April 7, 2022

With the pandemic-driven move to a primarily work-from-home model in 2020, the lines between work and life have never been more blurred. Yet, finding the right balance between the two is still a crucial component to a long and successful career. The shape that balance takes will depend entirely on the unique goals of each individual.

Principal Kelly Rancourt and Shareholder Andrew Prather have learned to create their own sense of balance as they worked full-time throughout their accounting careers. We sat down with them recently to discuss how they’ve done so and pointers for those still figuring it out.

A healthy work-life balance takes a lot of different forms. What does a good balance look like to you personally?

Kelly Rancourt (KR): “For me, a healthy work-life balance means I can be present in my home life, but I’m still meeting all my work commitments. Of course, that takes a different shape depending on what time of year it is – and my focus on work or home ebbs and flows given the circumstances. But if I can meet both my home commitments and my work commitments, that’s where I see there’s balance.”

Andrew Prather (AP): “Same as Kelly; as long as I can pour the gas on when work needs it, and then turn around and focus on my personal life when I need it – then I feel like I’m in balance.

For example, I was very busy last week and had work hours spill into the weekend. But today, I’m heading out early to visit my kids and see one of them perform in the school play. So, I’m leaving my laptop at work, and I get to be present with my family.

Those two weekends are a good snapshot of balance to me.”

When you’re planning time off, what kinds of steps do you take beforehand to make sure that the necessary work is still getting done while you’re away?

AP: “Lots of planning and communication. When I have vacation time coming up, I’ll alert my team members at least a week ahead of time so we can plan around it.”

KR: “I talk with my team at least a week before too so we can get things in order. We’ll go over expectations of what will be completed while I’m gone, and what they’ll need from me before I leave and when I get back. I also include a notice in my email signature for upcoming out-of-office time, so my clients are also aware.”

Was there a time in your career when your work-life balance was way off? What effects did that have on you and when did you realize it was an issue?

KR: “I’ve noticed my work-life balance isn’t great when I’m stepping into a new role. So, whether that’s a new position in the firm – like becoming a senior, a manager, a principal – or a new role in my personal life – like becoming a mother – I tend to get hyper-focused on succeeding in that new space. But then other areas can get neglected and I realize I’m burning out quicker.”

What kinds of steps do you take to find balance again when you notice you’re burning out?

KR: “I know I’m starting to burn out when I struggle with motivation to meet my commitments at home or at work.

So, the first thing I do is make a list of items that need to get done, and those items that can wait a week or two. And that list gives me the ability to take a break. Usually, that means taking a day off with the family or putting a limit on the number of hours I’m working in a week.

It helps reset myself and my priorities. That way I am focused on the must-dos and not everything that eventually needs to get done.”

And what about you, Andrew? Was there a time you realized your balance was off?

AP: “When I first started in my career, I was in, what I would call, an ‘old fashioned’ CPA firm. And the culture was stereotypical of that time. There was a mantra of ‘personal life doesn’t matter,’ and ‘the more hours you work, the more valuable you are.’

Over time I figured out that approach to work isn’t sustainable in the long run. A career is a long marathon, not a short-term sprint. You have to set a pace that works for you.

Looking back, I was trying to conform to a work culture I didn’t like. Now, it’s a different time. But I had to figure out how I defined success on my own terms.”

Based off your experience with your first firm, do you think accounting culture and work-life balance has changed with the times?

AP: “I think, as a whole, it’s getting better. I don’t know about the Big 4 firms. But we’re talking with regional firms and there’s a mindset of ‘let’s think about this as a marathon,’ rather than ‘how much can we grind out of people before the next quarter.’

And part of that is a business reaction too. We have fewer people coming into accounting from college, so you can’t (and shouldn’t!) treat them like an infinite, expendable resource.”

KR: “I agree, I think the next generation really won’t allow for that kind of unhealthy focus on work. Our people are what make us successful, so we need to meet them where they’re at.”

Has the switch to primarily work-from-home made it easier or harder to find balance? And what are some of the negatives/positives of work-from-home when it comes to finding balance?

