoke flexible arrangement.

In recent years support for job share has been gaining ground. It’s a relatively easy option to implement: it requires little change to a job’s structure, content or working arrangements; and it helps perpetuate the notion that a senior role must be covered full time.

Agreeing a bespoke flexible arrangement is often more challenging. It necessitates a review of the job description and the essential skills required of the post holder. Good HR practice recommends this should be routine every time a post becomes vacant. In fast moving workplaces the job you’ve been doing may only partly resemble the one your successor will undertake. And yet corporate cultures often continue to deny the creative possibilities inherent in many jobs.

It is of course perfectly possible to craft your own quality flexible job – but this requires time and thoughtful analysis. Something which seems to be in short supply in today’s pressurised environments. Two fundamental secrets underpin success. These are: firstly – absolute clarity and secondly – firm boundary management.

Let’s consider the example of the manager who asks to work three or four days a week to carve out some family time. Very quickly she’ll begin to feel exhausted as she tries to cram five days’ work into fewer hours. And she’s likely to end up feeling guilty that she’s not coping and letting her colleagues down. The fundamental reason for this is that she lacks absolute clarity: around her value to her employer and around the key outputs she’s been hired to deliver.

For a flexible working arrangement to succeed we must spend become very clear about the key skills we offer our employer. The ones that make us difficult to replace and that enable our contribution to the achievement of our employer’s objectives. When we identify these we’ll find it easier to craft a win-win flexible arrangement.

We must also become very skilled at managing our boundaries – particularly when it comes to our interactions with what Dr Lorenzo Bizzi terms our network contacts. These are the colleagues with whom we work and the clients for whom we provide a service. It’s not simply about learning to say no assertively; it’s also about understanding how their expectations of our role will have subtle impacts on our task activities. It’s about stakeholder management. We need to stop and ask ourselves “is this really part of my role? Do I need to do it in this way? Do I need to do it at this time?”

Many people boast of being productive by organising themselves with lists. But if you lack clarity about your job’s key purpose or you lack the skills to maintain a focus on that purpose how will you know whether you’re being productive or simply busy?