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How Entrepreneurs Create Harmony — Stonyfield’s Meg Hirshberg

Contributor: Alice Liu

Work and Life is a two-hour radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday from 7 pm to 9 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life, Stew Friedman spoke with Meg Hirshberg, Contributing editor of Inc. magazine and author of For Better or For Work:  A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families..

Following are edited excerpts of Friedman’s conversation with Hirshberg:

Stew Friedman: How did you get involved in the entrepreneurship game?

Meg Hirshberg: Meg HirshbergReluctantly and by accident. I am not an entrepreneur by nature. I married into a business. When I met my husband he had just co-founded Stonyfield Yogurt. What I didn’t realize was that I wasn’t just marrying a man, I was marrying a business as well. I didn’t get that until I moved up to the farm, which was a very intense introduction to the business. We lived with the business— our factory was there, employees were there. It was a time which I later came to call “the full catastrophe” because we lost money for nine years and didn’t have a profitable quarter for almost a decade. It was sort of a shocking entry into the life of a family and the life of a business.

SF: You didn’t know what you were getting into?

MH: I don’t think I really got it. I’d visit the farm, and it was this idyllic location on a hilltop in New Hampshire – it all seemed quite quaint, and I loved the product. I think it’s typical of non-entrepreneurs who pair themselves with entrepreneurs to not really understand what the entrepreneurial life is all about until they’re steeped in it.

SF: So how far into it the start-up your husband been when you first joined him there?

MH: Well we had the factory at Stonyfield farm in New Hampshire, and they were selling a few products mostly in New England. They were trying to grow the business, working night and day at that. I didn’t understand that whole lifestyle. That led to years of misunderstandings and hurt feelings, because my husband was working so much, and I felt he was prioritizing everything else over me. Again, I think this is very classic for non-entrepreneurs who pair themselves with entrepreneurs, and that’s one reason why, thirty years after the fact, I wrote this book for entrepreneurs and their families. I think there’s no reason for everyone to reinvent the wheel with this. There are so many classic, typical challenges that arise for any entrepreneurial family, and you can deal with them so much more effectively with a clear head if you talk about them and anticipate them before they become red-hot.

SF: Dave, calling from South Carolina, what do you know about this issue and what would you like to know from Meg?

Dave (caller): I’d like to know how to balance your personal life and work life when you work out of your home. My youngest daughter is five years old. I work a forty-hour week, and I’ve recently started a new project, which is my entrepreneurial side, so trying to do all of that out of my home and make time for my daughter has been a struggle.

MH: There’s nothing to amp up household stress like having your business as a housemate as well. I’m going to make some recommendations that we were not able to follow at the time. I think if I had understood how important it was to really try to find some demarcation between work and life when you share your home with your business, I would have been a little bit more forceful about instituting them. For example, I think a trap that entrepreneurs fall into is that you find yourself nipping into the home office after dinner to answer some emails and then you find yourself emerging at midnight. Trying to really set some structural limits around work is important so that you are not going to go into your office (or wherever it is that you do your work) after a certain hour or you’re not going to bring your laptop to bed, for example. Those demarcations, as feeble as they might seem, are actually really important. Another example is not bringing your smartphone to the dinner tablemaking sure that meals are free zones from that kind of intrusion. Another type of demarcation is just with space. A lot of times a family business will start in the corner of the dining room and before you know it, there are materials all over the house, which leads to work taking over physically.  I think it’s important to make sure you don’t let that happen either, in order to allow work and life to coexist with less tension.

SF: What do you think, Dave? Are there opportunities that you have in your life to create some boundaries that might give you an opportunity for real focus in your family life?

Dave: One boundary that I did create for myself and my daughter was I gave her permission to ask me to put down my phone when I speak to her. She actually really appreciated it and made use of it.

SF: Well, you’ve given her power. You’ve not only listened to her, but you’ve also given her a voice in decision-making about where you spend your attention, which I’m sure makes her feel closer to you and more confident in your relationship.

MH: Technology has galloped forward before we’ve had a chance as a culture to catch up with it and establish some really sensible rules and expectations about its use. I think that has led to so many hurt feelings between couples, and also between parents and their children. I’ve experienced this with my husband. If he is glancing at his smartphone when I’m speaking to him, that’s a meta-message to me.

SF: Define a meta-message for our listeners.

MH: A meta-message is not what he’s literally saying to me, but what his behavior is conveying to me.

SF: He’s saying that right now something else is more important to him than you.

MH: Exactly. Something else is more important, or you’re not quite important enough to have my full attention.

SF: Dave, what you’ve done with that intervention with your daughter, if I can call it that, is to help her break through that message. Thank you so much for sharing your anecdote.

SF: Meg, let’s go further. You talked about some structural limits—physical as well as temporal—to help people draw those lines and focus. What else have you discovered about what families can do to effectively manage and thrive in the entrepreneurial life?

MH: Different people try different things. What’s right for one family is not necessarily right for another, but for example, if there are children in the household, many entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed do regular family meetings. Something as simple as setting a time to sit down with everyone in your family is especially helpful for an entrepreneurial family where there’s so much distraction. It’s really good to sit down with everyone periodically and have everyone, the children as well, speak about how this household could run more smoothly just to formalize the way in which you touch base.

SF: Is that something you did with your family?

MH: We actually did do that, not with much regularity, but I know that the times when we did sit down with the kids it was great. It was almost like you could hear the tension seep out of the room when people got a chance to voice what’s going on for them, what’s not working for them. Even when the kids are small, six or seven years old, families can start this kind of thing.

SF: That’s a theme that you’re repeating here, which I think is so important – giving voice to the family so that the members are really heard, because it’s so hard to compete with the power of the vendors or customers or other stakeholders in your business.

MH: Right. It’s the urgent always taking precedence over what’s important. And it’s important not to let that happen all the time. There will always be times when the business is going to win, but it’s important that the family wins sometimes as well.

Hirshberg discusses ways that families can speak up and be heard amidst the urgent demands of the business in entrepreneurial families.  If you work from home or if you are part of an entrepreneurial family, what strategies do you currently use and what strategies are you excited to try out to better integrate your work and your life? Join us in the comments section with your thoughts and experiences.

To learn more about Hirshberg’s work, read her book, follow her on twitter @meghirshberg, or visit her website http://www.meghirshberg.com.

Join Work and Life on Tuesday, May 13 at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111 for conversations with Neil Blumenthal with Nilofer Merchant. Visit Work and Life for our schedule of future guests.

About the Author

Alice Liu is an undergraduate senior studying Management at The Wharton School and English (Creative Writing) at the College of Arts & Sciences. 

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