F*ck Work/Life Balance; Try Creative Flow Instead


Progressive organizations today talk a lot about work/life balance — the idea that employees should spend a certain amount of time focused on work and a certain amount of time focused on the rest of their lives (family, personal health, leisure pursuits, etc.). And while this is a huge step forward from the “work is your life” ethos of the past centuries (which a shocking number of organizations still adhere to), it misses the point.

First, work/life balance implies that we are in a zero-sum game: that work time and the rest of life exist in opposition and that time spent in one area degrades the other. That we need time away from work to recover from it (if this is your reality, there’s a more elemental discussion to have about your job).

Work Is Life

My experience is that work is essential to human life, and not just because it sustains us with money and food. Work is how humans express themselves; it is literally how we create something bigger than ourselves. It is how we take ideas and bring them to life.

Second, work/life balance often is seen as dividing up the day into inviolable sectors and one should never intrude on the other. In this view, the key to happiness is getting the balance of the sectors right: eight hours a day to work, eight hours to sleep, four to family, one to exercise, two to eating, one to general leisure — as if a healthy life is just an elaborate scheduling exercise.

It’s All About Creative Flow

The reality for most people is that these spheres of existence intermingle and are not always under our control. Inspiration hits us in the shower; a friend wants to connect in the hallway at work; our kids want attention when they get home from school (or not).

So instead of work/life balance, truly innovative organizations and leaders think about creative flow. Instead of neatly delineated sectors of the day, these conscious leaders think in terms of rhythms and waves, the peaks and valleys of thought and energy that support our work and the rest of our existence.

These leaders know that it’s not the quantity of work that counts for most skilled workers; it’s the quality of the work. Rather than try to answer every email that crosses their computers as quickly as possible (a prevalent measure of effectiveness today), effective leaders focus on creating time for doing their best thinking. Which creates more value: promptly answered emails or an innovative solution to some long-standing problem?

Creativity Is Not a 9-5 Job

Those valuable ideas and insights generally don’t come while we’re sitting at our desks 9-5. I always got my best ideas away from work: on the ski lift, running that 7th mile, or reading that book at the beach.

Similarly, we can’t always schedule when our 8th grader wants to have that discussion about peer pressure or romance. We can’t always calendar quality time to really connect with our spouse. And fun doesn’t happen on demand.

How to Create More Flow

If we’re focused on enhancing our creativity throughout our day instead of carving up our day into activity sectors, things begin to look much different than they do for work/life balancers. The number-one question conscious leaders ask themselves is: “What practices support me and the people around me to be as energized and creative as possible as often as possible?”

Some common answers:

  • Set aside time for work on my most important projects early in the day and don’t respond to email during that time
  • Get up and move at least once every hour
  • Pay attention to when I have a “No” to something
  • Pay attention to what my body is telling me about any decision (do I feel relaxed or tense about the possibilities; where do I feel pain; is my gut churning; do I have a hunch about this; etc.)
  • Start meetings with a moment of appreciation and personal connection
  • Pay attention to when I am most energetic during the day and schedule my work accordingly
  • Keep a notebook by the bed to jot down those midnight inspirations and insights
  • Set aside time to check email at home because I’m curious, not because I’m afraid of missing something

All of these moves are aimed at increasing creative energy. The result is a day that looks more like a wave with peaks and valleys devoted to work and life intermixed with each other. Each benefits from and supports high achievement in the other.

So, what can you do to support your maximum creative flow right now?

BTW, a great book for creating practices to increase your energy and creativity is “The Power of Full Engagement,” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Here’s a good summary of its key points.

Photo Credit: Radhanath Swami

Forget About Getting it Right (Learn Instead)

baconSuccess: It’s not about the bacon; it’s about learning.

If you’re like most people, you spend a lot of time trying to get things right. Problem is, things move so quickly today that it’s almost impossible to know what the right move is. So why not just give up on being right and focus on learning instead?

Ray Stata, CEO of Analog Devices, puts it succinctly: “I would argue that the rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage, especially in knowledge intensive industries.”

It’s all about increasing your learning agility. This is a skill that you and your team can learn, and it’s based on three key practices:

  • Connection
  • Feedback
  • Responsibility

(If you want to skip ahead and take the short-cut to increasing your learning agility, click here to sign up for the 21st Century Leadership Skills workshop I’m leading in NYC next month.)


If learning from experience is the secret to improvement, then the first essential step is connecting with customers and colleagues so that you can actually get the full experience.

As humans, we connect at the emotional level. Facts can inform us, but feelings connect us. Not only is emotional intelligence — the ability to know and regulate your own emotional state, intuit others’ emotional states, and respond accordingly – one of the keys to success in business; it’s also how you deeply connect with others to hear what’s really going on.

