This is a longer blog than I usually write, but it is a topic that has come up frequently in my coaching and consulting work recently. What follows is an edited extract from my book, “The Spark, the Flame and the Torch“.
I live what, to some, might appear as two lives. One is dedicated to coaching and mentoring leaders and transforming organizational cultures so they become inspiring places for employees, customers, suppliers, and communities. Thirty of Fortune’s Most Admired Companies and 12 of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work for in America are our clients. And I speak to audiences all over the world each year.
My other life consists of skiing in the winter and kayaking and mountain biking in the summer. Years ago, when I was the CEO of Manpower Ltd., I employed a salesman called Mike. He weighed 285 pounds, drank 6 pints of beer each day, and played 36 holes of golf for as many days of the week as he could—which was usually at least six. He was an awesome golfer. As his manager, I could not easily organize him, encourage him to follow any kind of structure, submit reports, or make sales calls. In fact, I couldn’t put him into a box of any kind. Trying to do so, as I soon learned, was like putting socks on an octopus. But his personal production was extraordinary. Clients would call our office and ask to play a round of golf with Mike, so they could personally renew their contracts with us. Yes, Mike was an awesome golfer and he had a waiting list of clients wanting to get onto his dance card. Trying to remake Mike was not only pointless, but probably commercially risky as well. I know a genius when I see one, so I supported him in every way I could and set aside my need for conformity and control. He was a fabulous and high-producing asset for our company.
Lesson #1 – To encourage and achieve high performance, adapt the organization to the employee, not the other way around.
I’ve skied for well over 50 years all over the world, with some of the best skiers on the planet, and I can handle almost any kind of ski terrain. Although I have owned a ski home in the mountains for many years, I found I was spending too little time there because I was constantly traveling on behalf of our clients—just like all the other non-Mike-like consultants.
One day, I wondered to myself, why can’t I be more like Mike? I teach it—why can’t I do it? How could I combine the different aspects of my life—my two passions really—into one seamless whole? What I have learned over the years from coaching others (and sometimes we are cobbler’s children, slow to learn what we teach!) is that when I am following my Calling—my passion—and using my best gifts to serve, I become inspired and am therefore more effective at inspiring others. Yet, far too often, we sigh and say, “Someday, I will do that.”
So, many years ago, I decided to practice what I preach by initially offering two-to three-day retreats for leaders in my home 10,000 feet up in the mountains. We call it the Leadership Summit, and we teach leaders how to ski better and how to be more effective leaders. In addition to attending our Leadership Summits, some clients have chosen to bring their entire senior leadership teams to spend time with us in the mountains. These private skiing and consultation events, and the Leadership Summit, are both opportunities to improve technical competence in skiing while growing as a leader—as well as strategizing and exchanging ideas or discussing challenges, and making new personal and professional friends. Skiing is a great metaphor for all these (see the White Paper describing this here). It combines elements of the personality—personal excellence, competition, physical exercise and conditioning, technical training; and elements of the soul—the sense of oneness, the humility and awe one experiences in the mountains, friendship and interdependence with others, an honoring of the sacred, and a connection to the numinous and larger picture of life. By using the metaphor of skiing, participants leave the experience better skiers and re-energized and re-inspired leaders. Many experience personal transformations that change their lives forever.
Lesson # 2 – There is no such thing as “work-life-balance” because there aren’t two things – there’s just one, and it’s called “Life”. We all yearn for integration, not balance.
In a typical winter, I ski over 100 days. People look at me when I mention this to them and they sigh wistfully, saying, “Oh! How I envy that!” But there are two realities here: 1) This is a choice—I have chosen this format and adapted my life and professional practice in order to embrace my different passions, and 2) It’s not all play. I ski every day, but I work every day, too, and many leaders will work very hard with me—to become more inspirational leaders through skiing. It’s not a boondoggle—it is a big personal and organizational stretch—for my guests and for me. Marsha Sinetar wrote a book called Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow. The advice is in the title. Life is too short to stifle our creativity—if we identify our passions and blend them into unique and valuable resources, we will develop magical and inspiring opportunities to serve and prosper. Funny thing, my dance card now looks a lot like Mike’s!