Total dynamic balance. It’s what I’ve found today and what, after a successful career at Unilever that spanned more than 30 years, I wish to share with fellow business leaders.
In the role of president of Europe and throughout my career at Unilever, my life was catapulted in and out of balance, but for the most part, life had been uncomplicated and manageable.
But, unexpectedly, that all changed in 1992 when my oldest son Bart was diagnosed with FSHD – the facio-scapulo humeral form of muscular dystrophy. This defining moment led me to discover the meaning of total dynamic balance. As a new world began to take shape, I saw the balance in my life, not only my family and my career but also my role in society, begin to change and blend together. What I’ve learned from this defining moment, and many others throughout my career, is that by allowing the roles in your life to overlap, you gain positive energy. Most leaders treat their different roles and responsibilities as three separate activities. I argue, however, that they should create one world where their business, family and society roles intertwine. On top of that, leaders must seriously look after themselves – mentally and physically. From my experiences, I’ve created a three-circle model for a holistic and balanced life. When things go well in one area, the energy garnered from that area spreads to other roles, and as a result, you can be more effective in dealing with the challenges you are facing.
But, balancing these roles is key and leaders need to think in terms of dynamic balance rather than static balance. We must recognize that there will always be forces that will throw us out of balance, and we have to accept this fact, and constantly work at rebalancing priorities. From my experiences, in my book Defining Moments, I’ve outlined the following ten steps to help business leaders create their own personal balance.
- Define your real purpose in life. When I talk about purpose, I mean real purpose – your deeper purpose – not just defining your personal objectives. Think about what you want your legacy to be – what you want to be remembered for. The answers to these questions do not come overnight – they take time – time alone with yourself. You need to ponder, reflect, think and rethink what you want your life to represent.
- Define your personal values. What really matters to you? Define your values and ensure that your behaviour is consistent with them. Only then will you be perceived as being authentic.
- Identify your top five priorities. Once you know what really matters to you, you can start to develop a plan to fulfil your life’s mission. The plan should include no more than five sharply defined priorities based on your purpose and value statements.
- Make courageous decisions. This is a moment of truth. Clear your agenda of all the things that do not fit with your priorities. If you can do this, then you will be perfectly aligned and dynamically balanced. If there is a total misalignment, it is time to step back and re-evaluate. This requires deep reflection about yourself, your relationships, your job and so on. Talk to the people in your life and if you still feel that you cannot align your agenda with your priorities, then perhaps it is time to take a brave step and remove yourself from your job
- Deal with the root cause of the problem. Staying true to your purpose and focusing on your top five priorities is not easy. You will encounter all kinds of challenges along the way. Follow a Chinese medicine philosophy by addressing the root cause of a problem rather than treating the symptoms.
- Get inspiration from exceptional individuals. Look to people you admire for not only their achievements but also how they achieved them. Talk and learn from them. Seek their support and let them energize you.
- Get fit and stay fit. Top physical condition is necessary to sustain the endurance that leaders need. Regular exercise and a balanced diet are key. Develop a routine that works for you. A personal trainer can help you stick to it. And don’t forget your mental fitness. Figure out what relaxes you – the key is to develop rituals that help keep you physically and mentally fit.
- Be organized and disciplined. Focusing on your priorities and maintaining your physical and mental fitness takes extreme organization and discipline. No matter how busy you are, you need to organize yourself in such a way that you have some non-negotiable time for your priorities and fitness.
- Recharge your batteries. There is a limit to how much stress a person can take. Always take vacation entitlement. No one will thank you for not doing so. It is important for you and for your family to bond and create long-lasting memories together. Leave “out-of-office” messages saying that you do not have access to e-mail or voicemail. If you must, set aside one or two short, unobtrusive breaks a day to check and respond to messages.
- Evaluate. Once a year, take a day for yourself and assess your performance on the first nine steps of this action plan. Most likely, there will be room for improvement. If you have fallen back into old habits, it is time to go back to square one to discover what went wrong and why. Then, take whatever courageous action you have to take to regain your total dynamic balance.
Kees van der Graaf is an Executive-in-Residence at IMD and Co-Director, IMD’s Global CEO Center – Leading in a Connected Future. In 2008, at the pinnacle of his career, he decided to take early retirement from consumer goods giant Unilever. Kees’s career at Unilever spanned more than 30 years and culminated with him becoming the president of Europe and a member of the Board and Executive Committee. During his final years at Unilever, he successfully overhauled the European business and brought it back to growth. In his book, Defining Moments: What every leader should know about balancing life, Kees describes a series of defining moments that have helped him identify ten steps to total dynamic balance. He and his wife have dedicated themselves to finding a cure for FSHD and started the FSHD Foundation.