Fast Track: Ambitious? Stay at home

Ensuring you have a fulfilling private life is the key to a successful career
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This is the message that is coming through loud and clear from employers, as the perfection of balance between home and working life is seen as increasingly critical for business success.

It might not seem like anyone else's concern, but private lives are now an important issue for companies, their boards and even investors. Indeed, personnel professionals dealing with applications for all levels of jobs are looking more closely at the lifestyle of potential recruits. And it's not just about averting potential scandal. It's also about the need for reassurance that work is being managed by a stable pair of hands. "The more one knows about a candidate, the better based the decision can be," explains Richard Boggis Rolfe, the chief executive of the headhunting firm Odgers International.

Perception is key. Take the speculation about the impact of the media baron Rupert Murdoch's split from Anna, his wife of 31 years. The day after the news broke, shares in News Corporation began to fall. And although the City's knee-jerk reaction had no long-lasting effect on NewsCorp's share price, it proved the importance of other people's assumptions of what might (or might not) make Mr Murdoch take his eye off the ball.

So what kind of lifestyle should the ambitious job candidate lead in the late Nineties? The general consensus is that an established partner, a happy family life and personal fulfilment through non-work related activities are all indicators of a more balanced approach to life. Working all the hours God sends with no extra-curricular activities or with a non-existent or shambolic family life, on the other hand, is seen as evidence of the reverse.

It's less about having a supportive spouse holding the fort back home and more about having a broader-based outlook on life, explains the recruitment consultant Carol Butler. "The traditional view is that to get to the top, people need to sacrifice their private lives," she says. "But the obsessive workaholic is no longer in vogue."

Brian Chernitt, the founder of the Academy for Chief Executives - which runs training and coaching for senior business people - agrees: "Working 60 hours a week is increasingly seen as an indication you are failing to delegate or set up self-managed teams - which can't be good for your business."

This is a fundamental attitudinal shift, he stresses, revealed by the Academy's annual two-day residential event, which concentrates on executives' goals. "When we first did this exercise, the focus was almost always on business or financial goals," he says. "But increasingly, the focus has switched to private goals - which could be anything from spending more time on the golf course to settling down with someone, or spending more time with a husband or wife."

And it's not only bosses who hold this view. According to Carol Butler, there is evidence that a growing number of employees themselves don't want to sacrifice their private lives. Indeed, a study published last month by the marketing consultancy Synergy shows that a new generation of young adults is now entering the workforce, for whom personal fulfilment is more important than traditional career goals.

Mary, a 32-year-old advertising executive, endorses this. "My job is highly competitive and, potentially, extremely well paid. But while I want success, I don't want it to the exclusion of everything else."

Achieving balance, however, is not as easy as it sounds. "It's always a bigger issue for women, especially when they've got small children and try to keep up with male colleagues, then become frustrated if they can't cope," Mr Chernitt points out. In fact, he says, "there's a lot of guilt about not driving yourself into the ground - for men and women".

Consequently, even those employees who don't want to relinquish their social lives may wind up doing so. Mary admits that despite her beliefs, her circle of friends has narrowed. "It's lack of time. And that's had its effect on my love life, too. I'm still looking for Mr Right!"

She is not alone. At Virginia Charles, one of the UK's leading matchmaking agencies, the managing director, David Carter, has seen a significant increase in business from young professionals. Economic uncertainty and job insecurity, he believes, have encouraged young people to allow work to take over their lives. "Fundamental changes in the workplace over the last 10 years have resulted in more single people than at any previous time. These are not sad, lonely people. They're busy professional people who find they've little time or opportunity to meet new people."

The biggest dangers of becoming a workaholic early on in one's career are revealed by the growing number of late thirtysomethings who are dissatisfied with their personal lives. David, a 39-year-old City banker, used to be one such man. "You could say I had it all - the well-paid job, the fast car, the warehouse conversion," he admits. "But I felt incredibly unfulfilled. Looking back on it now, I realise I wasn't happy. So I threw myself into my work."

"My boss told me I needed a break. I didn't think it was any of his business. But it did help put things into perspective. I started to build outside work activities into each week, and I have recently started going out with someone I met through my gym."

Mr Carter concludes: "There is little doubt that you get better work out of happy employees - and that most unhappy employees are unhappy because of something outside their working life."