Finding freedom through training and experience
When she thinks of the work-life balance of business owners, the image that comes to mind for Gugu Mjadu, executive general manager: marketing at Business Partners, is of her mother on holiday with her family with the phone stuck to her ear – constantly talking to her staff at the office.
Her mom had started an events-planning company when she left teaching at the age of 50. The business was young, she had put all of her life savings into the venture, and was gripped by an unrelenting anxiety to make it work – a situation that most business owners have experienced to some extent.
But Mjadu’s mother also taught her, by way of example, that a business owner can get a handle on it and build a much better balance between her business and home life. “She can now easily be (on holiday in Johannesburg) while an event is taking place in Durban,” says Mjadu.
Today, she is more experienced and the business is more established, making it easier to run on its own. But Mjadu believes that training was an important part of the ability of her mother create order in her business and to “let go and to trust” the people that she had employed.
Business owners are not doomed to be engulfed by their businesses forever. With training and experience, they can work themselves free. But first, be realistic, says Mjadu. Don’t expect a good work-life balance in the first five years of a business that was started from scratch. Having a proper holiday during that time is unlikely and late work nights are frequent, because a young business is like a baby that needs constant attention.
This can pose a problem for entrepreneurs who also want flesh-and-blood babies. It has been done, but it is certainly not advisable to try both kinds of babies at the same time. Mjadu says the conundrum is to choose between starting a business earlier in life so that it is established before you are too old to have children, and having kids early so that they are no longer toddlers by the time your business is ready to be born. It is a difficult matter complicated by the fact that entrepreneurs need to concentrate on their early careers to gain experience and assets before they start a business, and by the pressure to remain in a secure job once they do have children.
Business Partners’ figures suggest that most of its clients, who are typical South African lifestyle business owners, tend to get going with their businesses when their children are probably all past their toddler years. Most of Business Partners’ clients fall in the 46- to 55-year age bracket. (Interestingly, 25% of all Business Partners’ loan applications come from women, while 40% of all its approved loans are to female business owners).
But how does an entrepreneur work herself free from the strictures of an overwhelming start-up business?
Mjadu says it starts with appointing the right people – not necessarily those who are fully trained and capable of working independently; a young business usually can’t afford them. Rather, recruit on the basis of trainability, trustworthiness and reliability.
While the employees need training to the point where they can work relatively unsupervised, the business owner herself needs training in how to plan, how to set up business systems that run by remote control and how to delegate. A Business Partners client in the restaurant industry once put it like this: You’ve got to learn how to manage from the back office and not from the cash register in front. If you have to keep your eye on the till all the time because your control systems are so weak, you’re a prisoner of your business.
The staff and controls that you need in your business to be able to go on an uninterrupted holiday are exactly the same fundamentals that you need for a healthy, sustainable business, says Mjadu. Taking a two- or even three-week holiday is therefore a good test for any owner of a business older than five years. If you cannot take the holiday, you are probably doing something wrong and need to review your systems and processes.
Because of the pressure that a business can put on the life of a business owner, it is usually also necessary for her to use the same planning discipline at home that she practices in her business. “It is important not only to plan for your meetings at the office but also to plan your activities at home. Make sure that everything is planned properly so that you’re able to balance it out,” says Mjadu, adding that modern technology like online shopping can help when you are trying to juggle business and domestic logistics.
And just as things such as wages and supplies need to be negotiated in the business, a business owner needs to negotiate support and domestic work sharing with her partner at home.
Another idea that Mjadu suggests is for business owners to create sacred family time which must never be disrupted by the business. She quotes a highly successful entrepreneur who never allowed himself to work over weekends, even if it put immense pressure on his work week. This may not always be possible for everyone, but it is a good idea to create small family-time enclaves, such as Sundays, and steadily increase them to full weekends.
Finding a good work-life balance for business owners is difficult but important. It requires dedication and careful planning, says Mjadu. But she warns that the process of finding this balance must not be warped by feelings of guilt over neglected family life. Provided that some form of balance can be found, even if it is not perfect, it is good for children to see how the busyness of their parents can build a business.