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Executives try to keep their sanity in a 24/7 stream of messages

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by Robert Burke


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Erika Thompson remembers the thrill of her first BlackBerry. She was so smitten that she slept with it turned on and next to her bed. Missing an overnight e-mail was apparently too much to bear. “And every time it would vibrate, I’d probably look at it,” she says.

She even ditched her personal cell phone and started using the BlackBerry for all her voice-mail and e-mail messages. “That was the one device everyone could reach me on,” she says.

Eventually, though, letting everyone reach her became a problem. Thompson, a vice president and general manager for AT&T’s wireless operations in Virginia and West Virginia, says the demands of her career began spilling into her personal life, and both suffered. “I reached the point where I was always looking at my BlackBerry, and my children said, ‘Mom, put that down,’” she says.

So she went back to two devices — a BlackBerry for work and a cell phone for everyone else. And now when she’s at one of her daughters’ soccer games on a Saturday, the BlackBerry stays in the car. “In order to be successful at work, you have to have a good balance between your work and your personal life,” she says.

Good luck. There are reasons why it’s harder than ever for busy executives to keep a lid on the relentless stream of e-mails and phone calls. There’s the temptation of technology — wireless networks are getting faster.

Plus, the tech toys — such as Apple’s iPhone or BlackBerry’s new Curve model — are pretty irresistible and able to handle an ever-increasing number of tasks.

And the pressure of keeping up with the competition and with the boss is intense. A recent AT&T survey of 1,000 small-business owners showed 61 percent were likely to do business away from the office. Plus, 49 percent think wireless technology gives them a “competitive advantage.” Over whom? Presumably the dolts who aren’t connected.

The challenge is keeping that advantage without giving your life over to 24/7 connectivity. “If you let it, it can really consume your life,” says James Clawson, a professor at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. He leads seminars for executives and says no matter what company he speaks to, “The first thing people will ask about is balancing work and family life,” he says. “Where do you draw the lines?”

Learning to draw boundaries
Clawson, author of “Level Three Leadership,” now in its fourth edition, says a first step is deciding that you’re going to draw some lines somewhere. He says some execs live “outside in — they’re too reactive to the outside world, and tend to get in more trouble” because they can’t set boundaries. He recalls that after one seminar he found himself in the men’s room, “and there’s a guy standing at the urinal next to me talking on the phone. And I thought, ‘Do I dare flush now, or is that going to interrupt him?’”

But, of course, some like the connectivity and thrive on it. Clawson has a friend, the CEO of a global company, who he’s seen driving with a BlackBerry in one hand, cell phone in the other, while steering with his knee. This exec is known for waking in the middle of the night to check his e-mail. “I’ve never heard him complain about it,” he says.

A study released in May by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 23 percent of us are “heavy” users of technology. “For people like that, more is better,” says John Horrigan, author of the Pew study. “They fall into the category I call productivity enhancers. This is part of their world and their job obligation.”

But it’s worth noting that what seems like a work enhancer to you may not seem that way to employees or colleagues. 

Randy Kelley, CEO of the 1,600-employee Inova Loudoun Hospital, says he used to work at an Ohio hospital where the CEO banned weekend work. The result: Employees found fewer e-mail orders from their supervisors waiting when they arrived on Monday mornings. “It’s demoralizing to come in and realize you were dozens of e-mails behind,” he says.

Kelley is kind of old school. He doesn’t carry any PDA and is uncomfortable driving and talking on a cell phone, though he still does so. While he depends on e-mail to help him manage the round-the- clock operations of the hospital, Kelley is wary of how mobile devices can take people out of the moment. “When you’re sending e-mail in the middle of a meeting, you’re not really in the meeting,” he says.

What’s more, he thinks more execs could really do without their mobile devices. “If I can run a 24-hour-a-day business and do it without having instant connectivity, then you ought to be able to take a break every now and then.”

Banishing the BlackBerry
True enough, but AT&T’s Thompson says there are still times when you have to be there. She says that three years ago while working in Atlanta, she was organizing a response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while also attending a soccer tournament with her older daughter. Between games, she sat in her car with a cell phone and laptop and hosted conference calls. “There are instances where the business need arises, and the ability to connect is very helpful to getting things done,” she says.

But sometimes the task at hand is to get some sleep. So now Thompson keeps her BlackBerry at the other end of her house and doesn’t check it until she’s getting her first cup of coffee in the morning. Everybody has to find their own way of managing information and connectivity, she says.

U.Va.’s Clawson, though, warns that expanded bandwidth and better devices will make it even easier for execs to find themselves overextended and knocked back on their heels instead of leading their business forward. “What happens is the boundary just keeps pushing and pushing, until you’re standing next to some guy in the bathroom and he’s doing business while relieving himself. It’s weird.”


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