Why is work life balance a women’s issue?

work life balance

The last time I checked, children are produced by their mother and father. Women have children, and so do men. But why is work life balance usually framed as a women’s issue?

In one of my previous companies, flexible work arrangements were available. Great! How progressive! But it was available only for women. Also, I was recently invited to a seminar to discuss women’s leadership and work life balance. However, all invitees were women.

Let us not forget one of the most successful books on women’s leadership in recent times: Lean In. I admire the author, Sheryl Sandberg, greatly. In fact, she was even my business school commencement speaker. Again, the focus of this book is what women should and can do to rise to leadership positions while balancing work with life.

It seems like we’ve created a gender-based bubble around work life balance. Women talking about what women should do to improve women’s work life balance so we have more women in leadership. This is a pretty lonely conversation.

So, where in the world are the men??? 

Because men have children too, these fathers should have work life balance issues as well. Well, according to this HBS study, many men simply don’t see it as an issue. Society has always casted men as the breadwinner, so if a guy has to work more, then he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing. In fact, by working longer and earning more, he is providing a better future for his children.

But men are changing. Men today and tomorrow seem to care more about spending time with their offspring. Since women are now sharing the bread winning responsibility, men are starting to share more of the care-taking responsibility. This isn’t just some feminist cry to turn men into diaper changing machines. This is just good for people. I’d even argue that this is just good for society. A US national survey indicates that more involved fathers are with their children, the children not only have better academic performance but they also have less risk of delinquency.

Until society and companies broaden the work life balance discussion to women and men, it will be difficult for men to spend more time as fathers and for women to spend more time climbing the corporate ladder.

Career Lessons from Kim Kardashian

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Kim Kardashian and her husband-to-be / baby daddy Kanye West just landed on the cover of Vogue magazine (U.S. edition), which is supposed to the world’s most influential fashion magazine. Back in 2007, I thought her fame would fizzle out after 15 minutes, but it seems that it’s only strengthened over time. Now, the girl who used to arrange attention-hungry socialite Paris Hilton‘s closet has reached the pinnacle of fame.

According to Forbes, Kim Kardashian’s net worth is estimated at $10 million in 2013. From a sketchy sex tape to a business and media empire, you have to admit that Kim Kardashian has had one heck of a career trajectory with plenty of ups and downs.

What are some career lessons we can learn from her rise to a business mogul?

1. Who you know matters 

Kim Kardashian first garnered media attention by hanging out with famous people. As Paris Hilton’s close friend and personal stylist, they were often spotted and photographed together. She also briefly dated former boy band crooner Nick Lachey (when he was still relatively famous) as well as quasi-famous singer Ray J.

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While it’s quite unclear how exactly the Kardashians got their own show, reports suggest Kathy Lee Gifford, who is Kris Jenner’s long-time friend, and / or Ryan Seacrest knew the family and thought they were quirky enough to deserve their own show. Whatever the actual story was, famous people with good connections were involved.

Therefore, your connections and the strength of their connections matter tremendously. Whether you want to be a reality TV show star, a C-suite member, or a billion dollar start-up founder, knowing the right people is one of the most important things you can do to build a successful career.

 

2. Turn lemons into lemonade

This is probably Kim Kardashian’s biggest strength. Having a private home video leaked for the world to see is probably every person’s worst nightmare. Instead of hiding in a hole (which would be my natural reaction), she milked every ounce out of that limelight. She immediately signed up for a reality TV show and a Playboy cover. In fact, she changed the narrative. Instead of having the world focus only on the trashy nature of a sex tape, she opened the doors to her family, showing the world her other dimensions as a sister and a daughter.

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Whenever we may face a bump in our career, it’s important to look at all angles to see how you can turn an impossibly bad situation into a good one. If you’re fired, then will this finally gives you a push to start your own business? If you have an awful manager, then can you learn how to be a good one?

 

3.  Be vulnerable

Humans are social animals. We are hard wired to connect to each other. Being vulnerable, we admit that we are imperfect and that we have weaknesses. We drop our shield and open a door for others to connect. People want to connect with, help, and like others that show their vulnerable sides.

