May 15, 2016

Business is business — but home life must stay personal

In many ways entrepreneurs can be full of contradictions: their strengths are their weaknesses, too.

In particular, what can be a positive in business can be destructive in their personal lives. The intensity of being the boss means that most fail to leave their work at the office — so all those entrepreneurial characteristics also come to the fore in their home life.

Anyone running a business must be constantly focused on costs. The best chief executives I know are frugal in how they spend money, and know exactly where the cash goes. They believe all purchases are negotiable, and that keeping tight control of expenses is one of the secrets in building a successful company. But often this affects their behaviour at home. They see personal outgoings as “overheads”; they worry that everyone from the plumber to the nanny is ripping them off. They forget to enjoy the lavish Mediterranean holiday because they are obsessed about the extortionate price for the villa, the rental car, the meals out.

In a sense, entrepreneurs are producers — the objective of all that striving is to create companies, jobs and wealth. This requires a philosophy of deferred gratification.

Denial and graft cannot be the purpose of home life. That is more about consumption — spending the fruits of one’s labours and enjoying the winnings.

Yet if you are wired to invest and be productive, relaxing and consuming do not come easily. Instead, I have found the addiction of business to be all-consuming.

Every high-performing entrepreneur I’ve backed has been industrious. Indeed, in my opinion, an appetite for hard work is a precursor to achievement in business. But this inclination often exhibits itself domestically as workaholism — an overwhelming dedication to a career leading to the impoverishment of family life. We have all read tragic stories of tycoons whose children go off the rails — drugs, self-harm, etc — and all too often because they received too many goodies but not enough parental attention.

Entrepreneurs are by nature men and women of action. They possess urgency — a strong desire to accomplish things. This is an excellent attribute in a start-up founder, but in a home setting it can express itself as unbearable impatience. Most of my business partners have had restless temperaments; unfortunately, this business asset can become a liability at the weekend, when family relaxation is in order.

Similarly, organisations need leaders — someone to provide direction, vision, purpose. The buck must stop with the boss in a business. Home lives are different: they are about bringing up children (who are not employees), meals, shopping, holidays and, most importantly, playing and having fun. Yet often an entrepreneur will continue barking out orders in the sitting room in the same proprietorial manner they adopt on the factory floor. This is generally not good for spousal relations — or indeed parent/child relationships.

Getting different aspects of one’s life in proportion is easier said than done; an ability to compartmentalise is a great talent but one, it seems, that only a few possess.

I’m told that police officers and doctors cannot just instantly relax after the tension of a long shift dealing with criminals or treating patients in A&E. They need to decompress for a few hours before their true humanity emerges.

Unfortunately, the encroachment of digital communications means there is rarely any true escape from the incubus of business. It intrudes in the evening, at weekends, on holiday. Too often I have allowed a rogue email to spoil a Sunday afternoon.

The blurring of lines between the workplace and home is all very well, but if the two require different mindsets, then how is one to be a decent and caring spouse, parent and friend as well as a boss and owner?

After all, running a company is a mercantile pursuit and involves constant hard choices, based mainly on commercial considerations. It demands a wholly different set of emotions and skills to those needed in personal relationships.

On the BBC archive one can find a wonderful documentary called The Solitary Billionaire. It was made in 1963 and features J Paul Getty being interviewed by the incomparable Alan Whicker. At the time Getty was the richest man in the world. He lived in a huge pile in Surrey, all alone, controlling his vast oil empire with just two secretaries and a phone.

Although clearly an intelligent man, he also comes across in the interview as a “desiccated calculating machine”, to borrow a phrase once used by the Labour minister Nye Bevan. His private life was a shambles — five marriages and deeply dysfunctional relationships with his children. Getty wrote a bestseller called How to be Rich. It is a useful primer on making money, but not much of a guide to how to live a fulfilling life.