Reflections on Ten Years and Counting in the Professional Services Sector

http://philipbloom.net/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/IMG_4054.jpgTen years ago tomorrow I started this job.  The fact that I continue to learn new things and am inspired by the people around me should tell you how lucky I am to have found my workplace.  I think it also speaks to how interesting working in the professional services sector is.

It is an industry, though, that does not come without its challenges.  Whether it is interviewees, new hires, or existing staff, I often find myself dialoguing with them about that elusive "work/life balance."  I respond by saying that we hold dearly two things simultaneously which are hard to reconcile.

The first is that we value life outside of work.  This may seem obvious, but surely we all know professional services firms whose very business model is predicated on working their workers to the brink and beyond.  After all, if you pay out a fixed salary, why not push someone to work 60, 70, 80 or more hours and get that much more work out of them for the same price?  Especially when it is a relatively handsome salary.  But we owners want to have lives outside of work, and we want that for our employees too.  Small children, sick parents, academics, civic service, athletic/artistic pursuits, travel, and just plain "take care of yourself" are all things we want to make sure our employees feel they have time to give themselves to.  And we try to model this in our own lives, so that folks don't hear with our words that it's OK to have a life outside of work but then watch us say with our actions that it's not OK.  I was heartened to hear an employee tell me that my encouragement to him to pursue something outside of work was received genuinely because he sees that I take my family obligations seriously and always make time for them even at the expense of being more productive at work.  So the "life" part of work/life balance is something that's important to us on the "work" side.

And yet, at the same time, being in the professional services field means being beholden to our clients and their needs and deadlines and anxieties and not our own.  If three proposal deadlines fall on the same week?  If the client's meeting with the governor got moved up three days?  If the client failed to give us the info we needed until two days before the report is due but the report still needs to be done on time?  Things can conspire to make for short turnarounds and long hours and high stress levels.  But we hold as paramount that however high our client needs us to jump, we're going to do it.  Again, this may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to fall into a mentality of "consulting would be so much easier if it wasn't for these pesky clients and their demands."  Never mind, of course, that without those clients we cease to exist as a viable business.  And so the client's needs, deadlines, and anxieties come first.  Which means that sometimes we have to really bust it in order to get it all in.  I've taken panicked client calls at all of my kids' extra-curricular activities (and ran multiple emergency meetings by phone from the hospital just days after Asher was born), worked feverishly on a report for one client while on an airplane to and from another client, and yes even worked 50+ hours the week after I had heart surgery.  Again, it may seem humorous to say that work would be great if it weren't for all of our clients asking for stuff, but in all seriousness if we don't take care of them they're going to take their business elsewhere.  So we sure as heck are going to bust our tails taking care of them.

This probably still doesn't answer the question of how to achieve that elusive work/life balance.  And, on one level, that is why that balance is so elusive, is that it is so hard to find it.  But I think we do a pretty good job of letting folks have lives outside of work but still maxing out as needed to be there for our clients.  It helps to have really smart and really motivated and really energized people.  It helps to build in some redundancy so that people can be away - whether planned or unplanned - and others can step in to assist.  But it does take sacrifice, on both sides: realizing that sometimes work is going to suffer, and sometimes life is going to suffer.  Whether or not that's a satisfactory answer for folks, I can't say.  But it is where we are now, and though I struggle daily I'm largely happy with where I am for myself and how I am as an example to others on this issue.
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