Bruce Arians, workaholism, and why we reject “the hustle”

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NFL coaches are known for their over-the-top workaholism.  The accepted wisdom is, to make it in the NFL, you have to sleep in your office and live, sleep and breathe NFL football.  Legends like Vince Lombardi and Bill Belachick and countless others made it a mantra that if you want to succeed, you must work, work, work, work and then work somemore.

After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last week, I was curious about their coach Bruce Arians.  He seems so different.  So I looked up and watched the NFL “a football life” film about him.  What I learned was he doesn’t just seem different, he IS different.  He is 100% himself and has some very heterodox views about NFL football.

Arians isn’t just a guy who is known for his own unique style and colorful language.  He is a man who has found success at the highest level, in one of the most competitive fields imaginable, who is out on a fishing boat a couple times a week during the football season and who demands that his coaches NOT be workaholics.  

That’s not to say they don’t work hard.  You cannot have success without putting in the practice, mastering your domain, and showing up to work.  Arians had a longer-than-normal apprenticeship working and being successful under many different coaches before finally getting a head coaching job in Arizona.   He’s obviously mastered football and knows more about the game and motivating it’s players than most people alive.  But Arians has figured out how to do that with some sort of balance.
In my favorite quote from the film, Arians said to his assistants:

The work will always be there, your kids and family won’t.  If you miss a piano recital or a football game or whatever because you were working, I’ll fire you.

Bruce Arians

The software world is also famous for it’s workaholism.  I’ve read the books about Jobs and Gates, and read about their around the clock, sleep in the office drive as they were building their companies.  There are plenty of stories in software about people wanting to be the last to leave the office because it’s an expected part of getting the coveted promotion.  

Maybe that is the cost of a certain kind of greatness, but is it greatness worth having?  Isn’t there more to life than office accolades, profit and loss statements, promotions and raises?

As we build our company (and it’s growing fast), I want to be proactive about instilling a form of balance in our culture.  Balance does not mean we never stay late to finish a project and there are never times of stress at work.  Balance means that we work hard enough during working hours, and we are smart enough about it, that those late and high stress days are a rarity, not an expected rite of passage.

We have bi-weekly team meetings and during every meeting I tell the team something like this:

Unless it’s a hair-on-fire emergency,  I don’t want to hear from you on the weekends.  Go do something with your family.  Go to the beach.  Recharge.  The work will still be there on Monday.

And we regularly say things like:

If you are on vacation, be on vacation.  Don’t bring your laptop.  Don’t check in.  We’ll see you when you get back.

Obviously, we are giong to meet our client deadlines, but if we are routinely pulling late-nighters, that’s not a badge of honor, it’s a sign that something is wrong with our systems and processes or we are just being lazy when we should be working.

I’m convinced that a programmer who puts in five or six good hours of code a day and then plays soccer with his friends or who takes her kids to a movie is going to be a much more effective long term team member than a programmer who is routinely working into the night.  We might use the term “sprint” sometimes, but we aren’t in a sprint, we are in a marathon.  No one can sustain work-a-holism without serious issues elsewhere. 

More important than effectiveness though is this simple truth.  The team member who puts in reasonable hours and who has a life outside of work is going to be a happier person and going to lead a better life.  At the end of the day, if our business isn’t giving our team members a better life, then we have failed as leaders.

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