Hanging in the balance

Can you grow your business and keep a work/life balance? GB spoke to The Mabain Group's Andrew Burcher, who thinks he proves that you can


Three years ago, on holiday in Spain, Andrew Burcher’s young son dropped “like a stone” to the bottom of the swimming pool. Burcher, sitting by the poolside, didn’t see it happen – distracted by answering an e-mail from a client.

Luckily, his son was fine, but it was this moment that made Burcher realise his life as an entrepreneur wasn’t working. Like many business owners, he set up his law firm in 1994 with three objectives – to make good money, to take control of his time (and to have more of it to spend with his family), and to provide an exemplary service to his clients. Fourteen years later, he hadn’t achieved any of them.

For many entrepreneurs, the reality of running their own venture is more labour-intensive and less profitable than they had planned when they started out. Sound familiar? As your business fails, you add more time and money, until you are a prisoner of your enterprise – never logged off from your work e-mails and always willing to take a work call at the weekend. This business model, Burcher argues, doesn’t work. This business model, in which you can only justify free time if it is induced by severe fatigue, is one which often ends with a heart attack.

That was where Burcher was due to be now, but in fact he has just returned from two invigorating weeks doing charity work in Namibia. His life is easier and his job is better – what’s more he has a happy family, motivated employees and a thriving business.

Where would you like to be in three years? That is the first question in the Strategic Coach programme, the course which helped Burcher overhaul his work/life balance. It asks: ‘If we were meeting here three years from today, looking back over those three years, what has to have happened during that period for you to feel happy about your progress?’

Perhaps most powerful of the programme’s strategies is The Entrepreneurial Time System, which instructs business owners to break the next month of their calendar down into free days, focus days and buffer days. Free days are not just weekends, they are days where you completely switch off, cold turkey – no phone calls, no e-mails: just personal time. Focus days are the days when you engage solely in money-making activities. Then for any unavoidable admin and “putting out fires” within your team, you have buffer days.

To complement this strategy, there is the Unique Ability exercise. This allows you to work out which jobs really require your input, giving you the power to delegate the rest. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to make a list of all the things they do on a normal working day, including checking e-mails and making teas, and then to strike through all the activities that don’t make money. Of those left, they then strike through all those that they don’t like doing.

The remainder of the list, according to the Strategic Coach programme, consists of the only activities entrepreneurs should be doing; everything else can be delegated among staff. 

For Burcher, this strategy has been so effective that his nine year old son now starts every morning by asking his father what kind of day it is. The overruling principle is that you can only work well when you are rejuvenated – there is a reason why footballers rest before a match.

As for profit, after three years in the Strategic Coach programme, Burcher has doubled his income and doubled his leisure time. If you think you can’t do it, here’s food for thought. The first time that Burcher allowed himself one ‘free day’ he fell off his motorbike – and ended up in bed for three months. Suddenly he had a lot of free days! To his slight humiliation, his business didn’t fall apart without him. There may be more opportunity to take a step back than you could have ever have forecast.

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