I learned this the hard way when I was one of the leaders of a huge technology project at NBC. As we gathered input from various business groups, we kept hearing pleas to customize the tools or add features. We dutifully enhanced the system to address these requests, only to find users were still not interested.

If we had really listened, we would have heard that users were afraid of the new system: afraid they would not be able to learn it, afraid of leaving behind the inefficient old system they know so well, afraid of staff realignments and cuts stemming from the modernization.

We were hearing requests for technical fixes. We missed the deeper message and as a result, the system essentially died on the vine: $30 million and three years wasted.


Feedback is essential to improvement, and yet most of us will go to absurd lengths to avoid it.

One of my clients is a major resort company. They put on a lot of brunches, and they have a bunch of standard practices that help them get good food to the banquet table at the right time.

One recent Sunday the weather was worse than usual, and so instead of playing outside, guests decided to stay in and go to brunch. As a result, the chafing dish of bacon emptied out almost immediately.

It so happens that there is someone whose job it is to make sure there is enough bacon cooked. His usual practice is to cook six pans of bacon; usually that is more than enough. Not today. When told that he was out of bacon, the bacon chef said: “That can’t be. I cooked six pans. There should be plenty of bacon.” The rest of the conversation was an argument about the six pans not being enough. Meanwhile, the line at the bacon station was only getting longer.

Rather than taking the feedback and using it to adjust his actions, this particular bacon chef was more attached to defending his usual practice.

Agile learners put learning above defending. They don’t argue with reality; they find the fastest way to adjust to the new reality.


Usually when we are talking about responsibility, we are looking for who is to blame for something. But what if, instead of sticking someone else with responsibility for something we don’t like, we looked at how we can claim our own responsibility for creating the outcome we really want?

Like my friend Jack. He noticed that customers were routinely reversing the wiring on the solar inverters his company sold. The engineering team was frustrated because to them, it was obvious which way the wires should go. But experience showed a lot of customers were getting it backwards.

Instead of arguing about how wrong their customers were, Jack asked what his company could do to solve this problem once and for all. The answer: label the wires.

Dive in Deeper

Want to create your own personal plan for learning agility? Executive coach Meg Dennison and I will be leading a workshop on these building blocks for effective leadership in New York City April 27, 2016. 

You’ll get specific tools and strategies for solving your most important issues and upping your learning agility as you gather with other agile leaders in Manhattan 10am-3pm. Here’s the link to find out more. And here’s the link to sign up.

PHOTO: Nick Gray via Flickr

How to Turn a Miss into a Win


Good post on the Harvard Business Review site on how to tell someone you dropped the ball. It hits the important points like:

  • Communicate as soon as you see danger signs
  • Don’t avoid the people you are letting down
  • Be direct and own that you fell short of what you agreed to do
  • Work together to create a path forward
  • Avoid trouble in the first place by allowing yourself to say no to requests you aren’t all in for

All these are essential to maintaining trust and connection with people you may be letting down.

And there are a couple more essential ingredients that can take this to the next level:

Don’t leave out the emotions

Notice what you are feeling when you think about telling your colleague/customer/boss that you will not fulfill your agreement. Do you feel afraid? Angry? Sad? Give yourself permission to fully experience whatever you are feeling so that you can move through it. This will keep you from being run by those emotions going forward — like that desire to avoid facing people you feel you have let down. You might even want to express what you’re feeling to those folks you had the agreement with.

And give the other party to your agreement the chance to feel their emotions, too. You don’t have to “fix” what they are feeling, but creating space for them to express whatever anger, sadness or fear they are facing in the wake of your broken agreement will allow them to move beyond those feelings, too.

The benefit of noticing and expressing these emotions is that you can both stay in connection with each other, perhaps even feeling more connected in the wake of this upset.

What can you learn from this?

It’s one thing to fall short, acknowledge you broke your agreement, express and clean up any hurt feelings, and then move forward. But to take it to the next level, dig into the root causes and learn all you can from the incident. Did you agree too readily to the assignment because you feel insecure? Does this illustrate a pattern of overcommitting? Do you have a habit of running your schedule loosely so that competing events get in the way?

You’ve already paid the price by owning up to your broken agreement, so you might as well get the benefit of learning so you can make root changes and avoid similar problems in the future.

Emotional intelligence and learning agility are the big differentiators in successful leaders and teams, even (or especially) when they miss the target.

