Kees van der Graaf spent 32 years at Unilever, where he worked as president of Europe operations. He was a member of the board and executive committee and is credited with overhauling Unilever’s European business.
Van der Graaf’s oldest son, Bart, was diagnosed with FSHD (facioscapulohumeral form of muscular dystrophy) in 1992, and that changed his life forever. He realized he had to establish a balance between his personal and professional life. Along with his wife, Renée, Van der Graaf founded the FSHD Foundation. In 2008, at the pinnacle of his career, he decided to take early retirement from Unilever and devote his time to the foundation.
Apart from the professional challenges at Unilever, his new book, Defining Moments, is dotted with personal stories and lessons. Edited excerpts from the chapter “Ten Steps Towards Total Personal Balance”:
Five steps towards attaining total balance
I would like to point out that it is impossible to consistently achieve total balance. As leaders, we have to think in terms of dynamic balance rather than static balance. There will always be forces that will throw us out of balance, and we have to accept that from time to time, as long as we recognize it and are prepared to constantly find a new equilibrium. And relationships can play an important role in this—we all need help rebalancing our lives on occasion and in turn we can all provide help to those around us. My hope is that the combination of the stories I have shared with you in this book and the following steps will serve as a wake-up call to step back and take the time to create your own personal balance.
Defining Moments: By Kees van der Graaf, IMD International, 137 pages, $40 (around Rs 1,800).
• Define your real purpose in life
When I talk about purpose, I mean real purpose—your deeper purpose—not just defining your personal objectives. Think about what you want your legacy to be. What do you want to be remembered for? What do you stand for? The answers to these questions do not come overnight—they take some time—time alone with yourself. You need to ponder, reflect, think and rethink what you want your life to represent. Once you have found it: write it down and keep it with a few people who are dear to you. Confirmation and positive encouragement are great helps.
• Identify your top five priorities
Once you know what really matters to you, you can start to develop a plan to fulfil your life’s mission. The plan should include no more than five sharply defined priorities for the next 5-10 years. Write them down and reread them 24 hours later to see if they still feel right. If necessary, adjust them, but ask yourself why this is necessary. It could be important to go back to your purpose and value statements.
• Make courageous decisions
Once you have decided on your deeper purpose, your values and your priorities, you face a moment of truth. You must clear your agenda of all the things that do not fit. If you can do this, then you will be perfectly aligned and perfectly happy. If there is a deviation, you will probably have to make some adjustments to your agenda to create more time for your priorities. If there is a total misalignment, it is time to step back and re-evaluate what you want out of life. This requires some deep reflection about yourself, your relationships, your job and so on. Talk to the people in your life—your partner, your coach, your boss—and if you still feel that you cannot align your agenda with your priorities, then perhaps it is time to take the brave step of removing yourself from the job. Agree with your boss on the best way to do this, and keep in mind that there is a life after your current employer.
• Deal with the root cause of the problem
Staying true to your purpose and focusing on your top five priorities is not easy. You will encounter all kinds of challenges along the way. My advice—follow a Chinese medicine philosophy. When Tom Malnight and I talked to a number of Chinese CEOs during our research project, they told us that when they are facing an issue or a dilemma, rather than treat the symptoms, they search for and address the root cause.
• Get inspiration from exceptional individuals
There are a lot of truly exceptional people in the world. Look around you. Look for people you admire not only for their achievements but also how they achieved them. Talk to them. Learn from them. Seek their support and let them energize you.
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