Do you work to live or live to work? Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

Is your work the means to an end or the epicenter of your life? Most businesspeople, on a conscious or subconscious level, want superiors, peers and other constituents to believe they are one of those unselfish corporate types who do whatever it takes for the good of the company. Everything comes in second place: family, friends and one’s very existence, including creature comforts such as adequate sleep and eating three square meals at a table, not a desk. If that is you, then you have checked the “live to work” box.

But wait a second, does this really make a modicum of sense?

When I interview management candidates, after I have determined the interviewee might be a fit, I always ask: “What comes first, your family or your job?”

Those who immediately respond “my job” move down multiple notches on my scale of suitability if, in fact, I believe this is their permanent sentiment.

For a chance to play in the big leagues, most wannabe executives will do whatever it takes to make the lineup. The smart ones, however, know that just like a good novel, a business career has a beginning, middle and, hopefully, an abundance of exciting last chapters.

When aspiring managers begin ascending the corporate ladder, many work as if the clock has no hands. Toiling away at their desks from early morning to the wee hours of the night is an investment in the future to gain experience, a means to accomplishing meaningful objectives and, yes, to a certain degree, an opportunity to obtain face time, sometimes even vying for the coveted corporate appearance trophy. Those who go for appearance alone, without the meat on the bones of accomplishment, are easily unmasked as having a “big hat but no cattle.”

However, hitting the trifecta of experience, accomplishment and the ability to showcase a “get it done” work ethic makes for the complete package.

Once a manager reaches a certain midpoint in a career and has a few good people working for him, he moves from the role of solo doer to that of teacher and navigator who can successfully direct others along a process from point A to point B. Appearances are secondary at this point, as the key is what is in the package, not the wrapper.

During this stage, the middle manager should have that “aha” moment recognizing that business is not an all-or-nothing proposition and he can get a life. I admired any employee working for me who without equivocation would state he could not meet with me at a time that I requested because of another important commitment, which could be attending a kid’s ballgame or a first school play. This communicated volumes to me about the manager’s character and ability to balance priorities and make appropriate choices that fit the circumstances.

On other days, however, I would see this same manager looking like death warmed over the next morning because he just pulled an all-nighter to get the needed task done.

A real game-changer occurs when one reaches the ranks of senior executive with a team of players in the anteroom who are more than ready, willing and able to answer the bell. This gives the leader the opportunity to plan rather than just do, calling the signals instead of responding to them. Priorities change as the executive becomes a dreamer — a visionary who can look beyond today to tomorrow, identifying the future challenges and opportunities, and positioning the organization to respond to them.

In many respects, this is both the best of times and the worst of times. The best is that the leader has others to do the heavy lifting. This provides the executive the time to make other contributions, not just to the company but to his family and community, as well. The worst-of-times component is that the buck stops at the leader’s door. Important decisions have to be made daily, and that pressure can take a toll both mentally and physically. At this point in a career, the need to balance becomes something that is just not nice but necessary to endure the pressures at the top.

An all-time best fast-food jingle positively asserted, “Hold the pickle; hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us,” with the payoff line of “Have it your way.” The secret of having it your way in business is learning when and how to balance a career with a fulfilling personal life.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at