"If you lead a balanced life, you are going to be OK" - SapientNitro's Nigel Vaz talks work/life balance
In the first of a series of interviews with CEOs looking at work/life balance, The Drum speaks to SapientNitro’s Nigel Vaz, who discusses the complexities and challenges of being an agency boss within a global marketing services agency and balancing that with a family life.
Speaking backstage at his company's iEX Conference last month, SapientNitro's Nigel Vaz is remarkably relaxed, especially as he hasn't had his breakfast, he reveals at the beginning of the interview. But then, that's nothing out of the ordinary.
How do you balance work and life?
On a personal level, this notion of work and life is an old idea. I don't think there is this notion of work and life. For me, if you love what you're doing then by definition you're going to stay plugged into it. And if you love what you're doing with your family then you're going to stay plugged into that.
As opposed to trying to map out my life as a timetable, I try to figure out what I want to accomplish, either in a given day or couple of days - over some kind of time period. So there are some days where I'll try and find a way to do the things that I want to do. So if spending time with my wife and my son is a priority for me then I find a way to do that. I'm also working all of the time.
A lot of people ask me if I like switching off on holiday and I find that very stressful personally, because switching off means that your life is divided into these neat compartments. I would find coming back to millions of emails after a holiday a lot more stressful than being 'switched off' and being totally paranoid about what is sitting in my Inbox.
Do you ever turn off technology?
I keep technology on all of the time, except when I'm flying. I've grown up with it enough around me for me not to feel the need to be constantly checking what's going on. It's more an online thing than a device thing, but my nature is very non-addictive. I don't drink coffee, for instance. And the same is true of technology. I don't feel the need to check my phone just because it's on. But turning it off seems a very odd way to manage that predilection. Something is always going to be going on. This way, if something important happens they are able to reach me as opposed to attempting to create boundaries.
How do you go about balancing work and home life?
It depends on the situation. My wife also has a pretty hectic job and it's up to her what she does so for us. It's about priorities. So by saying "I'm going to be two hours late today because my son is going to soccer practice" then I'm going to do that and that is just as much a priority as having a breakfast meeting with a client. Then the next morning I might have to skip breakfast with my family, but that's okay, as opposed to cresting these rules that make you feel guilty when you break them.
It's like people who are on diets. They are dieting but you can see when that pastry is put in front of them that they would absolutely eat it if they could. So you have what I call the 'hold your breath' phenomenon where you hold your breath until you can't and then you gulp as much air in as you can, which is a very unproductive way of breathing. That's much like people on a diet with food. So my sense is that you do everything with a balance. You eat ice cream when you want to, you work out when you need to. If you lead a balanced life you're going to be OK.
Do you expect the same of your employees as well?
SapientNitro as a company has a culture of individual excellence. We're all grown ups and nobody has to tell anybody what to do but we all have objectives, so if you need to accomplish something and it takes you five hours then more power to you and what you do with the other five, I don't really care. Working globally, depending on the situation, if you're someone who is part of an idea engineer team that is predicated on collaboration, that's tough to pull off over a few hours using video conferencing and not let it affect the dynamic of that team. It's the same for work/life balance. If you need to achieve something, as long as you're getting it done, whether you came into work at nine or five o'clock, whether you were in London or China, it doesn't matter. It's up to them.
What advice would you give to other CEOs trying to figure out the problem?
It's tough to offer advice on stuff like this because it's so personal. For me, it's about the notion of not trying to create these boundaries. I hate this notion that we have date night with the family, because, of course that is the night when something is going to come up and you'll have to break it, so how about not having that and just being flexible. As long as the objective is being accomplished; if it's spending enough time together, if you're not then fix that.
So don't introduce rules about turning your phone off because that leads to a conversation about why you haven't turned your phone off. The notion of 9-5 where you went to the factory and then came home again isn't there. I don't have to be at work every morning at 9am, I decide that for myself. But at the same time, there are some things I need to accomplish which means I may have a conference call at 11.30pm because I have something to discuss with my colleagues in Singapore.
As business has become increasingly global, how has that affected your lifestyle?
For me this is divided. This element does need some structure, so I do plan my day around conference calls with the East because we have offices in Singapore, India and Australia. London takes up the morning and then the latter part of the day I spend with my colleagues in the East coast, then I do what I need to do, have dinner and then in the evening there are my colleagues in the West coast. Now I tend not to have all of these things happening in the same day, otherwise you have this 24 time cycle. So what I tend to try and do is do some stuff with California on some days and then some other stuff with Asia on some days, while London and New York are fairly easy to juggle as there is a big overlap of time.
Would it be very easy to be consumed by work these days?
If you were the kind of person where work could become your life and take over, then that is a possibility, but that is also true of coffee, sugar or alcohol. There's an old saying, that everything is good in moderation and that's how we need to treat work.
If you have a natural predilection to say I'm going to go into the office and forget my family and all of my friends, then you've got to watch it.
What would you say to employees you felt we addicted to their work in an unhealthy way? Would you say anything?
We try to make sure that we monitor whether people are working too hard. That's part of our philosophy and culture but that is a challenge. I often find that happens due to a few reasons. It's a capability issue or an expectation on what is placed on them. The second is a preference or an addiction issue which is about wanting to get ahead in their career and achieve something. The third is when they don't realise it, and actually the first and the third are far more challenging because the second is a choice. It's a choice to decide whether we or anyone else needs to do something or not. That to me is when the line drawn between work and personal satisfaction blurs, because you are doing it to achieve something that you want to achieve, as opposed to something you need to do. There's a big difference.
Where do you draw the line though and decide that someone else should do it?
I'm very conscious of the fact that something that may be right for me might not be right for someone else. There is no ‘one size fits all’ model. I do tend to spend a lot of time with my son very early in the day just because I am usually at a dinner and making it back in the evenings is a lot tougher, so that's the time I choose to do it because I'm fine being up early and it works practically. That may or may not work for the next person. These things are so deeply entwined with your own personal situation that the biggest message I can offer is not to assume that because it works for somebody else it'll work for you. You have to find your own balance.