Leadership and work-life balance don’t go well together, according to some leaders.
But figuring out that Gordian knot has to be your goal if you want a long and productive leadership career, and you want to support your team in becoming successful as well.
So we bring you a bunch of actionable tips and stories on improving your leadership and work-life balance from Dylan Hansen, Senior Director of Engineering Enablement and Engagement at Salesforce. He talks about achieving work-life awareness as a leader and supporting his team members in their efforts to improve it.
This blog post covers:
Dylan is Senior Director of Engineering Enablement and Engagement at Salesforce. He’s been with Salesforce for nine years, and he took his current position in May 2021.
One part of his responsibilities is creating the internal technical learning strategy. It’s about funding and supporting the growth of Salesforce’s 10,000 internal software engineers, including courses, training, and online learning software.
He also oversees the open-source program office at Salesforce. It includes utilizing open source software internally and prioritizing creating open-source code that can be used by other companies.
His team also works on architecture enablement. They support senior technical leaders within the organization including the CTO’s office.
Outside of work, he’s into fitness and watching sports. He’s from Canada, so he’s a big fan of hockey, but he also loves baseball and football. He’s the father of two young boys who keep him busy when he isn’t at work.
I think the terms ‘work-life balance’ or ‘work-life integration’ are overused in the tech industry. I prefer to use the term ‘work-life awareness’. The point is being mindful of how your work and your personal life overlap and integrate, and when they need to separate.
It’s difficult to build this awareness, especially in a fast-paced environment like the tech industry. Senior leaders are in demanding roles that can encompass their whole life. This makes it essential to create your own way of carrying yourself in your personal and professional life, which can cascade to your teams as well.
When I started at Salesforce, I had no wife, children or mortgage, so I could invest a lot into my work. It was a great time, I had a lot of fun.
As I became a father, I took on more responsibility in my personal life, and I started feeling the pull between that and my work. I couldn’t spend my evenings catching up on emails and Slack messages anymore. I needed to spend quality time with my family as well.
The birth of my second child made work-life awareness even more of a priority for me. I realized that I needed to focus on my mental and physical health to be able to maintain my career and to support my family in the long run. They rely on me, so I’m responsible for them.
As you work on your work-life awareness, you’re going to have ups and downs. You can’t expect instant results as you start working on it.
It’s discouraging for me to hit a bump in the road despite investing in my own growth and that of my team. Looking at it rationally, I know that we’ll get over it. It’s important to remind yourself that investing in work-life balance is going to pay dividends long-term, and you have to stick with it to increase your longevity in your career.
The first step is committing to take an assessment of your work-life balance and to get ready to make changes if needed.
Take account of whether you’re focusing your energy towards the right things. Take stock of your work and personal calendars, your commitments, and what you’re doing with your time outside of work. I repeat this every 6-12 months.
Once you know where you stand, consider what you can or can’t change.
When it comes to things that need to be done, ask yourself whether you’re the right person to do them. You may be able to delegate these to one of your team members, contract it out, or find other types of support.
Then consider how you may change your schedule to improve your time management as a manager. Maybe you’re attending unnecessary meetings, or you may be able to delegate some work commitments. Outside of work, you may be putting time and effort into a hobby that you’re not getting much out of anymore.
This part is about figuring out solutions to small things to get you started on your path to better leadership and work-life balance.
You need to set boundaries between work and life, but you need to realize that they have to be flexible.
When I came back from my sabbatical, I decided to set guardrails around my work time, and I wouldn’t check any work email before 7:00 AM or after 5:30 PM. When I was done, I shut down my laptop and picked it up the next day.
This started making me anxious when at 5:00 PM, I found myself with more to do and in the flow, so I knew I could get it all done by 6:00 PM. That goes 30 minutes beyond my pre-set stopping time. These situations made me go through a lot of mental gymnastics.
As I examined the situation, I realized that boundaries are great, but you have to be able to flex them to fit in an extra 30 minutes when necessary. You have to be able to make yourself available for irregular events on both sides of the work-life balance.
Be aware of how often these events come up. When it becomes regular, it’s a sign for you to pause, reassess your boundaries, and look at the reasons behind heaving to flex them. Set your boundaries, structure them, but also keep them loose, and realize when they bend too much, so you can reassess when necessary.
I believe that meditating daily can help you. I start every morning taking 10 minutes for myself to just reflect, and that grounds me throughout the day. You don’t need an app or an expert, just 10 minutes to focus on yourself.
Regularly doing physical activity is another key element. You don’t have to run or lift 400 pounds at the gym; it may be just going for a walk. Just make sure to move your body and get the blood flowing.
It’s especially important for us, who are stuck in front of our computer all day. Physical activity counterbalances that, makes your body produce endorphins, keeps you in shape, and gives you a better shot at having a long and productive career.
