Entrepreneur Ben Richardson on how trying to be the ideal parent, spouse, friend and businessperson is putting pressure on us all.
The idea of having it all it all is one we should move on from. Some say it’s just about finding a balance, but in honesty, with all the best will, there never really seems to be a perfect balance.
However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t try. I’ve put some rules in place to help me find some form of balance as a working dad.
On a Tuesday afternoon I ensure that I have no meetings after 1pm, which means I can always do school pick-up for my nine-year-old son Teddy and we then go to football training together, where I help train his team, Langton Green FC. Similarly, once a week, working around my company diary I will delay my commute so that I can spend some time with my daughter Rae who is three, before heading into town.
The realisation that working late doesn’t necessarily need to be at my desk in the office is another. I firmly don’t believe in presenteeism. So, sometimes I’ll take a pause to get home, see my kids for a bit and then fire up the computer again later in the evening. Of course, I often break my own rules as ultimately, I work in a service industry and if my client or my team requires my support, I’ll need to make sacrifices elsewhere to make this happen. But I try to make sure that no matter what, my children and wife know they are my priority.
In May 2000, aged just 29 and in the midst of the recession I started Stepladder with my best mate from school Will Pepperrell – a partnership that has lasted as we are still 50/50 partners in all four agencies in the Avenue Group. We added Beyond, then Studio 185 and more recently LongStoryShort, an agency born out of lockdown opportunity. The group is looking to turnover upwards of £4m this year – a long way from my humble beginnings and first job, working in my local chip shop. So how do I manage scaling a business and family life?
I try not to be too hard on myself. I suffered an awful lot with ‘dad guilt’ when Ted was younger and sometimes, still do. Recently I had to miss a sports day. I try to remind myself that you can’t be everywhere and you can’t be everything to everyone or I’d just crack up. My children benefit hugely from my business and so do I. I think it’s easier when you love your work. Making personal sacrifices hurts a little less if you’re enjoying the work side of things. I can’t imagine disliking work and still having to give up time with your family.
Of course, it’s not just me that needs a good work-life balance and at the Avenue Group we are flexible and recognise that people have priorities outside of the office. We don’t have a specific family-friendly policy but work a fairly fluid week and as long as we’re meeting client expectations and spending enough time collaborating together, we’re not clock-watching.
I’m a firm believer in trusting your team, respect them and they’ll return the trust and respect. I’m as flexible as I can be with the team in terms of allowing them to find balance where possible. I’ve been doing it a long time and it’s really obvious to me who is committed and respects the flexibility on offer and who is just taking advantage.
This flexibility also means we can support people with other demands, stresses or worries. My business partner and my senior team are pretty good at spotting if someone is struggling/over-worked and if we spot it, we’ll step in and assist on a case-by-case, whatever the need is.
Ultimately my approach is to allow other working parents the flexibility that I have. There are no hierarchical rules – it’s about what works for you, no matter your role in the business. If your kid is sick, get to your kid. If you need to stay home to support your family, be at home. The team will always have your back and we’ll make do. Family must ultimately come first in my opinion. I love what we do and it’s really important to me but let’s face it, we’re not saving lives in a creative studio are we?
Ben Richardson is the founder of Stepladder, Beyond, Studio 185 and LongStoryShort, under the umbrella of the Avenue Group, an independent group of creative companies all inspired by space and place. Ben is married to TV journalist Sarah Jane Mee, and has two children, living in rural Sussex.