Sweating Blood: How Living to Work Can Pay Off

Some people, either by choice or by circumstance, spend the bulk of their careers ‘living to work’, hovering on a constant redline of workload and stress

Article by Tom Conway-Gordon

The rather sudden demise of Fiat supremo, Sergio Marchionne in July sent shockwaves through the international automotive and business communities: admitted to hospital one day, sadly deceased almost the next due to complications in surgery. Marchionne will be remembered and revered for turning around the fortunes of legendary Italian car brand, Fiat. With precious little automotive industry experience, he oversaw a reversal of fortune for the company, joining the year after Fiat had overseen a $7bn loss and almost immediately creating the ‘deal of the century’ with Chrysler, the foundation on which Marchionne took Fiat from spluttering in reverse to firing on all cylinders.

From the obituaries I read of ‘The Doctor’, there were many indications that he lived to work for the vast majority of his career. From regularly sending emails in the very early hours of the morning and expecting immediate answers when colleagues were invariably sleeping, to grabbing forty winks for himself on the sofa of his jet as he flew around the world rebuilding Fiat, his drive was relentless and led to great success.

Wait, what does ‘live to work’ actually mean? Living to work effectively means that one’s day-to-day life is dedicated to working – 24/7/365. From the moment you wake in the morning, to the moment you collapse into bed, invariably exhausted, your focus is dedicated to your job and the multitude of challenging tasks therein. On the flipside, working to live implies something altogether less energetic and demanding. This could be a simple and stress-free 9 – 5 job that delivers a salary comfortable enough to live the life, or rather cover the costs of the life, one has chosen.

Some people, either by choice or by circumstance, spend the bulk of their careers ‘living to work’, hovering on a constant redline of workload and stress. The result of pouring all your energy into making a success of a job or position can have long-reaching consequences and not just those connected to sacrifices in lifestyle or indeed, health. Reputations prematurely forged as ‘workaholic’ and personalities stamped early as ‘they’ll stop at nothing to deliver’, can be difficult and detrimental to try and change in the long run. Once the effort bar is set at a certain height, anything below is seen as quite literally coming up short in the eyes of superiors and clients, which can have job-threatening consequences. Personal relationships can suffer or fall apart through simple absence, or even when present ‘being somewhere else’ or constantly ‘on the phone’ i.e. working, but outside the usual working hours, like evenings, weekends and holidays.

Having worked in the car industry myself, with General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti and Kia Motors, Marchionne’s embodiment of ‘living to work’ brought back memories of a similar time in my own career when I too pushed everything to the side to focus on my job and the dizzying number of ‘problems’ it presented. I was headhunted to a Director position at General Motors Middle East’s (GMME) public relations agency in Dubai in December 2008. As the global financial crisis bit down hard, General Motors (GM) US found itself in deep trouble and famously went cap in hand to President Obama.

After selling nearly 150,000 new cars in the Middle East in 2008, GMME required a robust and detailed PR strategy and execution in what was clearly turning into a phenomenally difficult environment. What wasn’t fully disclosed during my interview process was that over the course of the year the client/agency relationship had deteriorated to a worrying degree. The threat of losing the account, and its significant monthly retainer, was critical to the agency’s health. My appointment was the last roll of the dice and walking into the office I realised my initial months in Dubai would not be spent living the expat dream, but rather spending all my time in the office: 12 hrs a day, six days a week.

Photograph by Aarón Blanco Tejedor

Whilst there were slight feelings of ‘what have I got myself into here?’, they were outweighed by a sense of purpose and confidence in my abilities. It’s important to note that if you realise in the early days of a new job that you’re going to have to work like an absolute train, if you back yourself 100 per cent, there’s a huge boost to your sense of importance and self-worth.

The client demands came quick and fast, and in a never-ending torrent and with no structure in place, it felt as though everyone was in a constant state of panic. Given the sorry state of team morale, I pushed ‘me’ and ‘life’ right down my list of priorities. I had no social life for my first six months and at times felt very lonely but felt the ends ultimately justified the means.

Our new collective team effort started to pay off and, when we helped GMME’s Chevrolet brand to launch the new Camaro in early 2009 the first fruits of our labours became apparent; every single car of the first shipment of new Camaros was pre-sold before rubber hit any Middle East road. Challenges but successes continued for the remainder of the year; we steered GMME through the GM US Chapter 11 announcement, continuing the sacrifice of any ‘life’ part of my work/life balance equation.

I look back upon that period as one of the best and ultimately most rewarding experiences of my career. It wasn’t just the substantial and visible boost to the CV but more importantly it gave me the confidence to know what I could handle, the tempo I could operate at and how to manage a team in spells of high pressure.

There are of course many for whom living to work is not a matter of choice or job circumstance: it has become their raison d’être. Year after year of non-stop hard graft, with no holidays or time off can lead into an inescapable rut, especially when the viability and success of a business relies on round the clock attention or client service. What was once a passion can become a prison. Attention to detail can become obsession and micro-management to the nth degree can turn to mania. Will the world really stop if you take a week, a month or even a year off?

We all need to rest, recuperate and reprioritise our life choices every now and then and taking stock of our current working environment, culture and job expectations – of self and from superiors and external stakeholders – must form part of that conversation.

After all, no one ever says on their deathbed that they wished that they had worked harder in life. riddle_stop 2

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