An Interview with John Hersey About the Importance of Balancing Work Life and Home Life

John Hersey was raised in a small town on the East Coast. He entered the workforce after only a year of community college, but while he wasn’t one for school, he always took the time to listen and learn from the people around him in his various professions. After an initial outing in the culinary […]

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John Hersey was raised in a small town on the East Coast. He entered the workforce after only a year of community college, but while he wasn’t one for school, he always took the time to listen and learn from the people around him in his various professions. After an initial outing in the culinary world, he found work at a collections agency. The agency quickly moved him to their new sales operation, where he started on equal footing with around a dozen other new hires, but soon secured a position running the sales operation within only a few weeks. This early success marked the beginning of a long and successful career in sales that has taken him all across the United States.

John Hersey believes in flexibility and in cultivating a willingness to learn from other successful people. He also firmly believes that the true measure of a good manager is whether or not they can train new managers to be even better at the job than they themselves are.

How do you motivate others?

The unique thing about motivating people, I think, is that everybody is so different. People are becoming more different and dynamic as the years progress. Really, the key is to find out what motivates a certain person. Some people are better motivated by praise—you know, lots of ‘atta boys’—whereas other people take a bit of a stronger approach. Some people don’t respond to the soft approach, and they need a little more fire in their step, so to speak. Some people are motivated by titles. Some people are monetarily motivated. Some people are motivated by more time off, or by good deeds, or by a job well done. So it just depends. The key, for somebody who manages people, is to find those trigger points. When dealing with a staff containing any number of different people with different personalities, you can’t handle them uniformly or with broad strokes. To develop a productive staff, it is the manager’s duty to come up with a solid game plan on how to motivate each of their people, because how you motivate Suzy isn’t necessarily how you motivate Phyllis.

What inspires you?

Inspiration is kind of an open-ended and unpredictable thing. It can strike via everyday things that you notice on your drive to work, or in a public arena like a park. Inspiration can take the form of a bird singing, a child playing, a beautiful sunset—just little different things that inspire. It can also come from big and prominent things, like family, friends, or the larger culture. It can be anything and come from anywhere. Keep your eyes wide open, because your next dose of inspiration might be right around the corner.

Who is your role model?

The person who inspired me the most, to work the way I do now, is my father. He had a really good work ethic. He was a blue-collar guy, and his biggest concern was making sure that his family was taken care of. He rarely called in; he just went to work and did the right thing. And in a lot of ways, that’s what I look for in the people that I have working for me. Be at work when you’re supposed to be and produce. Beyond that, everything else just takes care of itself. The old adage of “If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re 15 minutes late,” is something that I live by.

It’s tough to hire good, consistent employees nowadays. Everybody has bad days, of course, but if you can find somebody that’s dependable and ready to work when they’re supposed to, that’s one less thing to worry about. If you’re starting your day wondering if your employees will even show up, it makes the day more difficult than it needs to be. So my goal is always to surround myself with people who have a decent work ethic. My dad was my inspiration for these views. He was a good guy.

How do you maintain a solid work life balance?

That can be tough sometimes, because sometimes you get completely wrapped up in whatever business is happening. In my case, I use mental rewards. What I mean by that is, for example, if I have some event coming up—maybe it’s a round of golf, or a vacation out of town, or whatever the case may be—I keep that in the back of my mind as a motivator. When I’m in the midst of a tough day, I can always go back to that ‘happy place’, so to speak, and realize that I’ve got something better to look forward to.

And I think the other thing is, especially when you’re managing people or an account or an entire company, it’s super important that when you end your day, you leave your work at work. When you walk into your home after a long day at work, be home. Don’t drag work thoughts through the front door just so you can sit there and dwell on them all night long. Don’t turn an 8-hour day into a 12-hour day by rolling those thoughts around in your mind as you’re laying down in bed. It’s imperative to have that separation. But of course, on the flip side, when you walk in the door at work (or sign in online if you’re working from home), be mentally prepared for work. When you go to work, be prepared to work, but when it’s time to shut it down, shut it down.

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. Every industry has its challenges. No matter what you’re doing, you need to be able to reset. Your brain needs a break. And if you can find that balance, you’ll perform much better in your job and in your career.

What traits do you have that make you a successful leader?

I think the number one leadership trait I possess is the ability to see ahead. That’s a characteristic I value immensely and try to improve every day, as I would always rather face a situation that I can work on proactively than a situation where I have no choice but to be reactive. When you’re proactive, you have time to plan and to consider the positives and negatives of what you need to do. But when you become reactive, a lot less thought goes into your next move. Usually, circumstances like that quickly devolve into a binary situation; you can do A or you can do B, and that’s it. Also, when you’re reactive, you usually end up taking some steps backward to fix mistakes that you could have caught if you were being proactive. I always try to see at least a few steps down the line, and I think that is helpful for my employees, too. I think that any good leader or manager needs the ability to see what’s coming up, and to adequately prepare for it.

What suggestions do you have for someone starting in your industry?

This applies as much to any industry as it applies to my industry: Surround yourself with people that you enjoy working with. If you’re starting something new, such as a big project or a company, and you surround yourself with people that annoy you or that impede your progress for whatever reason, all it does is it makes the job harder.

