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The rock star draw of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Admiral Michael Mullen was the most surprising element of my night at the Families and Work Institute’s (FWI) 2010 Work Life Legacy Awards on Monday. The room’s excitement at his presence was palpable and energizing. Who says we don’t hunger for heroes in the corporate world?

The other surprise was the delightful chorus of “oooos” and “aahhhs” from the several hundred suited corporate leaders over Dr. Berry Brazelton’s video montage of his interactions with new babies. I assure you, it wasn’t just the women! What were America’s pediatrician and America’s Chairman of the JCS doing at a dinner in New York? Talking work life.

Family FWI President & Co-Founder, Ellen Galinsky introduced the evening of awards to individuals and organizations for massive contribution to the relationship between work and families with this thought:

“There was surprisingly little—if any—talk of the business case among our honorees this year, of having to prove in dollars and cents terms that paying attention to families does not detract from work but rather than enhances it… Among these leaders, it seems to be taken as an article of faith— based on their years of experience—that if we put the employee and his or her family first, all else will follow.”

Whilst the message of the business upside remains essential, it was refreshing to hear that for these companies at least, a more holistic, truly long term view is emerging within their cultures.

Culture Diversity torch bearer, FWI Board Member and Chair of the Work Life Legacy Awards, Ted Childs, declared, “work life initiatives weren’t created as feel good social programs; we created them to be used!” He reminded the power group that, “the global workplace means someone is working 24/7, but that doesn’t mean you are.”

My quotes don’t do the man justice. He’s a one-person tour de force for work life reform. He might have been preaching to the choir, but that didn’t stop him from throwing out the call for all to do better.

Dr. Brazelton challenged parents to be focused with their children. Physical time in the room with young children may actually have increased over recent years, but paying attention is even harder with our technological connectedness and constant distractions. His call to remain emotionally available and to protect time together without technology was felt by most in the room. Even the Admiral confessed to gentle chastisement from his wife about his Blackberry.

Merck CEO Richard Clark continued the theme, “I tell our people, Merck should be high on your priorities, but it should never be number one, that should be your family.” Something powerful can happen in a culture when your leader is saying that.

It is not enough to talk about good work life behaviors. It is not enough to have policies. It all comes down to culture. Always. This blog has repeatedly discussed the idea of policies on the books but a luck-of-the-draw reality as to which boss you get when you’re pitching your work life solutions. Carol Watkins, Chief HR Officer for Cardinal Health, “It’s not about a formal training session where you sit in a room and you teach from a book. It’s more the dialogue and it’s who you promote; it’s who you reward; it’s who you recognize. And if you are recognizing and rewarding people that embrace that, the organization will react.”

Taking it to the next level, “If you have leaders who are not living your values from a people point of view, it is time to move on. And that also will be a very big demonstration to the organization about what’s important and what the corporation values.” from Jill Kanin-Lovers, a Corporate Board Director for Heidrick & Struggles and Dot Foods.

Holistic Systems Barbara Wankoff, Workplace Solutions Director for KPMG highlighted the connectedness of our environments, talking about the relationships between individuals, families, workplaces and communities. The systemic interactions might appear obvious but it’s not until you study and examine this interplay, that truths are revealed.

The point was made over and over by all of the speakers and panel in differing ways: the connections between early childhood development and focused parental time with young children; the connections between the leaders of 2037, and this year’s new recruits; the connections between the individual in the workplace and the family system from which they are emerging.

Back to the Admiral. He manages a workforce of 2.2 million people. His recruitment strategy now, is workforce planning for 2037. His organization thinks that far ahead. It’s systems thinking on steroids and there are profound lessons for the corporate world. For his speech and the full text of the panel discussion go here. His wife of 40 years accompanies him as he meets with that massive workforce. He speaks of Deborah Mullen as an absolute partner in his mission. Examples matter.

“My bet on the future of the military is on its people, and if we get it right for our people and their families and meet their needs, they will more than meet ours, no matter what the mission, no matter where it is.”

The services are literally cutting edge in some of the considerations of work family issues. They have to be. As Admiral Mullen put it in the ultimate statement of systems thinking, “The readiness of the United States military is directly tied to the readiness of our families.”

You might think your business doesn't depend on it. The greatest military minds are telling you it does. Mullen acknowledges a workforce that has had dramatic demands made of it over the last ten years. His warning is not just to the military. “We are very much out of balance. And we need to get back in balance, and we need to do it as rapidly as we can.” With programs like two year sabbaticals without loss of status or trajectory in the Navy and similar initiatives in other branches of the services, leadership and culture is everything.

Last Word From the unexpected silence as the colors were marched into the room and the National Anthem sung by an exquisite soprano who happened to also be a helicopter pilot who pulled people off roof tops during Katrina, this was no ordinary corporate dinner. This week’s posts were supposed to be all about men, and there’s more to come on that front. Instead, this post is about all of us, not just a bunch of suits at a fancy dinner in New York. It’s our organizations, people, our families and our communities and the interplay between them that make our collective lives worth living. Leaders, men and women, can and must gather to trade ideas, share best practice and inspire each other. The divide between the male and female experience of work life imbalance doesn’t seem so intense when we tackle the issues together as a collective, instead of as genders. That is the point of inviting more men to become involved in this fundamental societal and cultural shift. And for cultural shifts we need more than leaders. We need heroes. It doesn’t require a uniform or a big corporate job to be a hero. We need heroes at home with our children, at work in our organizations, in the classrooms, in battle and crisis, and in government. I’m not fussy about what packages my heroes come in. But seismic shifts can’t happen without them.

Credits: Used with permission from DoD. Photos by Petty Officer Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy. First photo, Admiral Michael Mullen, Ted Childs, Ellen Galinsky. Second photo, left to right, Mirian Graddick-Weir, Carol Watkins, Admiral Mullen, Claire Shipman, Lon O'Neil, Jill Kanin-Lovers. Disclosure: I attended this event as a guest of the Families and Work Institute.

Cross posted from Work. Life. Balance. blog.

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