Secret Service agents are crystal clear on their mission — but know when it’s OK to be ‘off the clock.’
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President Bill Clinton came to speak to the Midshipmen in Annapolis, Md., during the time I was the protocol officer at the U.S. Naval Academy.
During the week leading up to his visit, an advance team from the Presidential Protection Division of the Secret Service was on board to scour the area, set up observation posts, determine the routes, remove potential hazards, clear obstructions and brief those of us who would meet the President personally. I worked closely with the agents and got to know them well enough to believe they knew I wasn't a threat.
However, once the President arrived, things got real. Reaching out to shake his hand, I saw the agents tense and I knew at that moment they were thoroughly prepared to take me down if I so much as made the slightest threatening gesture toward Clinton. These agents were taking nothing for granted.
Clinton and I shook hands and the group continued its conversation. It was a "non-event" to everyone else, but it left a distinct imprint on me and on my impression of the agents. For a week, we had joked, kidded each other and shared meals. But, in this instant, they were no longer the guys I'd worked with all week; they were bodyguards in the strongest sense of the word. I was no longer a colleague. Like everyone else, I was viewed as a potential threat, and there was no doubt where their loyalties lay.
Working with those agents taught me two critical strategies for creating work-life balance I never forgot.
1. Use mental boundaries to stomp out confusion.
How often have you seen business professionals run their life and work based on how they feel, forfeiting their ability to make intentional, well-thought-out decisions? Their feelings cloud their judgment.
I once spent an entire day being berated and put down by a new boss. At the end of the day, I was looking forward to getting out of there when on her way out the door she asked if I'd be her guest at a dinner party that evening. I was dumbfounded. I accepted and enjoyed a drama-free evening only to return to the chaos in the office the next day. It taught me the value of separating my feelings from my actions. It helped me not to take things at work personally.
Secret Service agents can like, support and believe in the President they protect or not, but for them, it is irrelevant. They are crystal clear on their mission, which is to protect the President, not the individual. Their feelings play no role in how they carry out the duties of their job and they don't let personal feelings affect their business decisions. Setting and knowing the boundaries allows you to know when you are crossing the line. It also helps you know what not to take personally.
Start with this: Be loyal to your boss, work or company no matter what you think personally. If you work for someone, work for them full out. If you can't bring yourself to do that, find other work.
2. Get handcuffed to a bar stool.
Hours after the President left to return to D.C., I was eating nachos with the agents I'd come to know and several of my fellow officers in a casual bar with peanut shells on the floor. Fortunately, none of us were in uniform. As a joke later in the evening, some of us ended up handcuffed to a bar stool. We were finally off duty and I was once again amazed at how quickly the agents shifted their focus. I learned in order to be completely "on" when we need to be, we also have to be "off" sometimes, otherwise we get wound too tight, which doesn't serve anyone.
Start with this: Schedule your downtime, otherwise work will just expand to fill your calendar. Put the truly important things on the calendar far in advance. Things like a family vacation, your child's soccer game or an anniversary dinner. We tend to actually do what we schedule because it feels more real. This includes scheduling time for yourself.
In 2018, balance is elusive.
The concept of work-life balance has been researched for more than 50 years, earning increased focus since the recession of 2008. Nanette Fondas, co-author of The Custom Fit Workplace shows how flexible schedules haven't always resulted in better working conditions. The advent of social media and texting created an unyielding expectation that we are available to anyone, anywhere and at any time. For entrepreneurs, blending work and life may be necessary at times, all the more reason to define clear mental and physical boundaries so the rhythm of work and play can enhance our life and honor our goals.