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by Sandra Prior
What would you do?
You're sitting down to dinner with your lovely spouse/significant other/huge brood. You've just grabbed a buttered roll/slab of meat/piece of sushi and enquired of the kids/wife/luscious-hottie-you-just-met how their/her day might have been. The mood is warm. The full-bodied wine is flowing, and so are your feelings. The office is a million miles away.
Your cellphone rings. The air around you curdles. This has happened before. Nights ruined. Weekends burnt to a crisp. Romantic, bucolic or otherwise personal events blown to smithereens. The group/person/angry cloud across the table from you freezes midbite. You reach into your pocket, grab your phone and look at the little glowing screen. Charles, says the screen. But you knew that already, didn't you? Because the ringtone is Bob Dylan's ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’, the one you selected specially for your boss. Seemed like a joke at the time. Now it's not so funny. Do you answer the phone?
It's a Friday afternoon. You and your family have cleared all obstacles and planned a weekend stay at the coast. The kids will have their own room. You and your wife have sprung for the suite with the Jacuzzi. The car is packed. The bags are, too. You're at work, at your last meeting of the week and you can almost taste the salt water. ‘So,’ says Charles, who long ago chose to be a Very Powerful Person and abjured all other experiences in life. ‘I was thinking we should break the back of the presentation we'll be giving to the board in November’ - three months away - ‘and grab some sandwiches around lunchtime tomorrow to go over the major talking points.’ A disgusted silence settles around the conference table. This, of course, is nothing new. Charles is a beast. He's had two divorces and is well on his way to a third. His only friends are business monsters who live to see one another fail. His suits cost more than you earn in a week. He has nothing to do on Saturdays and likes to have company to do it with. Do you speak up?
It’s 4.45pm. The meeting with key customers is tomorrow. Work is flying everywhere. But you're scheduled to appear at 5.15pm at the sideline of your son's first soccer match, where you'll help coach his team. Little Sam likes it when you're there, and is fairly unforgiving when you're not.
Charles enters your office. His hair is peeling away from his scalp. ‘We're not ready for this thing,’ he says. ‘Order in some pizzas. We're going to be here till dawn.’ Little Sam is waiting for you on the field, his face shining with anticipation, his tiny heart beating with excitement like a sparrow's. Your boss is standing before you, and he truly needs you to be a hundred percent engaged right now. Whose agenda do you satisfy?
Before we see how you scored, let me make two things clear. Firstly, these are not easy issues, especially in these economic times. Secondly, the way you resolve them will determine the quality of your life going forwards. So no pressure. Most of us think reactively in these situations. We cruise along, developing our work life and our family life, and when they bump up against each other we do the best we can to keep both in sync. Most of us opt to please our office masters a great deal of the time, telling ourselves we’re also serving those who rely on our income. That's a cop-out.
To make choices and feel comfortable with the consequences you need the two legs of any good plan: a goal and a strategy for accomplishing it. So let's think. If you had to articulate that goal, what would it be? How about...
To grow to ever-increasing levels of power and affluence at work without becoming a pathetic troll who lives for nothing but work, and to build a life that has meaning so that I do not die alone, unloved, unmourned and unwashed in a cavernous mansion.
Okay, how would a man reach that objective? If you had to articulate an appropriate strategy, what would it be? How about...
To work hard to build credibility and relationships that make me essential to the operations of the company while at the same time setting rational limits on people's expectations of me and always conveying the message that my family is as important to me as my success at the office and that my dedication to the people I love will not be shaken unless the wellbeing of the corporation is on the line, and probably not even then.
Not bad. The key part is setting limits on what is otherwise an unmanageable force intent on exploiting you and eradicating your personal life. This training can only take place over time, the way you would housetrain a dog - with consistency, rationality and firmness. Only you're not training the corporation to pee outside. You're training it to let you have a life.
Lets consider our three scenarios again, and look at the two ways they could be managed - by reflex, or by the implementation of our formal strategy.
Do you answer the phone?
The knee-jerk response is yes. Earnings were off 20 percent last quarter. And the boss is calling you at home. Wrong. Choosing to be temporarily unreachable is the proper response here. Staying independent isn't always easy. Not long ago my wife and I were having dinner at our favorite romantic restaurant. The mood was sweet. My cellphone rang. I answered it. Months later she's still angry with me. What if I'd ignored the call and checked voicemail an hour later? Nothing. Well, perhaps the illusion that I'm a monkey at the end of a leash might have been damaged. Is that so bad?
Do you speak up?
The non-strategic wage slave says, Yes, do with me what you will. Everybody knows the work could be done on company time, but Charles likes to spend his weekends playing with his toys, and you're one of them. But you have a strategy. ‘Chaz,’ you must say, ‘as I've told you several times, my entire family is leaving town in about nine minutes. I'll be in early on Monday and ready to tackle our talking points then.’ If Chuck pushes back, say it again. Hang with it. Ninety-nine out of 100 bosses will let you go. That hundredth? He must die, but that's another story.
Whose agenda do you satisfy?
What, are you an idiot? Of course you stay at the office. Your work takes priority when the marbles are on the line. In fact, your willingness to drop everything when it really counts is what earns you the right to establish limits.
Work always takes precedence when your boss seems frightened, or you're scared out of your own gourd. It also comes first when your gut tells you that's the right play. I'm serious about this last point. All your loyalties are important. When you're true to each of them, the right answer will be deep within you. You'll feel it. Unless, of course, you're a demented business machine hurtling towards destiny.
In that case, go out and make as much money as you can, fast. You're going to need it.
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