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Paul Schmitz
Public Service Leader

Paul Schmitz

Paul Schmitz is CEO of Public Allies, which, through AmeriCorps and other programs, identifies and prepares young community and non-profit leaders.

Single Dad and CEO

I just returned on Wednesday from a one week vacation with my children -- with my nine-year-old daughter and twin six-year-olds -- so the question of how leaders vacation is timely. As a single father and CEO, I believe strongly in life-work balance and over time have crafted three principles that guide me:

First, there is never a good time to go on vacation so I just have to schedule it and do it. There are so many demands on my schedule that make it difficult to just take off. I say this to staff when they ask about their own vacation needs. If I wait for things to slow down so I can do it, it will not happen. Burn-out is subtle and often creeps up over time as the combination of constant action and routine limit my creative juices and energy. I just have to make the time and then hold it sacrosanct.

Second, if I am so indispensable that I cannot be on vacation without being totally plugged in, I am not doing my job as a leader. Last August, I was five minutes into a board meeting - the meeting when we pass our annual goals and budgets - when I learned that my son had lacerated his chin and was on his way to Children's Hospital. I had to leave the meeting right then, which was fine because my COO knew everything I knew, was on the same page as me, and was able to lead the staff side of the meeting for the rest of the day.

Third, staff may only contact me about things that are absolutely urgent and that only I can handle. My iPhone is my weather, my news, my GPS, my music, my phone, and my email so it of course travels with me, but I am not tied to it. On this trip, I took one call, a reference for a close colleague that had to be done before I returned. I did glance at my email, but I had the auto-reply on and, according to my "sent" folder, only sent five work emails during the week.

There are crises that call us back. I was on family leave after the birth of my twins when AmeriCorps was being defunded and possibly killed in 2003. I had to plug back in and even make a trip to DC during that time. There really was no other choice as CEO at that time.

I made up that four-week leave a year later and set up a system with my assistant where he created a new Outlook folder titled "Urgent Mail," and he would read my emails and drop the urgent ones into that folder. We then set my PDA so that it only synched emails from that folder. I responded to those messages and occasionally made a call-in response, which meant that I returned to work refreshed but not surprised or disappointed by lost opportunities or poorly managed crises.

These principles have firmed up as I've matured as a leader. What I considered a crisis worthy of interrupting a vacation was much different ten years ago than today -- the burden of proof is much higher. Even more importantly, I have many mentors and every single one has told me that if they could do it all over again, they would have spent more time with their kids. No leader I admire has ever told me they wished they had worked harder and sacrificed their personal lives and families more for their work.

I abide by that counsel and ensure that time with my kids, who live with me half-time, is not spent on the phone, the computer or PDA. Of course, I have to sometimes, but it is the exception and not the rule. I flex my hours to ensure that time, often working at night when they go to bed. I think I do better at work and as a father as a result.

That can cause frustration. I recently had a VP who was upset because they wanted me to do something one night when I was returning home after being away from my kids for five days. Delaying the task to the next morning would not impact the outcome of their work, only their personal timeline, so I said: "No." The VP said, "Watch out, I may use that on you." I responded by telling them that one month before I called an employee for some information, and he answered the phone and I could hear kids in the background. He told me he had taken the morning off and was at a playground with his daughter. I told him to call me when he clocked in and hung up. I am consistent on this.

I believe that the balance I try to strike makes me more effective. I have had some of my best insights and strategies emerge when I have been away from the office and unplugged from the day to day. And a good vacation brings me back energized and feeling excited to be back. I see peers who are workaholic leaders addicted to their PDAs and who don't believe they can get away. I can't live like that, and I don't want an organizational culture like that. We work hard and put in the hours needed to achieve our goals, but we also value family time and time-off equally. We've been a successful, fast-growing organization so it must work.

By Paul Schmitz

 |  August 13, 2009; 8:25 AM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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A great column. Mr. Schmitz sounds like a very thoughtful person, good leader, great Dad and all around nice guy. Greatly enjoyed reading this and would probably enjoy working at his org.

However, it doesn't sound like Mr. Schmitz is a single dad. The column says his kids are with him half-time, I'm assuming this means he has joint custody with an ex-spouse.

This is very different from being a single parent. Like an earlier poster, I am a widowed father, raising two girls. I consider myself a single parent. I don't understand why divorced parents sharing custody call themselves a single mom or dad. Perhaps we need some expanded vocabulary to cover all the flavors of parenting and families.

Posted by: CPDad | August 19, 2009 10:42 AM
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I too am a single father who has custody of my children half of the time and, although not a CEO, work in an executive capacity in a for-profit company in Washington. I am able to flex my time as needed, work at home when a child is sick, take unplugged vacations and still make significant contributions to my firm. I also travel internationally quite a bit, but even then I arrange almost all of my travel around the weeks during which I do not have custody of my children (a 13 year old son and a 7 year old daughter). I also make sure that all of those who work for me have the exact same freedom when it comes to establishing work-family balance. By allowing this flexibility in their lives, I know that I get more out of them during their work hours than I otherwise would get if I were hard core about such matters.

Before I began working for my current employer, I owned my own company and exercised the exact same approach to work-life balance. And that was also a good investment by me because I know that their productivity was increased because they had this freedom. Had I been miserly regarding this issue they would most certainly have been less productive and we would have been less profitable.

It really is about establishing your boundaries with your boss and company. Those who work in the White House 18 hours a day have chosen to do this; no one is forcing them to do it. Perhaps the very nature of that job space requires such devotion and if so, and they choose this path, then they have little room to complain.