Create a routine you can stick to day-to-day. The chaos of software engineering and engineering leadership benefits from giving it structure. Make sure to own your calendar and work on your time management as a manager.
I always tell my colleagues, “Own your calendar before it owns you.” Put effort into structuring your calendar, and provide yourself with blocks of time both for focused work and downtime.
For example, I block off one hour for lunch every day. This gives me a break, so I can eat without hurry, reassess, and prepare for the second part of my day.
If someone needs to meet at lunch time once, I’ll meet with them. If someone needs to meet at lunch time every day of the week, that’s a problem and I need to look for a solution.
The pandemic triggered a lot of conversations about leadership and work-life balance in our industry. I think not using 2020 to rethink your priorities in life is a missed opportunity. You don’t need a world-changing event to do it, but it takes time to reflect, and the pandemic gave people time they could utilize for thinking.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I took a six-week sabbatical from my role. I didn’t even touch my work laptop. I spent this time doing self-reflection, focusing on myself and figuring out what I needed to do to be successful for the next 10 years of my career.
I’m thankful for my employer giving me a chance to step away and realign my priorities. It gave me the space and the context back to be successful as an engineering leader, husband, and father.
I follow the work of Cheryl Porro, an amazing leader I consider a mentor in my career. I talked to her about her approach to a sabbatical she took a few years ago.
Create a balanced schedule for your extended leave. If you give it too much structure, whether you fill it with fun activities, professional development, or personal activities, you’ll burn yourself out. On the other hand, if you don’t give it enough structure, it’ll go by quickly, and you end up feeling like you didn’t accomplish anything.
I advise that you make plans for your sabbatical. I also suggest checking your plans again a week later, and you’ll probably end up cutting your plans in half. Nail down the things you need to do, schedule some nice-to-haves, but make sure you give yourself plenty of free time.
I overscheduled the first two weeks with house projects and online courses, and I checked a lot of items off my to-do list. It was exhausting, so for the next four weeks, I thought twice before taking on tasks that I could fit into my schedule after going back to work, and I took more time to rest. My kids were at home during the lockdown, so it was a great time to connect with them and my partner.
As you transition from engineer to manager, you need to learn that working with people is not as straightforward as writing code. Learning about leadership and work-life balance generally happens as people’s careers progress.
New managers moving into engineering leadership aren’t experienced at delegation, and tend to have an interest in continuing to write code when they should take a step back. This makes their days busier than they have to be. When you’re passionate about your work, it’s easy to get into the habit of working late in a situation like this.
On one hand, it’s useful to go through this, as it teaches you about your limits. On the other hand, advice from experienced leaders can get you past these difficulties in a less painful way. You have to counterbalance draining days by managing normal days better.
Give time to new engineering managers to realize that management isn’t a temporary project, but a new career with its own ups and downs. They need to learn that they can burn out in leadership too, but their mentors can guide you through it providing feedback, advice, and coaching.
Try to look ahead and think about what you need to realign yourself when you start seeing things going off the rails. When you know something will be a continued challenge for you, try to get ahead of it and start planning to keep up your work-life balance. Not sleeping as much as you’re used to, feeling lethargic, or getting snappy with your family or colleagues are indicators that there's something going wrong.
It’s too late to start thinking about your work-life balance with your team or your manager when you’re working 12 hours a day, and everything’s on fire. When you’re burned out, you’re less likely to look for a long-term solution.
As you learn, you instinctively build up the leadership soft skills, but it can’t happen overnight. This gives you the foundation to build your own work-life balance as a leader.
Your report may just be going through a rough patch, and it’ll pass. You may take some of their normal behaviors as signs of burnout before you get to know them well. At the same time, you may also see the signs of a bigger issue.
These variables become important when you’re looking to verify whether there’s a problem. If you decide to take action, the right course depends on your leadership style and your relationship with each employee.
You need to know your team and your colleagues well to understand their baseline behavior when they’re in a good space. It’s tricky because many of us haven’t been in a good space for years. Look for ways to get to know your employees enough to be able to spot outlier behaviors or changes in their approach to work.
Here are some signs to look for:
When you’re in the office together, body language can tell you a lot. You can tell if someone looks lethargic, moves slowly, doesn’t look engaged, or starts showing up 10-15 minutes later. These don’t translate well into a distributed team.
None of these are definitive signs of developer burnout, but they indicate that something is going on and you should figure it out. You can’t ignore them. Remember, it takes time to get to know your people and understand the patterns behind them showing these signs.
The best-case scenario is having your employees come to you when they’re headed towards burnout. If you build trust and psychological safety in your team, they will likely do this when they become aware of their work-life balance challenges. This gives you an opportunity to help them work through it.
