Duke Global Executive MBA Student Blog
Does Work-Life Balance Exist During an Executive MBA?
Here’s my story and some tips for how others in similar situations can achieve work-life balance.
In April 2019 I moved with my wife and two kids from Trinidad and Tobago to the U.S. That May I enrolled in Fuqua’s Global Executive MBA program. In June my partner and I found out that she was pregnant and we would have our third child in February of 2020. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, and many of my friends, colleagues, and family told me that something had to give.
Here’s my story about how I got through all that—plus another move during the program, this time to Europe—and some tips for how others in similar situations can achieve work-life balance. And just a teaser: our relationship has grown stronger and our baby is healthy and doing well.
In the months before I enrolled last May, I had many discussions with my partner on how we would handle the additional pressure of an MBA program on our family life with two children of 4 and 2 years old and both having demanding full-time careers at Shell. I had chosen the Global Executive MBA program for its format with concentrated 1- and 2-week residencies away from home over the many weekend executive MBA programs that other universities offer. These residencies are extremely intense, but they allowed me to fully focus on the program and not be distracted by the home or work front.
Before each residency, you should go through the schedule with your partner, so they know that you’re in class most of the time and that outside of class you need to meet with your teams to work on assignments. Go ahead and agree on and commit to times when you’ll call your partner and children.
It’s just as important to do something similar with your colleagues. It’s not easy to do work during the residencies, so agree with your colleagues on what you can do (maybe answer important emails) and what you can’t do (attend regular meetings). This is also an opportunity to learn to let go of things at work, delegate your responsibilities to others, and develop or strengthen the trust between you and your colleagues. Use the first residency as trial to see what you can and cannot do and adjust as you go along.
During the distance learnings periods in between residencies, I struggled more with separating work, MBA and family time. What worked well for me and my family, was making clear agreements on when I was available and when I was not. On Saturday mornings during class, my partner would take the kids to swim class and afterward to the bakery to buy fresh bread. Upon their return, we would have family lunch and Saturday afternoons and Sundays were reserved for family time.
Learn to Prioritize and Combine
These may sound contradictory, but they’re both skills you need and will develop during your MBA. You’ll need to prioritize what’s most important to you. This may mean that you’ll choose not to do certain things or meet with less people than you would like to, but it will help you balance how you spend your time and still achieve what you want. You’ll also need to decide exactly what you want to get out of the MBA. If you want strong academic results and to get to know the places you visit while maximizing your fun with classmates when there, it means you need to do substantial pre-reading before the residency. It would be a shame if you travel halfway across the world and you’re spending each night studying in your hotel room.
At the same time, doing an MBA does not mean you can’t go on vacation. It’s actually the opposite: you need to take vacation as you’ll need periods to wind down. But what you’ll see is that it’s not easy to take breaks that are perfectly aligned with peaks at work, school vacations, and exam periods. For me, this meant doing my first MBA exam in a resort in the Dominican Republic, while my children and partner were relaxing at the pool. I did it at the beginning of the vacation, so I could relax the rest of the week.
Discipline and Flexibility
Your time during the program is scarce, so decide what’s most important and be disciplined in how you spend it. At the same time, frequently disconnect from everything you’re doing to evaluate with your loved ones how things are going. You may come back from a residency full of adrenaline, but your partner may be exhausted from taking care of the children and his or her job for two weeks all by themselves. Frustrations are normal, just be flexible enough to discuss them and adjust your discipline where needed. You need to have a joint vision of what the end result should be which serves as a compass during the tough times that you will definitely experience.
Include Your Partner Where Possible
During the program, you will meet amazing people with whom you’ll develop great friendships through all that you’ll experience together. Have the dialogue with your partner to see where you can include him or her. Pre- and post-residency trips are great opportunities for them to meet a small subgroup of the people you work so intensely with. And if you do this early on in the program, it will also help your partner to connect faces to all the stories you’ll tell. I would, however, recommend that your partner does not stay with you during the residency, as you’ll be extremely busy and your partner or your team or both are bound to get frustrated as you try to divide your time between them.
Make the Most Out of Every Situation
One example is that during the residencies when I was away from home, family came to visit. As we were living abroad, the residencies provided a great time for family to come by, offer support to my wife and children, and actually make it a fun period while daddy was gone.
As COVID-19 turned some of our physical residencies into virtual residencies, I turned movie or documentary assignments into date nights at home. It’s far from a perfect date night for us, but it was our way of making the best out of every situation.
Lastly, keep on showing interest in what your partner and children are doing and try be involved. It is very easy to become fully absorbed in the program, but there is more to life than school.
Our family literally grew together as we welcomed our daughter Cleo during Term 3. Cleo has attended many Saturday classes sleeping on my chest. But I’ve also grown as I have learned so much from my teams and the rest of my class. I shared some of the feedback I received from them with my wife, and it helped us to better tell each other what we really want to get out of life. In turn, this helped me to communicate better with my team on my commitments at home. And good communication is key if you want to accommodate different schedules, time zones, cultures, and personal preferences. If you can manage this, you’ll be able to grow as a leader and a person.