Managing Calender Overload

A story in this morning’s Wall Street Journal about packed calenders ruling over executives got me thinking about overload-slayer and SAS Institute founder Jim Goodnight.

SAS was a worker’s paradise—or a smothering corporate daddy, shouted the critics—long, long before the Kingdom of Google. In many ways, SAS was America’s first corporate country club. Long before the doctom “labor crunch” put employee perks in vogue, SAS founder James Goodnight was lavishing money on programmers instead of headhunters. The cush perks followed. It worked: SAS turnover is 4% in an industry for which 20% is typical.

The Cary (N.C.)-based company may compete against Oracle Corp., but SAS employees aren’t asked to mimic their Silicon Valley brethren’s sleep-starved lifestyle. The company has world-class gyms, gourmet cafeterias, a company medical team, on-site daycare, massages, a farmer’s market, car washing, a bank…you get the idea.

Here’s what was most intriguing to me about the company culture, though: Goodnight, a shy billionaire who until 2001 drove a Buick Roadmaster wagon, believes in leaving the office at 5 p.m. sharp. Dinner, he says, should be spent with your family, not at your desk.

So at 5 p.m. every night, the gates to the parking lot close (though of course you can still escape if you leave later). The signal is clear: LEAVE. Paternalism yes. Goodnight is a work-life balance ENFORCER.

When I asked Goodnight why he booted his troops so early—compared to the Silicon Valley workaholic ethos—he told me that he firmly believed that after eight hours of concerted concentration, programmers started to lose focus. They started to make mistakes.

So Goodnight forced them to take breaks by iron-fisting a leave-early culture at SAS.

This is one way Goodnight helped model for his employees how NOT to become a hostage to one’s calender.

As researchers have confirmed, Goodnight knew that downtime—zoning out, lazing around, joking with the family—are as crucial to a peak performer’s performance as work.