Have time for your mistress and wife

Beating the 24/7
November 15, 2002

Winston Fletcher, chairman of the Royal Institution and of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance, has produced a short but effective book that looks at the topic of striking a successful work-life balance: how to distribute work and "life" within what the book calls "your basic waking week" (that is, 120 hours, which is the 168 hours in the week less an average of 48 sleeping hours). He has interviewed 16 of the most accomplished UK businessmen and women: Helen Alexander, Sir Christopher Bland, Sir Richard Branson, Sir George Bull, Sir Dominic Cadbury, John Clare, Peter Davis, Michael Grade, Sarah Hogg, Lord Hollick, Nicola Horlick, Colin Marshall, Sir Michael Perry, Lord Stevenson, Sir Richard Sykes and Rosalyn Wilton.

I was struck by the interviewees' openness. The temptation to cover up the trickier parts of strained domestic lives must have been enormous. Each person has a different experience. But no one discusses in full the subject of money. Was it never a driving force?

Of those interviewed, only Branson and Grade have been divorced, and their comments are character revealing. Branson explains: "What I do is so varied it never gets boring. It is fun, great fun." Grade says: "I have always regarded work as my mistress and whoever my partner has been they have had to understand." However, presumably having learnt from domestic failure, he adds: "You have to take time and make time - you absolutely have to."

"This business gets into your bones and your blood," admits Clare, the chief executive of the Dixons Group. "If you love it, you love it." Later, he is candid: "If you are going to get to the top of the business, it is going to demand time and mental energy, so there has to be a huge amount of understanding from your partner. My wife has spent (business) trips wandering around stores with the kids... looking back, I would not want to change anything."

And Alexander, the Economist Group's chief executive, asks openly: "Do I want to change my life? If I did, then I would." She and nearly every business leader makes the point that without a supportive partner, none of them would have been able to achieve what they have. "Both my husband and I work hard. We take responsibility for the household supplies and cooking equally." Sykes, rector of Imperial College, London, observes wryly: "If you spend too much time at home, you will drive your other half mad. If you spend too much time away, you will also drive her mad."

Cadbury simply warns that you should never make the mistake of sleeping above the office; while Lord Marshall, chairman of British Airways, says:

"It is vital for your partner to feel able to have access to you wherever you may be." Bull, chairman of Sainsbury's, tells a bittersweet story:

"Once when I came home my third son was having supper and I had just got back in time. My son said, 'Mummy, who's that?' My wife said, 'That's your father.' And he replied, 'Oh Daddy, you've come home!'" Every interviewee has a love-hate relationship with mobile phones and emails. Bland says: "Mobiles, emails and faxes do make business life much easier. But it also means that unless you turn your mobile off... you can be got at wherever you are." Mobile phones can also bring you down to earth abruptly. "I was having an important business conversation with somebody the other day," Alexander recalls, "and he said, 'I'm sorry I've got to go. The hearse for my mother's funeral has just arrived.'" By far the best of the interviews is with Horlick, an enormously successful and respected woman in business. She is married and has had two sons and four daughters, one of whom died in 1998. It is a heart-rending story told with passion and sincerity. "My daughter died three years ago next week, so it is not that long ago. Working helps me to deal with it because it keeps me busy."

Beating the 24/7 gives an absorbing insight into the ways leading business figures achieve fulfilment in their work and home lives. Fletcher's book is a helpful handbook for every ambitious entrepreneur. Some of it is obvious and basic common sense, but it should be made compulsory reading for anybody appointed to a position of responsibility.

Christopher Ondaatje is a former financier, now chairman of the Ondaatje Foundation.

Beating the 24/7: How Business Leaders Achieve a Successful Work-Life Balance

Author - Winston Fletcher
ISBN - 0 470 84762 X
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £19.99
Pages - 248

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