Teaching the Benefits of Balance

More B-schools are including courses on managing the complex relationship between your career and your life

By Jeffrey N. Gangemi

Without a supervisor and with a heap of new responsibility, James Kisner, a 28-year-old manager of consumer-insights development for ConAgra Foods (CAG ) and a second-year student in the Wharton MBA Program for Executives in San Francisco, quickly found that sleep offered his only real break from work. Before he knew it, Kisner's relationship with his girlfriend -- and his physical health -- were visibly suffering.

Making your career your life is commonplace by now. But a growing niche of course offerings at top B-schools is helping students discover the fine art of balance. Today's future managers are being encouraged, through self-assessment and case studies of companies with progressive human-resources policies, to apply personal-balance considerations to the culture of the organizations they'll one day lead. They're learning that the benefits of encouraging work-life balance can go straight to the bottom line.

Companies that provide balance for their employees rarely regret it, according to the Business Work-Life Study, conducted by the Families & Work Institute, a nonprofit organization providing research on workforce trends. Aside from experiencing greater commitment and lower turnover among employees, 82% of the 1,057 companies surveyed perceived the monetary cost of offering benefits like flextime, time off to attend school or child-care functions, and the opportunity to work at home, as being completely positive or at worst cost-neutral.


  For today's MBAs, balance is important on a personal level, too. Although 59% of MBA students seek to go into financial services, management consulting, or investment banking, according to a study by Universum Communications, a research and consulting group based in Philadelphia, 47% of those same respondents said creating balance between their personal lives and careers is important to them.

And it may be even more important in attracting and retaining top-notch women workers. According to "The New Workforce Reality," a study by the Simmons School of Management and Bright Horizons Family Solutions, an organization based in Watertown, Mass., that provides work-life counseling, 88% of women respondents listed respect for family and personal time as an important attribute in an employer, and 82% said they place value on working for an organization that's flexible in granting time off.

That's why B-schools are trying to help students better juggle their varied responsibilities. Stewart Friedman, a professor of organizational management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches "Total Leadership," a course for both full-time and executive MBA students that preaches greater integration between personal and professional life.


  After students such as Kisner, who took the course this spring, identify their "key stakeholders" -- usually including one's boss, spouse, and family -- they hold "stakeholder dialogues" with each to discuss mutual expectations and how well those are being met.

Students then undertake a self-designed set of leadership challenges designed to affect multiple domains of life at once -- friends, community, office, personal, and family. "It's all about creating synergies between domains," says Mike Cross, a 35-year-old former sales manager for systems and security-management company NetIQ (NTIQ ), who took Friedman's course this past spring.

Cross was able to get his weight problem under control -- and involve his family in the process -- by taking his wife and two young boys on walks in the evenings. He says he previously would have done it alone but saw the opportunity to more effectively use his time and make multiple life improvements at once.


  Connecting life domains requires active reflection. Joe Harder, adjunct associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business teaches a course called "Spirit of the New Workplace," which offers B-school students that rare opportunity for introspection.

Components like meditation and journal writing encourage constant self-assessment. "If you don't think about the things that are important to you, then you start to lose them," says Cherbury Hunt, a May, 2005, Darden MBA, who took the class in January.

Indeed, when individuals are given the opportunity to lead meaningful lives both in and outside the workplace, the benefits are clear. In a course called "Strategic HR for Managers," James Hunt, associate professor of management at Babson College's Olin Graduate School of Business, presents alternatives to the "caffeine culture" of those putting in 80-hour work weeks, which he says is prevalent at many prominent companies.


  If any successful company is a model that embodies the opposite of "caffeine culture," says Hunt, it's SAS Institute, a privately held software company based in Cary, N.C. Hunt leads students through a case study that examines why SAS enjoys a 98% customer-retention rate year-to-year, when the average in U.S. industry is 80%. It also shows consistent growth and profits in the highly competitive software industry.

Students observe connections between customer satisfaction and SAS's 97% employee-retention rate, which alone is estimated to save between $60 million to $75 million annually in HR costs. And with on-site day care, health care, and workout centers, hours that employees would otherwise spend driving to the doctor's office conserved an additional million dollars last year, estimates Jeff Chambers, the vice-president for human resources at SAS.

"I thought the best job was the one that paid the most money," says Marc Vaglio-Laurin, manager of certification test development at SAS, who got his MBA from Duke University Fuqua School of Business in 1989. But having spent seven years in corporate finance with four different companies, Vaglio-Laurin says even after 10 years at SAS, he would never voluntarily leave his post.

By Jeffrey N. Gangemi


  It may not be cost-effective for companies within every industry to encourage work-life balance. Stacey Kole, deputy dean of the MBA program at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and a clinical professor of economics, says the effectiveness -- and the improvements to bottom-line performance -- of work-life friendly HR policies vary from company to company and manager to manager.

Kole teaches a course called "Managing the Workplace," in which she makes a distinction between industries that benefit from attracting and retaining the best talent and those with greater turnover, where individual relationships aren't as vital to performance. "If you have an endless supply of people willing to give their soul, then it's not an advantage [to retain workers]," says Kole.

By paying attention to the needs of all workers, Harder says he hopes his class will help future managers establish and eventually institutionalize friendlier HR practices within big corporations. Those who "integrate their life and work can be supremely happy," he adds.

By applying the principles learned in class, Kisner not only won the "Above & Beyond the Call of Duty" award at work but he also began a physical-training regimen. In fact, he and his girlfriend have started going to the gym together and say they have a stronger bond than ever. On the fast track to upper management, Kisner plans to pass his secrets of balance on to his employees. But for now, he'll have to fit supreme happiness in somewhere between his morning workout and lunch.

Gangemi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York