While Kim Kardashian lives the life of the rich and famous, she let’s the world see her vulnerable sides as well. For someone that has a team of hair and make-up experts, she often walks around paparazzi-infested L.A. with no make-up. On her reality show, she openly cries (in a less-than-beautiful way). People like that. People like to see her in good times and bad. It makes people feel like they know her and that she is approachable. Perhaps that’s why she’s a tabloid obsession for so many years.

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At work, it’s important to understand and admit your limitations. I don’t mean list all of your weaknesses to your colleagues. In a situation when you can’t get the information or can’t learn quickly, you need to ask for help. This will not only help you accomplish your task better and faster, but also allow you to learn more effectively. Another bonus is that it forms a stronger connection with someone else, building your network.

 

4. Build a strong personal brand

In addition to a hit TV show, the Kardashians have their own clothing line, make-up collection, boutique clothing stores, fragrances, fitness videos, and more! They have managed to build an empire around the Kardashian name. They’ve done so by becoming masters of media. They are everywhere all the time, keeping their brand relevant and top of mind. Kim Kardashian has over 20 million Twitter followers and 13 million Instagram followers.

They’ve also learned from past lessons. In the beginning, they endorsed almost everything under the sun from alcohol to diet pills, diluting their brand and credibility. Now, they seem to have found their niche and focused their business endeavors on beauty and fashion.

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Self-promotion at work is a necessary evil. People will not consider you for new opportunities or exciting projects unless you promote the good work that you’ve already done. You not only need to be top of mind for managers, but you also should build a reputation for a particular skill / expertise. When a senior manager thinks she really needs somebody to get a particular job done well (e.g., run a marketing campaign or start a new business), then your name should be one of her first thoughts.

 

5. Take chances

The Kardashians have a multi-million dollar empire because they saw opportunities and took them. Some worked out (e.g., her fragrance) and some didn’t (e.g., her song “Jam”).

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The lesson here is the more calculated risk you take, the higher your likelihood is to succeed. You basically won’t know until you try. The next time at work, sign up for a new project, work with someone new, or just think differently. If you try and fail, then try again and do things differently.

Entrepreneurs: Born or Made?

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If you’re asking whether you should become an entrepreneur, then probably shouldn’t become one.

This was the view of a serial entrepreneur I was chatting with recently. For her, entrepreneurs are born. They are born with an innate restlessness to create. Even if they are in a big, corporate job, they may have one or several side gigs. In our brief conversation, I realized she not only ran a for-profit consulting business, but she also started a non-profit organization and was trying to start a restaurant. When does she get time to sleep (and put on make-up)?

She makes a valid case. If you don’t have an incessant internal drive to start and own your own business, an undeterred sense of optimism, and rock solid persistence, then it’s very difficult to succeed. Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey filled with countless naysayers and unforeseen obstacles.

In this BBC article, a British entrepreneur and business coach even presents a subjective pie chart of entrepreneurship that it’s “70% born, 10% nurture, and 20% trainable.”

I find that a bit hard to swallow. How does entrepreneurship belong to a chosen group of people with special genes? Working with smallholder farmers and small businesses in emerging markets, entrepreneurship is often the result of circumstance. If a large employer is not present in your town / village, then you create your own jobs. If you’re frustrated with how things operate in your life, then you can create your own solution.

Professor / Entrepreneurship Expert Shane Scott shows that it’s not as clear cut. His team of researchers conducted studies on the entrepreneurial activities of 870 pairs of identical twins and concluded that entrepreneurs are 40% born and 60% made.

What does that even mean? Does that mean if you don’t have all the “entrepreneurship genes”, then you can train yourself on the deficient qualities? Does that mean some people may have a higher propensity to succeed at entrepreneurship, but others can achieve the same results with some hard work and training?

Whatever the magic formula is on whether entrepreneurs are born and made, I do think all successful entrepreneurs share a few qualities, which some you may be born with, some you can learn, and some you should just force yourself to have.