Managing a remote team or a hybrid team requires engineering leaders and technical leaders to put more effort into people. Whatever you’re working on, it’s the people who get you to meet your product or company goals.
In my experience, leaders being transparent about their own challenges with work-life balance leads employees to gravitate towards them. I’ve had team members come to me and ask for assistance because they were okay with talking to me about their struggles after hearing me talk about going through similar situations.
I recommend trying to leverage other leaders in your organization to discuss leadership and work-life balance issues.
Depending on the organization, other leaders may be able to give insight into your employees’ behavior. They may see them in meetings when you aren’t present, and they can confirm or contradict your impressions.
It’s important for leaders to be able to discuss their approaches towards work-life balance challenges among each other. By supporting one another, you also help everyone in the organization as well.
It’s great to be a part of an engineering culture where leaders keep an eye on each other's teams and support each other.
Modeling the behavior you want them to follow is essential; nothing you can do will work without it. If you don’t have a work-life awareness and try to encourage your teams to work on it, their first thought will be that you aren’t doing it either. You may rationalize it by saying you have more responsibilities as a leader, so it doesn’t apply to you, but that generally isn’t good enough.
Before you do anything else, you need to work on your own work-life awareness, and set an example for your team and your organization. You don’t have to be perfect at it; nobody is. Just make sure that you’re working on it, and your employees will trust you and start to follow your lead when you talk to them about it.
I moved into a new role earlier this year at Salesforce. There are people in my team that I’ve known for years, but I only met some of them for the first time this year. I needed to build trust with the people I’d recently met, so we could have honest conversations in our one-on-one meetings.
You need to have enough trust to be able to get on a call or in a room with them and cut to the chase. You can explain your concern the same way you give feedback. State your observations, let them know you’re worried about them and ask about their perspective.
Make sure to spend time observing them and look for signs of burnout before jumping into this conversation. When you see a trend, it’s time to make your move.
You might have this conversation about a one-time incident, but it’s likely just a small issue.
Salesforce has built a program we call a wellness operating model for each employee. We create a document about an individual’s preferences like,
The idea behind this document is to lead collaboration between a manager and a report. That’s the professional relationship where it’s most important to lay out your boundaries, how much you’re willing to flex them, and what you may change.
It’s a working agreement between individuals and their managers, or managers and their teams. The focus isn’t the work, but the way they work and how that relates to their work-life balance.
It’s primarily for your manager and you, but sharing it with your peers may also be valuable. It may help team members understand the best way to work together, and learn about each other's priorities.
This won’t work in every team’s culture, but it’s great when it does. Some consider it too formal, but it’s a potential tool that may be worth trying.
As a leader, you need to be aware when you’re asking your team to go above and beyond. Take a mental note of it, so you can track how often you ask them to do it.
You need to remember that you don’t have to succumb to the demands, and push your team. Demands are ever present in our industry, and no matter how well you and your team performs, there will always be more.
If you need to stretch at certain times, your best bet is to counterbalance it at other times.
Ideally, proper planning can warn you about an upcoming crunch time a couple of weeks earlier. It gives you a chance to schedule some time off for the week after the deadline to make up for the extra push.
The counterbalance can be time off, a vacation, or treating yourself to something you want. Just commit to doing it and make sure to follow through.
This also gives you something to look forward to. It may be a tough time, but you can remind yourself or your family that you’ll make up for the late nights in a couple of weeks.
Make sure to hold yourself accountable to that. I often see people saying they’ll take time off next week, but then next week brings the next fire, and they keep delaying it.
Time away from work isn’t always the solution to improve work-life balance. It’s important, but some people appreciate being recognized or compensated for their efforts in a different way.
Understand what drives your employees. If your employee feeds off recognition, they might prefer you highlighting their efforts to your manager contributing to hit a deadline. Try to counterbalance extra efforts by rewarding them in the way they appreciate the most.
Assuming that you think you’ve invested enough in your employee but the results aren’t coming, performance conversations may be necessary.
Ideally, you can have honest conversations with them beforehand showing the data and the feedback you’ve received about their work. Then you can ask them about their perspective on what’s going on, see what isn’t working, and dig into the reasons behind it. Leaders should have a conversation like this before they send the employee for a performance improvement plan.
Leaders are supposed to take time to support their employees with struggles in work or work-life balance at least with some resources that may help them. If you fail to do that, it’s unfair to leave it to HR to work out a performance improvement plan for them. Coaching and mentoring your employees is a key part of the leader’s role.
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About the author:
Gabor Zold is a content marketer and tech writer, focusing on software development technologies and engineering management. He has extensive knowledge about engineering management-related topics and has been doing interviews with accomplished tech leaders for years. He is the audio wizard of the Level-up Engineering podcast.