PHOTO: ThisParticularGreg via Flickr

Burritos vs. Bonds – Chipotle crushes Pimco


One of the best things to happen in my family’s travel life was the moment several years ago that we discovered a Chipotle Mexican Grill at the exact midpoint of our drive to go skiing in Vermont. After years of suffering through the usual fast food choices, we were thrilled to find there was a tastier and healthier alternative on our route.

Since then we’ve eaten at this same Albany area Chipotle about 100 times. The food always has been excellent — fresh, fast and delicious. And at least as important, the experience has been fun as we interact (very briefly) with cheerful and outgoing staffers there. They always manage to show an interest in their work and their customers.

I’ll always remember the time the manager recognized us as regulars and stopped by to say hi as he made his was through the restaurant. He was clearly interested in us and the rest of his customers and wanted to make sure we were having a good experience. To top it off, as he returned to the kitchen we saw him stop and wash his hands before getting back to the food. We felt well cared for in all respects.

Since then, my family and I have always felt there is something special about Chipotle. Happy employees are one of the sure signs of a good company. It’s one of our most admired companies because they always seem to treat their customers, their employees and their food well.

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot more about Chipotle. First, there was the buzz around their ground-breaking dramatic series “Farmed and Dangerous,” a short soap opera that seeks to build popular support for well-raised food (contrast this with the barrage of TV commercials most fast food chains release touting their latest Franken-food concoction).

Most interesting to me was this recent story about Chipotle’s management culture. Turns out the entire company is based on attracting the best employees at the entry level and then training and developing them to rise through the ranks. Managers are accepted into Chipotle’s special leadership program based on how well they treat and promote their employees. It’s a management system that deeply values people. One result is Chipotle attracts and keeps higher-quality employees who are focused on the employee experience instead of process or product metrics so prevalent in the rest of their industry.

No wonder our favorite Chipotle staffers seem happier than your average fast-food worker.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Pimco, the enormous (and enormously successful) asset management firm. As detailed in this recent New York Times story, that record of achievement is endangered by a poisonous culture that drives off talented leaders (including the man most people expected would become the next CEO) led by a notoriously hard-to-get-along-with leader.

Not coincidentally, investors have withdrawn more than $48 billion from Pimco in the year ending in February.

At Chipotle, leaders rise only if they look out for the welfare of their colleagues. At Pimco, the leader rose at the expense of the welfare of his colleagues. Chipotle is growing fast; Pimco is shrinking fast.

Again, culture has real-world impact, be it burritos or bonds.

Image: Chipotle Mexican Grill

Creating a Culture of Appreciation

Appreciation can increase employee engagement and business performance


Everyone likes to be appreciated — to know that something about us or what we do is seen, noticed and has an impact on someone else.

Appreciation in this context is more than simply noticing. It means that someone is affected by us or what we do on a physical, emotional or spiritual level; that someone has gone beyond just noticing and considered what impact we are having on them. Appreciation is a connection between the appreciator and the person or thing being appreciated.

I’ve seen this sort of appreciation have an almost magical impact on people, changing the dynamics of a situation from argument and anger to openness and agreement in just a few moments. I think back on all the times I sat in meetings picking apart a colleague’s position that differed from mine, readying my counter-arguments, jaw tightening and pulse racing as I waited for the chance to pounce. Then, if I took a minute to notice and appreciate something about them – the clarity of their presentation, their passion for their viewpoint, their command of the facts – I noticed the aggressive energy drain from my body and I was able to have a dispassionate discussion with them, still disagreeing, perhaps, but feeling closer to them as a well-meaning colleague rather than an interloper bent on my destruction.

Appreciation’s quality of connection, of calling out that connection and explicitly recognizing the validity and impact of the other person or thing changes both the appreciated and the appreciator. It’s harder to view someone as your opponent if they have connected with you in a concrete way.

And yet, appreciation is one of the work world’s rarest commodities. I’ve heard dozens of reason to justify not giving or receiving more appreciation (and used many of them myself over the years). See if any of these are familiar:

  • Too much praise or good feeling will make people lazy.
  • People will think I am buttering them up to get something from them later.
  • I’ll sound insincere if I’m always telling people what I appreciate about them.
  • It’s not macho to give or accept appreciation.
  • I get all the appreciation I need in my paycheck
  • It just sounds stupid.

Most workplaces are starved for appreciation. The closest thing to appreciation many workers get is merit pay increases, employee of the month awards and 20-year-service trophies — rote attempts at behavioral modification so impersonally calculated that they only highlight the lack of meaningful engagement between colleagues.

Appreciation is good business

This is a huge missed opportunity for American business and American workers. Appreciation costs nothing (and is more effective at creating high performance than increasing pay). Appreciation creates real connection between people and increases employee engagement with their jobs. Study after study shows that real connection in the workplace drives better business results. And appreciation is just plain fun and inspiring.

