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Outside voices and views for advisers

Creating a careful work/play balance

Feb 24, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

By Mike West

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An interviewer recently asked me to describe the culture of a company on its way to greatness. I blurted out the first character trait without thinking twice: “It's intense.” And then, after some thought, I added: “Relaxed.”

I don't blame my interrogator for raising an eyebrow at that second one, but there's something critical there, especially for our industry. Financial services has not historically been known for being playful. We're not quirky, not zany, not bursting with youthful energy. On the contrary, we're teetotalers, bean counters, contract writers. We wear suits, carry briefcases, write memos. Some connive gleefully over sums of money, but in my opinion that kind of bad behavior, while “fun” to some, doesn't count as play.

It might be that we don't have time for play; we have regulations to deal with. But this stark contrast between business and structured enjoyment reveals something really important about the culture in which we operate. It says something about the financial services industry as a whole — that we ultimately view work and play as being two very mutually exclusive activities.

But that wasn't always the case. In ancient times, playfulness was seen as a civic virtue. Loosely defined as “pleasantness in conversation”, eutrapelia was the elegant word passed around in philosophical schools for a much-sought-after golden mean between boring and buffoonery. Aristotle believed that time taken to develop eutrapelia was not wasted; rather, it could be used as a form of interpersonal leisure that served to further public activity. In other words, it was a recreation that led to increased productiveness.

As it turns out, these philosophical speculations on the role of play in public life have been confirmed by more modern investigators, too. For example, scientists have determined that play serves as a form of mental preparation that helps the brain grow and increases cognitive abilities in children and adults alike. In the workplace, an active culture of play can result in higher employee productivity, lower stress levels, increased concentration, and general perseverance. Others note that creating a culture of play is an excellent way to attract talent to a firm, particularly from younger generations.

In my experience, one of the best outcomes of playfulness at work is that it helps foster an environment of creative disruption and innovation. When my employees feel they have the freedom to smile and relax, they think more creatively and are more comfortable working together to solve problems. I find it fascinating to stop in during brainstorming sessions and see everyone smiling, tossing about ideas, enjoying the process for what it is — a joint effort to improve our place of work.

It's not easy to build this kind of culture that carves out space for playfulness, nor are a lot more companies likely to do it. However, I find that it can often start at the top of the org chart and trickle down. You and your fellow managers have the opportunity to set the tone in the office, encouraging employees to approach their work with a sense of playfulness. This takes positive reinforcement, as well as the ability to distinguish between activities that are fun and productive and those that are fun and counterproductive. However, if done correctly, you will soon find that your employees can make this distinction themselves and the culture of serious play becomes self-reinforcing.

The bottom line is that I wake up and love coming to work — because it doesn't feel like work. For me, it is precisely that mixture of productive mirth, of thoughtful play, and of joyous activity that makes my job so enjoyable.

Mike West is senior partner and CEO of BPV Capital Management. West's family office began in 2001, transitioned into an RIA firm in 2009, and then into mutual fund management in 2011. West has years of entrepreneurial and executive management experience with a background in financial management, strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions, and business development.

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