For decades, those of us now at Build have researched and reported on the desire of top executives to lead, as we said years ago in Inc., “not just a business, but a life, too — a day-to-day existence that actually makes room for personal relationships; for the pursuit of decent health; for a family, maybe; possibly even for the occasional trip to the movies (though one should be careful not to overreach).”
One husband-and-wife team stands out for their genius at balancing business ownership and life — or at least for their provocative example: Pete and Laura Wakeman. The Wakemans launched and ran Great Harvest Bread Co. for some 25 years, eventually operating 140 stores before selling the company in 2001. Along the way, they taught us about the work-and-life balancing power of “handrails.”
Handrails, as Pete Wakeman explained in an e-mail conversation with Inc. (“The Good Life and How to Get It”), are rules that define the relationship between leader and company, and “make it impossible not to live how we want.” Some examples — which from the perspective of most executives may seem extreme:
- The two-day-weekend rule. The Wakemans neither worked nor took calls on Saturdays and Sundays.
- The 1,000-hour rule. The Wakemans adopted this yearly limit — amounting to about half a regular 40-hour workweek schedule — during the last five years of their Great Harvest Bread stewardship. “We really like strong lines between things,” Wakeman says. “We carry time cards, and we punch in, punch out. We know when we’re working. Aside from the 1,000-hour rule, we vary our schedule any way we want. Last winter, against a deadline, I worked an 18-hour day followed by a 24-hour day, straight through the night. I love the intensity of being on a roll. Other days we’ll drive in for a single meeting and clock less than 2 hours.”
- The long trips. “The biggest handrail of all was what we used to call our ‘three-week trips,’ Wakeman says. “Sometimes longer than three weeks but never less; we never skipped them. In the early years they were mostly wilderness trips; later we often went to Latin America. We loved our work, but we worked so we could take trips. Later, as the business got more intense, it was easy to get confused and begin to think the trips were to refresh us so that we could work better. We fought that thought like the poison that it is.”
It’s not the specifics of the Wakemans’ handrails that matter, though. (Your handrails will be your own.) It’s the mere fact of them. And this: “It was the inviolate nature of those weekends and trips that forced us to hire right and train right and invent systems for our people as the business grew.”
The handrails ensured the Wakemans’ success at creating the life they wanted. But, says Pete Wakeman, they helped ensure the success of the business they ran, too.
Great Harvest Bread Co. first came to our attention not for Pete and Laura Wakeman’s handrails, but for the way it turned its nationwide network of stores into a “grassroots example of the ‘learning organization’ that consultants evangelize about but rarely find.”
For a case study look, read Inc.’s “Zen and the Art of the Self-Managing Company.”