The move from a culture of under-appreciation to one of full appreciation can net big benefits in productivity for the company, and increased satisfaction on and off the job for employees. All it takes is some conscious attention on noticing, appreciating and sharing those appreciations for the things and people we come across every day.

Try this as a first step

Pick a colleague (boss, employee, the person sitting next to you, etc.) and focus your attention on them in your mind. Think about the things they do that help the business or your team. Go beyond the superficial (“Nice tie.”) and focus on what really stands out for you. Notice any body sensations or emotions you have as you appreciate what they do. Then form this mass of appreciation into a sentence like: “I appreciate you for the contribution you make to our team by _________________ .”

That alone should change your state of mind for the better and lead to higher engagement with the object of your appreciation (and everyone else). But to really increase the power, verbally communicate your appreciation to the person involved.

Go find the person you are appreciating and get their attention. (Many attention-averse people will try the Drive-by Appreciation or the Stealth Appreciation as a way to avoid actual connection.) You want this to land.

Take a breath and in one out-breath tell them what you appreciate about them. That’s it — no long speech, no love fest, no insincere panegyrics. Just say what you noticed and appreciated the same way you communicate any other essential business information.

Note that an appreciation is not the same as a thank you. It’s not a pat on the back. It’s not given with any expectation of return.

Let your appreciation sink in for half a beat and then resume your regularly scheduled programming.

You’re on your way to creating a culture of appreciation.

(If you really want to super-charge your culture of appreciation, drop me a line.)

Image: http://www.certificatestemplates.org

How Corporate Culture Drives Profits

How leadership, vision, values and behavior drive company profits (and create corporate culture).

These days, it’s not unusual to hear investors and others talk about socially responsible investing, seeing a connection between a company’s social behavior and its economic performance. But back in the late 1960s, when Jay Bragdon was a young investment analyst in Boston, such an idea was fantasy. Bragdon decided to take a look at the numbers, and he found that companies that acted in ways that valued the environment, their community and their employees actually performed better than companies that were focused solely on the financial bottom line. It was the start of a line of inquiry that led him, and many others, to recognize the significance of corporate cultured for companies, their investors and the global community.

With his paper“Is Pollution Profitable? Environmental Virtue and Reward: Must Stiffer Pollution Controls Hurt Profits?” (co-authored with John Marlin), published in 1972, Bragdon launched a school of thought and an investment paradigm that woke business as usual out of its profits trance. And it wasn’t just a fad. Today Bragdon manages millions for clients based on these principles, encapsulated in his Global LAMP Index, an index of companies that practice what he calls “living asset stewardship.” Last year Bragdon’s LAMP Index produced a total return to investors of 30 percent – significantly higher than its global peer group.

So what is the secret to creating a company that is built on respect for “soft” assets like employees, the natural world and sustainable communities? Bragdon uses the metaphor of an iceberg to illustrate the importance of corporate culture, with the financial results being the veritable tip of the iceberg that we can see (and that so many investors, pundits and cable channels are solely focused on). But below that visible portion of the balance sheet lies the bulk of what is happening, the ballast upon which those results float.

What really drives business profits

At the deepest layer are the beliefs that guide the company’s leaders and other employees — basic things like “we believe people are more important than money.” Built upon that is the foundational layer of vision and values — ideas like connecting with nature as a source of inspiration, or governance by a code of ethics instead of expedience. Next up toward the surface are the structures that express these beliefs and values in the company — the HR evaluation systems, or accounting that factors in external costs like carbon emissions. Then, at the level just below the surface, are the actual behaviors of everyone in the company and the company itself — how the company treats employees; how it selects vendors in a way that reduces carbon emissions or safeguards worker health, how colleagues work out differences in meetings, etc.

Taken as a whole, these “under the surface” corporate qualities make up the culture that infuses the company and its employees’ minute-by-minute actions and experiences. This is why culture is so very important.

What’s most amazing about this model is not that it so simply captures the essence of a corporation and how those essential qualities and actions affect profits, but also that the companies that explicitly think about this and put people and the earth first also do very well financially.

In the years ahead, when increasing turbulence and competition have a greater impact on corporate profits, this way of looking at business will be increasingly valuable. It’s a gold-plated wakeup call for companies to consciously choose their culture and create the beliefs, vision and practices that support it.

What’s your corporate culture?

Challenge question: can you describe your company’s culture in one out-breath right now? If you can, take a bow and enjoy it. If you have to think about it, or it doesn’t feel like what you experience every day, congratulations — you’ve just taken the first step to creating the culture that you really want.

Image credit: Jay Bragdon, Global LAMP Index