Work Life Effectiveness interview series: Simon Freakley

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At AlixPartners, we know that Work Life Effectiveness means different things to different people. We all manage our professional and personal priorities differently. To learn more about how our people maintain Work Life Effectiveness – and to better understand how we can help them to do so successfully – we conduct regular interviews with AlixPartners employees from across the firm. We recently spoke with AlixPartners Chief Executive Officer Simon Freakley.

At AlixPartners, we know that Work Life Effectiveness means different things to different people. We all manage our professional and personal priorities differently. To learn more about how our people maintain Work Life Effectiveness – and to better understand how we can help them to do so successfully – we conduct regular interviews with AlixPartners employees from across the firm. We recently spoke with AlixPartners Chief Executive Officer Simon Freakley.

What does Work Life Effectiveness (“WLE”) mean to you?

Leading one life, not one split into separate pieces. It’s about setting priorities for all aspects of my life (family, work, health, sleep, …). I start every week with a list of my priorities for the week and try and stick to it.

How do you achieve and maintain WLE? What is one strategy that you find helps you?

I think about it as ‘balance over time’. I will give you a couple of practical examples.

I am one of those people who needs sleep. I have learned over the years that I function best in all areas of my life if I get 7 hours of sleep on average per night. But what I have also learned about myself is that it only has to be an average of 7 hours. So, I track my sleep and ensure that I have 7 hours on a rolling average basis. This means that if I do an overnight flight and only get 3 or 4 hours of sleep that night, I have 6 days to catch up the deficit! I did try in one phase of my life to see if I could manage it on a rolling 5 hours a night basis and it was a disaster!

I have young children, so I am very mindful not to be away from them for too long. I always know how much I miss them when I am traveling, but I sometimes forget how much they miss me. So, I make sure that whatever I am doing or wherever I am traveling, I am always home at weekends. And any weekday that I can, I get home in time to read them their bedtime story, even if I need to go out again after they have gone to bed.  All families are different, so it is a matter of working out what is essential for each of us.

At what point in your career did you realize that WLE actually improves your performance in the workplace?

I realized it fairly early on. I was 34 when I took on my first CEO position (a specialist restructuring practice called Buchler Phillips of about 60 people). Our CEO and senior partner Peter Phillips had a sudden health issue and had to back off the business, so I was asked to take over as CEO. This was my first senior leadership position and I thought that I could do everything by just working harder and harder and of course found that I couldn’t. So I had to learn how to delegate and also that it was important to rest and attend to other areas of my life too. Two things happened to make me realize this. Firstly, I was in the office one evening at 7 pm, trying to get a report out. I was dog-tired as I hadn’t slept much that week. So I decided to close my eyes for a few minutes to recharge. I woke up in my chair at 7:30 and felt great. As I started to work again on my report, I couldn’t work out why it was getting lighter outside. Then I realized that it was 7:30 am the following day! I had slept for 12 ½ hours and hadn’t realized it! I realized then that not getting regular sleep was not an option!

Secondly, I was lucky enough to get my first mentor at about that time, an extraordinary person called Leslie Lewis. Leslie taught me about the importance of having a life in balance, but also that this was possible, even with a very demanding job. He was my mentor for a long time and he taught me many things including the fact that life is a marathon and not a sprint and that you simply cannot sprint all the way.

How do you ensure your teams are achieving WLE?

I try to be attentive to promoting WLE with my colleagues. I also try to be mindful and respectful of the other things that are happening in people’s lives, particularly as these priorities relate to their families. Sometimes we have to work long hours, or accommodate periods of brutal travel, but if this happens against a general background of work life balance, then it is something that we can manage. If we don’t have a background of work life balance, it becomes intolerable.

One thing we have to be mindful of is not to become urgency addicts. While we do of course have to deal with urgency, it’s important to put some planning and thought into how to accommodate the things that need to be done in a way that doesn’t mean that we needlessly inflict urgency on people. Early on in my career, through lack of proper planning and appreciation for the importance of this, I found myself inflicting urgency on my team much more than I would have needed to had I properly planned the work out. I realized, to my horror, that I was more than an urgency addict, I was actually a pusher! So I have learned that planning is at the heart of it. While there will be times when we have to do extraordinary things in compressed time scales, these times can be the exception rather than the rule. And the team leader has the responsibility to be on top of this.

If you had to give one piece of advice related to WLE to your younger self, what would it be?

Make time to exercise! And to remember that the quality of our lives comes through the quality of our relationships. And like everything else that is worthwhile, building and maintaining relationships means that we have to dedicate the time for this to be possible.