Why work and life shouldn't be separate

December 14, 2011: 2:11 PM ET

Companies that want to have a truly positive impact need people who are fully engaged with their work and aren't afraid to bring their genuine identities to the office.

By Russell Eisenstat, Director of the TruePoint Center for Higher Ambition Leadership

FORTUNE -- It's no secret that much of Corporate America is stressed — and not just because of the difficult economy. While even the White House has weighed in on the need for better work-life balance and the economic benefits of workplace flexibility, there's a much larger issue at stake here than how much flextime companies offer.

The real issue is not about forcing people to compartmentalize their lives at work, at home, and in their communities but rather how to keep people energized and engaged in all aspects of their lives. In our research over the past four years, my colleagues and I have found that great leaders and great companies recognize that people are at their best when they are able to bring their whole selves to the job and can connect what they do at work to a meaningful larger purpose.

Dick Gochnauer, CEO of business products wholesaler United Stationers, describes it this way: "If you are working for a company and you can find at least a key part of your life's purpose in your work, you're the luckiest person on earth. Because the people that find the most joy in life are those who have a purpose, and are fulfilling that purpose. And if you can do that during your day job rather than having to say, 'It's a day job, I am just making money, and I find purpose outside of work' … it is very, very powerful."

Finding a sense of purpose at work is powerful because it allows people to go beyond balancing work and everything else to integrating what they do at work with their lives as a whole. In this way, the parts become mutually supportive, rather than a zero-sum game. People feel empowered when they can bring work into their life, sharing their work with family and friends, and can bring their full lives and passions into their work.

Bringing work into life

Our interviews with Gochnauer and about 30 other CEOs suggest that having a larger purpose in work not only inspires individuals but also those around them. These leaders strive to integrate their decisions and actions with their values and beliefs. And they rely on family, friends, and trusted colleagues to help them stay centered and maintain their integrity.

For example, Leif Johansson, recently retired CEO of the Volvo Group, uses what he calls the "kitchen table test" to measure how he is doing: At breakfast with his family on Saturday mornings, he asks himself, "How easy is it to explain what I have accomplished this week and the decisions I have made? Does my family get it? Does what I say make them proud? Does it make me proud to tell them about it?"

Pride in the company that extends beyond employees to their families came up in our discussions at United Stationers as well. The company defines its purpose as "enabling our partners to succeed" -- with "partners" including employees as well as customers, suppliers, and local communities. Many employees connect to this shared purpose by participating in the United Stationers Foundation's backpack program, which benefits elementary school children who could not otherwise afford school supplies. Employees' children help to fill the backpacks and, in the process, gain a deeper understanding of what their parents do all day.

As one United Stationers employee explained, "Our kids discovered that it's not just this building that mom and dad go to work at. It's a part of all of us. My children see the community involvement, they see the hard work, but they [also] see what it all means to the company and to them."

United Stationers doesn't monitor how much time employees spend on foundation work during the workday. But rather than finding the backpack program a distraction from her "real" work, the employee said it makes her want to work even harder: "It gives people a stronger bond and sense that this company cares about me, it cares about my interests."

Bringing life into work

Gochnauer, Johansson, and other leaders recognize the power of a creating an environment in which people are encouraged to bring not just their brains and hands to work but their hearts as well. David Lissy, CEO of childcare services company Bright Horizons Family Solutions, wants employees to "feel okay to bring who they are to work. It's not like you're parking who you are in the parking lot and pretending to be somebody else at work."

Bright Horizons has, in Lissy's words, "the privilege to do important work that society desperately needs and the ability to make a profound impact" on those it serves. As Lissy describes it, "We're not injecting people with the Kool-Aid and saying, 'You have to stop being who you are.' We're hopefully attracting people who understand that this is a business, but who also, first and foremost, understand that doing right by children and families will always come first."

The fact the Bright Horizon's turnover rate is less than half of its industry's average is, in his view, proof that the company is doing something right. But, he acknowledges, it is work that needs to continue constantly as new people come into the organization.

For all of these ambitious companies and leaders, success is measured not only by their organization's quarterly financial results but also by the broader impact they have on society. And that kind of impact can only come from people who are fully engaged with their work and not leaving who they really are out in the office parking lot.

Russell Eisenstat is director of the TruePoint Center for Higher Ambition Leadership, president of TruePoint Partners, and co-author with Michael Beer, Nathaniel Foote, Tobias Fredberg, and Flemming Norrgren of Higher Ambition: How Great Leaders Create Economic and Social Value.

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