As I tell my people all the time, “Build on stone, not on sand.” If you start off with a good foundation and a good plan, it makes the project or business much easier, and you don’t end up backtracking to fix every mistake you made because you didn’t plan out your process properly the first time around. Now, that’s not to say that there won’t be small mistakes here and there, but you can eliminate a large portion of those mistakes just by having a solid, well thought-out plan.

What piece of advice have you never forgotten?

Years ago, there was a guy that I worked for in Kansas City. He really got into my psyche with a piece of advice he once gave me, which was to keep a daily to-do list. Ever since then, I have been a stringent believer in daily to-do lists. It keeps you on track. During the course of a workday, or even an hour sometimes, you can get sidetracked solving whatever problems happen to present themselves. Some people call it “putting out fires.” Then, suddenly, it’s 5 o’clock and you’ve accomplished nothing that day. But if you have a to-do list, you’ve at least got some sort of guideline to refer back to, to steer yourself back on track. If you don’t get something done on one day, then you add it to the next day’s list. And when you do get something done, you get to cross it off the list. It’s like a tiny reward—you get to feel accomplished. You’ll have days where you manage to cross everything off, and you can look at that and have proof that you had a pretty good day.

The other thing this guy implanted in my brain was the concept of “Plan your work, and work your plan.” I believe in planning, in being proactive. Once you have a plan in place, you should be in a good position to work that plan. There will always be obstacles and hiccups along the way, but you’ll have a plan of action, which I think is crucial. Because otherwise, with all of the things that happen over the course of a workday, if you don’t have something to keep you in line with your goals, your entire day can be lost to simply reacting to situations in the blink of an eye.

What trends in your industry excite you?

I think this applies to all industries, but I find it interesting how many people in all kinds of positions are working from home now. I’ve read a lot of articles and heard a lot of peoples’ thoughts, both positive and negative, about people working from home, and I think it’s an interesting dynamic. By letting people work from home, you’re often adding an hour, sometimes two hours, of extra time to their day. It’s an hour they won’t spend driving or riding the bus to and from work. By letting them just hop out of bed and get to work, you’re taking that extra, fruitless time expenditure out of the equation. If you’ve got an employee working an 8-hour shift with a 1-hour commute each way, then you’ve actually got an employee working 10-hour days. But they’re not accomplishing anything on that commute.

And as far as the quality of the work that’s going on from home, at least for us, we haven’t seen all that much difference. I think the key to that is, of course, the employees. The people who work well in an office setting will most probably work well at home. The people who require a bit more attention at the office are the people who will require a bit more attention when working from home. That’s more of an issue with personalities, though—nothing really changes in that dynamic.

I will say, on the other side of things, one of the detriments to working from home that I can see is that some people really thrive in a group setting. They make friends at work, and many of them really need face-to-face interaction. I think what’s going to happen down the line is that companies will continue allowing their employees to work from home, but companies will likely start having the employees come in once a month, or maybe once every few weeks, just to reconnect. If you’re working from home, and you’re by yourself and maybe you don’t have any other hobbies or sources of interest, coming to the office and being around people and having that social interaction can be a big benefit.

The benefits of working from home are undeniable, but face-to-face interactions are important too, and we can’t ignore that.

What is a productive day of your professional life?

I thought long and hard about this, and I don’t think I have any one specific day I can use as a blanket example. Every manager has their own theories and principles and modes of operating, but basically, you’re trying to get your representatives to fall in line and work toward common goals and the prosperity of the company.

I find it rewarding when I see that imaginary lightbulb light up in my employees at that moment when they get it. For me, that’s pretty exciting. I love seeing it, because those same people that get it, that experience that internal lightbulb moment, start bringing some good stuff of their own to venture. And as smart as managers often think they are, as much as they’re tempted to think they’ve got it all figured out, they really don’t. So it’s nice to see those new ideas and new thoughts come into play. They may well come up with thoughts and ideas that you, the manager, never thought of—inspirations that you never would’ve found on your own. But first you’ve got to turn that lightbulb on in your employees. Once it’s on, once they’ve bought in, you’ve got yourself a real asset. Some of the ideas might not work. Some of them might be real duds. But if even one new idea from a freshly illuminated employee works out, all of the effort to turn that lightbulb on was worth it. They might find ways to do things better than you’ve been doing them. They might make the organization better—and you’ve got to embrace that when it happens. Don’t be intimidated when your employee comes up with a better plan than you. You’ve got to remember that you’re all on the same side, working toward the same goals. One mind is finite. Many minds are infinite. Always be open to new ideas and new concepts.

What advice would you leave with our readers?

I’m a big proponent of the idea of peaks and valleys. What I mean by that is, you’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days. Those are the peaks and the valleys. I’ve always felt that the key to professional life is to not get too high on the good days—enjoy it, but don’t delude yourself into acting like it’ll never end. And on the bad days, in the valleys, don’t beat yourself up over it, because the next good day might be right around the corner and it’ll perk you right back up.

Everybody has good days and bad days, but if you let yourself ride that emotional rollercoaster, it’ll just make you feel progressively more terrible. Those bad days can really beat your psyche up. And if you beat yourself up enough, you won’t be in any mindset to appreciate the peak days, because you’re still dwelling on the bad. Each new day is a clean slate.

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