A client showed me this memo—it was titled “No More Dark Offices!” He was the founder and CEO of a fairly large firm, and the memo explained how he stays in the office every night till 7 p.m. He wrote that when he was walking out, all he could see were “dark offices.” A “dark office” meant no one was in, the employees had left for the day. The CEO wrote in frustration that there should be no more dark offices and that everyone should stay at least as late as he does and work harder.

Few CEOs make such statements explicitly, but in reality many advisory firm leaders are equally frustrated and have the same wish—that somehow their professionals would stay later and work harder. Many feel they can’t say what’s on their minds because such statements would go against the widely held belief in a “balanced life.” Nonetheless, they truly believe that to be successful one has to “balance” more on the work side of the equation.

People at practically every firm I have ever encountered make eager and well-meaning statements about balanced lives. But in most firms, both the leadership and the staff struggle to define what exactly that means.

Consider this problem: It is a Tuesday, and your daughter needs help setting up for the science fair, starting at 4 p.m. Is it OK to leave the office at 3:30 so you can go? More important, does leaving at 3:30 result in you being labeled “a lifestyle professional” and seen as not working very hard? What if it’s not a onetime event? What if you coach a kids’ soccer team that practices every Tuesday at 4 p.m.? No firm ever says “You can’t go to your kids’ events,” but the problem is that in many if not most firms the price you pay for that is the perception that you don’t work hard and that you have chosen family over career.

Defining Balance
The best thing a firm can do to help its younger professionals find the tricky balance of life and work (and for leaders to avoid frustration) is to define what “balance” really means. It’s not just answering the question, “Can I go home early?” It really means clarifying, “Can you go home early and still be successful?”

A more open dialogue can help everyone, and it begins with the expectations of the firm. The leadership cannot and should not make employees’ personal choices—it can only define what is expected of them as professionals and make them aware of the consequences for not meeting those expectations.

Firms, of course, could be much more open in listing everything they expect. It means professionals should understand what they need to do in their career in order to be successful. How many clients should they handle? How much new business should they develop? What participation should they have in the management of the firm? What level of community involvement is expected? An open and explicit statement of expectations will allow a firm to examine the commitments necessary.

Perhaps when everything is said and done, it is very difficult to have a balanced life, and this understanding may help professionals recognize what they can and cannot do in their personal lives. Perhaps after all the work commitments are considered, it is not possible to commit to coaching the soccer team.

When we articulate these expectations, they should raise some hard questions:

• Are the only people who can achieve them people with no kids or family commitments? Or people whose spouses are willing to take care of family while they pursue their careers?

• Are we creating expectations that cannot be met by some employees—specifically, working parents?

• How much are we really dedicated to giving our employees a balanced life?

A big accounting firm I once worked with budgets the time of its professionals with the expectation they will work 2,500 hours a year—about 500 more than you’d get from the standard 40 hour week. You may agree or disagree with that schedule, but at least everyone knows what is expected. It’s explicit.

Beware Your Own Example
Work-life balance is truly a question of the values inherent in a firm’s culture. In most things cultural, the best definition of values usually comes from the example set by the leaders. If they are always in the office from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., it will be difficult for others to leave early without some damage to their career. This will be true no matter what is said out loud—the example will always trump the statement made in the “Our Culture” PowerPoint presentation.

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