Life is short and the time your children are living with you is even shorter. People need to take advantage of this time of their lives so as not to harbor regrets in later years.

Posted by: kford1 | August 15, 2009 5:40 AM
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While I admire Mr. Schmitz & his devotion to work/family life balance, I wonder how this plays out for his employees. I've had many a boss who thought it was great they could take a vacation or leave for Jimmy's soccer game or rush home in an emergency but if I ( a mid-to-upper level manager) requested the same would almost always be denied. It reminds of a recent article about the Obama White House being 'family friendly and staff commenting, "Yes, friendly to the Obama family - we work 18-20 hours a day!"

Posted by: jerseygirl5 | August 14, 2009 3:41 PM
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It is exceedingly rare to have a leader - male or female - who speaks of this work/life separation as having value and also DOES it (well, he does it 50% of the time). I had a senior leader tell me "Enjoy your kids while they are young, but don't tell anyone I said that." Nice.
My job would take all my time if I let it - and I'd get promoted. But I would rather LIVE my life, work, exercise, hobbies, family - enjoy my kids and my husband 100% of the time I am away from work. It IS a trade off, you cannot have it both ways.

Posted by: NoVaMusicMom | August 14, 2009 2:52 PM
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What a great column. I would love to work for this man. And I am glad I don't work for the folks who say, it can't be done unless you work for a nonprofit. Successful executives know how to unplug.

Posted by: chrismadison1 | August 14, 2009 2:14 PM
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This guy runs a non profit. It is not his money that is frittered away. Let him work in a business where his own capital is at stake, and he won't be so cool as to tell staff not to bother him.

Posted by: edgar_sousa | August 14, 2009 1:18 PM
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On the one hand I'm glad a CEO is advising others on how to balance work and life. On the other, I find it sad that this kind of thing is necessary. I saw one reader comment on how the Germans have figured out, as a society, how to balance the two, and I think the same is true of a lot of European societies. For the most part, they get it--the idea that your time on earth is limited, so why spend so much of it simply working and "achieving," when, in essence, the stuff of life is the time you spend with close friends and family.

This is not to say work isn't important. For more than 20 years, I did my job very well, worked diligently, and even climbed the management ladder, only to be laid off a couple years ago-another vicitim of the ongoing recession.

I've since been a freelancer who works from home, where part of my "job" is take care of two preteen kids. This kind of situation, though financially scary at times, shifts your perspective, making you realize how fragile careers really are, and how important relationships.

There's no magic formula for balancing work and life. But I'm no longer someone who feels the need to join the rat race. If anything, I'm now focusing on work I truly enjoy while being there, almost constantly, for my kids. This isn't the "mommy" track, it's the human one--the one I prefer being on.

Posted by: Richishar | August 14, 2009 10:24 AM
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I'm a widowed single dad of a seven-year-old boy. The week we lost his mother was the week I started a new career at 35 (a research-based position, including supervising a large staff). It has been difficult at times to balance the two sources of great demands: my son's grief, building a whole new career. Luckily, I had some strong professional mentors in place. When I was home, or if we were traveling, I did my best to save any work for when he was asleep, and the tasks surrounding his next day were complete (lunch, laundry, etc.). When I am away, my staff only call me with emergencies they cannot solve; if I am home with a sick child, same thing. We're four+ years into this life. One day I'll reflect back and understand what worked and what didn't.

Posted by: vn11701 | August 14, 2009 8:49 AM
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As a government worker in upper management, I am routinely disappointed to see my leaders go on vacation and take their blackberries with them, and expect to be contacted daily with updates on every menial task or event. And if they aren't contacted they call in and want to know why.

I think people like that are pathetic and poor examples of leadership. Not only do they expect the same of their subordinates, but they destroy their lives as well.

I've seen plent of my peers' lives end in divorce, and their children become strangers.

And for what?

We didn't have to live or work like this 20, 30, 50 years ago. Why do we have to live like this today?

We don't.

Posted by: trambusto | August 14, 2009 8:14 AM
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Sounds like you have this right. I had a mentor who had a policy - one that I have adopted for myself as CEO of my company - that when he was on vacation, he was not to be inturupted unless 1)there was something very good to report and knowing it would only make his vacation better, or 2)only his intervention could avert a problem. Don't call me with bad news that will ruin my time with my family. Fix it yourself. If you are not able to do that, then I have failed as a leader.

Posted by: HENRYIIX | August 14, 2009 7:18 AM
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Interesting to see a father on the mommy track. Probably couldn't get away with it in a for-profit organization.

Posted by: swmuva | August 14, 2009 3:18 AM
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Dear Readers,

I agree with Paul Schmitz essay. I have lived in Germany this past year from July 2008 to October 2008 and since January 2009 and the Germans are very good at separating work and social life I have noticed and heard from Germans and other friends of mine. It is very important to balance the two aspects of life of work and play especially when it comes to family time. Also, an unwritten rule for employees is no contact on vacation or when you are scheduled to leave and arrive e.g. I work 9 AM to 5 PM no contact after 5 PM until I arrive to work at 9 AM via e-mail, text message, telephone call, and post office mail. Also, to really clarify what is urgent and not urgent is something that needs to be explained at the work place. For at the end of they day the most important aspect is a healthy staff and having quality time for yourself and with family and friends.


Posted by: amazingakadino | August 14, 2009 2:44 AM
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