Work on your passionJeff Bezos, CEO of AMAZON, introduces new Kindle Fire HD Family and Kindle Paper white during the AMAZON press conference on September 06, 2012 in Santa Monica, California.  AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR        (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)

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Long Work Hours: Perception and Consequences

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I’m no stranger to long work hours. When I was a management consultant, my life was work. I was either working or resting to work. A day ended when I would physically collapse on my laptop. I left consulting because I knew that lifestyle was not only unsustainable but would also shorten my lifespan.

In an industry (aka. non-consulting) job, I struggle to strike the right balance. Am I working too little? Am I working too much? What time should I leave work? Should I take my laptop home?

In consulting, you had very tight deadlines, so you knew you had to finish a piece of work within a few weeks / months. When the project is finished, you’re done and on to the next one. However, in an industry job, you may have some projects and urgent deadlines, but for the most part the work is business as usual. At any given time, there is always work to do.

Sadly, determining the right amount of working hours is more than just about doing your job. It is about branding yourself. I sit next to a guy that I like to call the Hour Police. He comments on the comings and goings of our co-workers. “How is this guy identified as a high potential talent? He leaves work every day at 6:30pm.” or “She arrives at 9:30am and leaves at 6pm every day. She doesn’t seem very motivated.”. 

For the Hour Police and perhaps others, your work hours are a reflection of how diligent and ambitious you are and maybe even how good you are at your job. A 2010 research shows that many managers have this attitude. The more you work, the better you are perceived, and the more bragging rights you have. Yes. You’re a hero for working all those hours.

However, let’s examine the other side of the coin. The Hour Police himself works every from 8am to 9pm. I’ve heard others ponder: “Does he really need to work 13-hour days? Is he just working longer and not necessarily smarter?” or “Does he live in the office? When does he ever spend time with his wife?”.

Given his 65 to 70 hour work-weeks, the Hour Police is perceived as inefficient, unproductive, and even uncaring. This Economist article seems to suggest that working less may mean we’re more productive. After all, as the graph below demonstrates, the less hours worked per person, the higher their GDP per hours work, meaning the higher their productivity. Correlation? Causation? Unsure, but it does show that Germans work less than the Greeks, and we know which one has the more productive economy.

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Also, from a longer-term perspective, longer hours may cause you to be perceived negatively in other ways. As research on white collar workers shows, working long hours can double your odds of depression, and of course being overworked leads to greater stress levels. When you’re stressed and / or depressed, you’re less likely to seem on top of your game. You may bark at your co-workers, dress sloppily, and even develop creepy-looking, stress-induced eye twitches (yup…been there).

Perceptions aside, studies also show that spending long hours at the office can actually kill you. You have a 40 to 80% greater chance of getting heart disease. If accelerated death is the cost, then you better make sure your work and its rewards would be worth it.

Therefore, it seems that the Goldilocks approach may be the most appropriate. Don’t work too much, don’t work too little. Work enough that’s just right.

How to cold email (and get a response)

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Yesterday, I received a cold email that went something like this:

“Hi. My name is __________, and I am a student at Harvard Business School. I would like a job as  a _[INSERT vague job title]___ at your company. Attached is my resume. I would like to chat about this opportunity. I look forward to your response.”

I think this is a great example of what NOT to do with a cold email. First of all, I don’t know you, so why would I want to give you a job right off the bat. Second, this generic job title doesn’t even exist at my company, so it’s clear that you haven’t researched my company.

There’s nothing wrong with cold emails. In fact, I get quite a few cold emails from eager and ambitious MBA students and alumni. My response rate thus far is 100%. However, there is a good way and bad way to reach out, and how you reach out can affect how likely and willing someone is to help you.

What NOT to do:

1. Give too much or too little information: In my last company, an anxious student wrote to one of our partners saying that he had a dream last night. He wandered around the corridors of our office and suddenly found himself in front of the partner’s office. He was so excited and eager to enter until he found himself completely naked. Can you believe he wrote that in a cold email?!? Creepy….

