Keith Cowing

Keith Cowing

Product guy. Entrepreneur.
Career advisor. Read bio

How to build a successful career AND a successful family

February 20, 2015

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With busy schedules, technology that keeps us on 24/7, and long commutes, being a working parent is a constant struggle. I am intimately familiar with the problems and tradeoffs. My career is important to me. But so are my wife, my kids, my dog, and the rest of my family. I frequently have to choose between finishing a project and seeing my kids before bed. I don’t have a silver bullet for you. But I do have seven strategies to help you tackle the challenge.

Be honest and specific
I am constantly making trade offs between family and work. But when there is something critical, I know that my family comes first and I am upfront about that. No, I am not afraid that my boss will read this post. I actually told him that before accepting my role. It helps to be specific. I ask to see my son before bed 4 out of 5 weeknights and to travel less than 20% (1 week out of 5). Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to have that conversation. But focus, honesty, and strong principles also make you a valuable employee. Don’t forget that.

Be flexible
If you ask your boss to be flexible, then be flexible in return. It must go both ways. For example, if I want to leave at 6pm to see my kids I may need to work at home from 9-11pm. If I don’t want to fly on Sunday, then I may need to leave at 4:30am on Monday. I do not ask to contribute less to the team (hell no), but I ask for flexibility in when and how I work. There is a critical difference.

Outsource the little things
You need to be pragmatic about getting help. There are three truly key activities: making an impact at work, spending quality time with your family, and taking care of yourself personally (exercise, reading, social outlets, etc.). Everything else, like laundry, dishes, and grocery shopping, just needs to get done. As long as you can afford it, outsource the $hit out of the little things. I am frugal and I take pride in doing things myself. But I recently switched from grocery shopping on Saturday to using Fresh Direct. The dollar trade off was marginal and it gives me an extra hour with my family on the weekend. Easy decision. Show your kids that you work hard and don’t take anything for granted, but outsource the little things when you can.

Draw a pie chart of how you want to spend your time
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Make a pie chart and see how hard it is to fit things in. I didn’t even list commuting, making dinner, cleaning, or projects 4-99. Thinking about life this way will teach you to be ruthless about saying no. With lists, it’s free to add things to the end. With a pie chart, you can visually see the tradeoffs every time you change something.

Lose your phone during family time
It’s hard to do because we’re addicted. So trade phones with your spouse, turn your phone off, toss it in a drawer, do whatever it to takes to have uninterrupted moments with your loved ones. The quality of your time together is so important. Make it count. Every year is ~2% of the time you will spend working, but 5% of the time you will spend living with your kids.

Stop watching television every day
People say you can’t have it all. Well, if you define “all” as a successful career, a great family life, 3 hours to watch movies every night, 2 hours to hit the gym in the morning, and an extensive travel schedule, no – you can’t have it “all.” But you can have a successful career and a successful family life. What you can’t have is 20 other things that also take up your time. So start deleting things that are less important to you. Television sucks up more time than it’s worth. If TV is truly important to you, then save the shows that you love, but don’t watch them every single day. As an experiment, drop television for 7 days and see what you get done. I dare you. Pursuing greatness at home and at work is not for the faint of heart, so make intelligent sacrifices.

Treat your family commitments like a meeting with the CEO
Seriously, pretend you have a meeting with the CEO. Let’s say your last meeting ends at 6:30 and you need to leave at 6:30 sharp or you’ll miss the train. It’s easy to get squirmy, stare at the clock, and miss your train because the meeting ran late. Now let’s say you had a meeting at 6:30 with the CEO. What would you do? You would say, “Folks, I have a meeting with the CEO at 6:30 so I need to leave 5 minutes early.” Then at 6:25 you would stand up, stick your chest out and leave. Your coworkers would understand and they might even hold the door for you. So treat your family commitments the same way. “Folks, I have to leave at 6:25 or I will miss my train home to see my kids, let’s be efficient and wrap this up early.” At 6:25 you remind people about your commitment, stick your chest out and head to the train, offering to handle follow ups after bedtime.

Building a successful career and a successful family is hard. Really. Really. Hard. Honest, flexible, and disciplined leadership is required at all levels in order to make it work. But done right, there is nothing in the world that’s more satisfying.

This post was inspired by my grandmother, Mary Jane Grasty, who passed away after 91 years. She was one of the smartest, toughest, and kindest people I have ever met, all at once. She did physics research with a Nobel-prize winning physicist during World War II and later stayed home with her family. She lived in a time when men chose careers and women chose families. I believe in a world where we can choose both. However, that means embracing a whole new set of challenges. I am happy to embrace those challenges and I am optimistic about the world that my one-year-old daughter will see during her lifetime.

Comments

  • Sandra Frank

    Nice post Keith. Regarding being honest, specific and flexible, I always ask my team what their “non-negotiables” are – not that it’s often possible to accommodate every want but it’s a starting point to an open discussion.

    • http://www.keithcowing.com KeithCowing

      Thanks Sandra! I think a huge percent of problems are driven by improperly set expectations, and I also don’t think that most employees are forward enough to put their non-negotiables out there on their own. So probing for things like this upfront, like you say, is a huge part of effective leadership, IMHO.

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