KR: “Working from home has allowed me to work in longer chunks of time and cut down on the amount of time I spend working at night. When I used to have an hour commute to the office each day, I would jump back on after the kids went to bed and sometimes be working until late at night. But now that I don’t have that commute, I’m done earlier, because I was able to get that full, uninterrupted day in working from home.”

AP: “The ability for everyone to replace in-person meetings with virtual meetings, that’s added so much extra time in the day. There’s commute time, but I would also have several out-of-office meetings a day that would require me to drive, park, walk to the office, and so on. There’s a significant amount of time that’s freed up now.”

What kinds of boundaries do you set on your day or week to separate “work time” and “life time?”

KR: “Personally, I will never work on a Saturday. Even if it’s a busy time of the year, that’s one boundary I absolutely do not break. And it’s my time with my kids, so I’m not going to give that up.”

AP: “It’s important to create time where you’re not thinking about your job. So, no matter how busy your schedule is, you need to have at least one day in a week where you’re completely tuning out from work.

Taking a long vacation is good too. But I think it’s more important to have that regular weekly break from work, so it doesn’t become a grind.”

If someone is struggling with work-life balance, how do you recommend they bring it up to their managers?

KR: “My advice is to not be afraid to ask for help prioritizing your items and understanding when the deadlines are. You may feel you need to work overtime to get something done, but really you have a longer timeframe to work on it. So, communicate often and openly with managers on what the priorities are.

I feel like new opportunities are when people get overworked too. You want to succeed in your career by taking on everything that comes your way. But it’s also okay to say ‘no’ and be protective of your time and how you’re spending it.”

AP: “Part of my response here is in the context of Clark Nuber’s culture. We’re dedicated to the success of our people and our clients. So, we want our staff to be successful. And we understand that looks different to everyone.

Of course, there are always deadlines you’re expected to meet, but each person has their own personal career goals. Some want to hit new milestones as fast as they can. Others are okay with slower career growth because they have other things going on. Any good manager wants their team members to be successful. So, talking with your manager about what that looks to you is an important part of building balance.”

Since you’ve brought up Clark Nuber’s culture and its impact on work-life balance. What are some ways the firm has facilitated a healthy balance between the two?

KR: “I think we’re very good about showing work-life balance. I think the tone at the top from the shareholders is very focused on it. There’s a large variety of work-life balance types here.”

AP: “One of my favorite compliments I received, and it was a simple thing, but it was about walking-your-talk when it comes to this. It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was out as a manager reviewing work. And I told the team, ‘Alright, I’ve got to wrap this up. I’ve got a family event to get to. I’ll pick this up and finish it tomorrow and get back to you timely.’

The senior told me later, ‘It was so great to see someone be transparent about leaving for a family thing.’

That always stuck with me. That someone appreciated that I was honest about it. I think a lot of leaders are trying to balance work and life, but maybe we’re not vocalizing it much. I try to be more verbal, so people can see I’m doing it and it’s normal.”

Any advice for those starting in their career who may feel pressure to put more weight on the ‘work’ side of things?

AP: “That’s a very real feeling. But my advice for them, and we’ve touched on this throughout, is they should be clear with themselves what their career goals are and how quickly they want to progress in the profession. And they should avoid ‘the comparison game.’

One of the books that’s impacted me in this area is Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game. He focuses on the concept of, ‘You’re not running your career to try to win. You’re trying to stay in the game.’

So yes, I want to be successful. But being successful isn’t about winning. And when I’m trying to win the next thing, that’s when I feel I can start to get off track. I’m trying to take a long-term marathon approach to my career and, with that in mind, maybe I shouldn’t spend every day working endless hours, because that’s not going to help me be successful in the long run.”

KR: “I’ve tried to adopt that ‘long-term’ philosophy in my own career, too. I’ve made distinct choices that have led to slower progression. But that’s been fine with me, because I made choices about how I wanted my career to progress and how I wanted to feel when I got to the next level. I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made.

My success now is less defined on how I’m doing and more on how my team members are doing, and how my clients are doing, and if we’re meeting their expectations. That’s how I define success. I would encourage others to find their ‘why’ and their own definition of ‘success.’”

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