Alternatively, giving too little information is also counterproductive. I’ve gotten emails with as little information as: “My name is ______. Give me a job______. Reply to me soon.” I don’t talk to people or refer them to my contacts because I get paid to do so. Therefore, your job in a cold email is to give me a reason to be interested in you. Why should I want to talk to you? Why should I refer you to one of my contacts?

2. Misspell contact’s and / or company’s name: This is one of the worst mistakes you can make, but the easiest to prevent. Last year, I referred a student to one of my contacts because I thought she had a great background and seemed quite sharp. Things were peachy until she referred to my contact by the wrong name, even though his name was in the email address and I spelled out his name clearly in my prior exchanges with her. Nothing says I don’t care about you more than messing up their name. Also, misspelling the company’s name shows that you just don’t care enough about the company. Double check. Triple check. Just make sure this does not happen.

3. Spelling and grammar mistakes: I tend to be more forgiving if someone is a non-native English speaker, but I’m probably an exception. Use spell / grammar check or a grab an English-speaking friend. These simple mistakes make you look unprofessional and incompetent.

4. Ask for a job straight away: It’s good to indicate what you’re interested in. However, demanding a job in the first cold email is too much. It’s like asking to marry someone on a blind date. You don’t do it. In the cold emails, the primary goal is NOT to get a job straight away. The goal is to get the other person interested in you. Once I am interested, then I will want to spend my time talking to you. In a phone conversation, your goal is to get me to trust that you are a capable individual with great IQ and EQ and could be a good fit in my company. Once you gain that trust, then I will be more likely to refer you to one of my contacts. This is a marathon not a sprint.

What to do: 

1. Give them a hook: Cold emails should provide a reason why the contact should be interested in you or would want to talk to you. The reason could be anything. It could be giving the contact an opportunity to talk about themselves and how fabulous their career trajectory has been (people love talking about themselves). It could be that you joined the same student clubs or have similar backgrounds, so the contact feels some sort of invisible tie to you.

2. Offer a (reasonable) next step: Instead of asking directly for a job as the next step, you should ask for something that is still relatively non-committal. Ask the contact for a 30 min chat. Make sure that the chat is for you to learn about them and them to learn more about you.

3. Personalize the email: I hate receiving emails where you can clearly tell someone used a template and just changed the recipient’s name. It feels like dating one of those douchey guys that just call every girl “Sweet Cheeks”.  It’s shallow and repulsive. You don’t want to convey either of those feelings. Therefore, it’s important to make it seem that you’ve done your research on not only the company but also the person you need a favor from.

What happens when your career is stuck?

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Recently, a friend of mine quit her job. She had been in the same position for 4 years without any prospect of moving into a new role. She had tapped her manager and her internal network for years, but nothing came. In her mid-thirties, she knew she needed to take action before she became truly stuck.

Unfortunately, my friend’s case is not unique. Especially in the 30’s / post-grad school level, I’m seeing quite a few talented, young business professionals getting stuck. They are stuck because 40 and 50 year-old’s in the next level are also stuck, creating what is being coined “the grey ceiling” and backing up the talent pipeline along the way. They are stuck because the company doesn’t get rid of under-performers but simply “repositions” them.

As a result, the following scenarios usually play out when young professionals are stuck:

1. You work longer and harder. To vie for that one promotion (because someone finally retired!), you compete with at least 10 smart, capable, driven co-workers for that golden spot. As a result, you try to get an edge by gluing yourself to the office. If you do end up getting the promotion, then the question is will you have to go through this all over again?

2. You keep moving laterally. You squeak long and often enough to your manager, your manager’s manager, and anyone who’s willing to listen. As a result, the powers-that-may-be answered your prayers for a new position, but it turns out that it’s not up but sideways. The good thing is that at least you get a holistic perspective trying out different job roles. The bad thing is that years later you still find yourself moving in a crab-like fashion.

