Family first. ALWAYS.
In my world, nothing comes before family. Ever. While we typically introduce and even define ourselves in the context of the work we do, our lives are composed of far more than work. Each of us is a whole person—engaged in the lives of other people who are hopefully extremely important to us. Long before I define myself as a creative starter and driver of businesses, I am a mother, wife, daughter, sister, cousin, friend, board member and volunteer—with and for my core and extended family. We each have our own custom labels that simultaneously define our connections. Hopefully they also define how we make choices.
Some business leaders claim that business is business and no place for emotion, personal issues or other spillover from the rest of our lives. I disagree. I am a whole person and I hire whole people. The highest achievers on our teams are consistently those who live rich, full, messy and even complicated lives. These people “show up” and squeeze the most into each day in order to get the most out of every moment.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve always worked hard to make room for the whole-life obligations and demands of those with whom I work because it feels right—and it is right. At twelve, I learned firsthand that not to do so feels wrong—for everyone. My mother, an amazingly gifted early-childhood teacher, was an only child. At one point, she worked for someone who “charged a high price” when anyone needed to miss even a few hours of work. Because money was always tight, my mother felt she could not risk her job. Even if it meant going to work with food poisoning, so long as she was not contagious, my mother worked. She would choose to put herself through practically anything to avoid asking for time off—even when she should have.
I was 12 when both of my grandparents were in critical condition in the ICUs of two different hospitals while my dad was at a third hospital, undergoing a tricky cardiac test. To avoid her supervisor’s wrath, my mother went to work that day, staying until the last extended day child was picked up after six. That afternoon after school, my brother and I rode the bus to the hospitals to bounce between waiting rooms until she could get there. We were too young to be allowed into the ICUs, but we could listen, watch and use the pay phone if need be. We stood watch in my mother’s stead.
Even then I knew something had to be wrong with this pressure we all had accepted; it felt so wrong. She needed to be with her family, yet she felt so unable to do that. We understood that Mom never left work because she couldn’t. This was just one of many times I watched my mother struggle to choose work first, no matter what.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve found that putting everyone’s family first is always the right priority. People who are committed to family and work rarely take advantage of either; instead, when faced with tough life demands, these capable individuals somehow juggle it all to be present for the most important happenings, even when many issues compete for center stage. Expecting team members to put their family first removes the need for anyone to struggle to make this choice. There is also innate transparency in this model. It removes anyone’s ability to hide behind real or fictitious work obligations as a reason not to show up for family.
As the entrepreneur in charge, I set the tone. Each individual makes his/her own family decisions. In today’s world, there are many different ways to make a family. As a result, to be effective, a family-first model must be free of judgment or comparison. When someone on our team received an urgent text during a complex client call, he popped his ear buds on and seamlessly continued the call from his car as he dashed off to pick up Eddy. A very busy terrier pup, Eddy had gotten so many pink slips from doggie day care that immediate expulsion was the only logical next step after his latest doggie-playground infraction. Eddy’s inconvenient antics are as important a family matter as another team member’s need to move her grandfather from rehab to assisted living and back again, only on a weekday between the hours of 11 and 3. Pipes burst, kids get sick, and sometimes we get blizzards in April. Life brings us all sorts of family emergencies.
Not every issue is an emergency. Some are just plain important and require daylight. While new products and marketing plans can be reviewed on a laptop at night, the preschool Mother’s Day parade cannot be moved to a more convenient time slot.
Once, someone on our team made a big deal about being too “slammed” at work to attend his son’s first kindergarten play. His little boy was playing a tree for hardly more than 14 seconds at precisely 2:20 in the afternoon and yet this manager couldn’t figure out how to be there for his family and get his work done? I heard about this after the fact and I knew he didn’t have a long future with us. It was not because he didn’t make his child a priority; that was his business; claiming to be too busy at work was ours and signaled deeper performance issues. He couldn’t manage his time or his work well enough to get to his own son’s pageant. How could he possibly make effective choices for the clients who hire us? He couldn’t and left us shortly thereafter.
As an entrepreneur, if you think that there is a time when family should not come first, think again. Chances are, you didn’t ask enough questions to get to the heart of the matter, which is where, of course—you will find family. First.