3. You’re bored. This is the worst scenario because you’re young, good looking, and ready to do something meaningful. At this point, you’ve invested a boatload of money and time into your education, so the worst thing that can happen is that you waste all that potential by sitting idle at your desk, pretending to work while surfing Facebook / Instagram / Twitter. 20 years later, you find yourself still sitting idling but at a desk in the basement with the same job title (and stapler).

4. You’re bored but enterprising. This is basically Scenario #3 but instead of surfing social media sites, you end up using that idle time and potential to start your own gig. Another friend of mine has been doing this for months. He wakes up early every morning, goes to work to fulfill the minimum requirements, and focuses his energy on his start-up. He’s about to quit his corporate job and launch his start-up full-time. Good for my friend, but not so good for his company.

5. You quit. Sometimes, you gotta get out to go up. As much as you may like your company, if there’s limited upward mobility, then sometimes the best thing you can do for your career is to look elsewhere. Another friend of mine did just that. He went from years of being individual contributor to a job at another company that was willing to give him people and a budget to manage. The company and your manager may have the best intentions to help you progress, but sometimes you have to be very keen about what is possible and what is probable.

 

Managing work during stressful times

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For the last couple of months, work has been killer. My former boss moved onto a new position and took a long leave before the new boss arrived. During these transitional times, I not only inherited work from my old boss, but also continued with my primary responsibilities while on-boarding my new boss.

All of a sudden, more emails, deadlines, and meetings all started charging my way. People from all sides needed decisions / recommendations / input while I was still trying to figure out what was the issue at hand. Meanwhile, a large, hot spotlight was on my back as I had to continue running our group before my new boss was fully onboard.

My first reaction was to bang my head against the desk…repeatedly. After discovering that head-banging did not resolve any issues, I then proceeded to take deep breaths…until my desk neighbor thought I was becoming asthmatic. Finally, I took some more sensible steps to manage (and attempt to reduce) my stress.

  • Prioritize: I turned to my tried and true method for dealing with “ALOT of stuff.” I listed all of my work tasks and prioritized each item based on urgency and importance. What do I need to do NOW? What can I push back on? What can I delegate? What can I ignore? I think this is critical from transforming a large blob of work to manageable tasks. 
  • Focus: My inbox has been overflowing with emails. While sometimes I find it irresistible to check every single email that comes through, the key to getting things done is to focus on what you are doing. I started scheduling specific times to check email. I’d tell myself, “OK. You will work on this for 45 mins and check your email for 15 mins.”
  • Negotiate: I find many times what people request in emails can be very different than what they actually want. Investing in a 5 to 10 minute phone conversation to figure out what they really need can be such a time saver. A request can go from “I need every competitor product sales for the last 5 years” to “I just need these 3 product sales for the last 5 years”.
  • Decide: Indecision can generate more workload. A decision may be held up because more information, analysis, and stakeholder buy-in are needed. However, the longer a decision is stalled, the greater the ripple effect on other people’s work. When time runs out, the indecision manifests itself into a series of painful fire drills. Therefore, I find that action generally trumps inaction when running a business. Sound and efficient decision-making can save yourself and others a tremendous amount of work later on.
  • Step Out: Sometimes, you find out that the sky is falling and then more bad news follow, pushing you to the brink of a heart attack. When this happened to me recently, I shoved my computer away and went for a walk (without my phone). It turned out to be a great move. The walk allowed me to not only calm down but also helped me put the situation into perspective.
  • Celebrate small wins: I relish the feeling I get when crossing out an item on my to-do list. I can actually feel a small rock removed from my shoulders. Crossing out items also signifies that you’ve made progress. You set out to do something and you did it. I think it’s important to celebrate these small wins to encourage yourself to keep moving and progressing.
  • Stay Healthy: The automatic reaction to stress tends to be sleep less, consume more caffeine and carbs, and cut out exercise. However, I find myself utterly useless when I’m sleep, nutrition, and exercise-deprived. Forcing yourself to sleep, exercise, and eat vegetables are actually better for your productivity.

Completely cutting stress out of your life is near impossible. Instead, I think the key is how to manage stress and perhaps even turn it into a positive trigger.