How do you pursue your purpose and maintain a work-life balance?

Q&A: Accion CEO Michael Schlein on motivation, balance, and philanthropy

Michael Schlein meeting with Vikram Jetley, the Co-Founder of our partner Aye Finance in India. Michael discusses the importance of finding a career that you love.

Accion’s President and CEO, Michael Schlein, is a busy guy. He travels to dozens of countries every year, manages more than 40 impact investments around the world, and directs a 150-person organization that spans a half a dozen time zones.

And that’s just his day job: Michael also has two young children, a wife, a family, and, occasionally, tickets to see The National or one of his other favorite bands.

It should come as no surprise that Michael prioritizes finding a work-life balance — both for himself and for the rest of Accion. During a recent conversation, Michael discussed how he helps raise his family and manages a global nonprofit that has done work with more than 90 partners in 40 countries. He also made it clear that, for Accion to succeed, the organization had to invest in its staff and provide them with the support, encouragement, and flexibility they need. Here is what Michael had to share about maintaining balance while working in the social good sector.

Q: What are motivates you to work hard every day?

A: I’m driven by the chance to make a difference in peoples’ lives. What we do here is extraordinary. We’re a small nonprofit organization of 150 people, and when I tell others how much impact we’ve had on financial inclusion, our worldwide reach, and our organization’s history, people are often shocked. The chance to make a difference on a global scale, while getting to work for an organization where you know everyone’s name, is rare. Accion is like a family where we’re all in it together with a common mission to try to make life a little easier for so many people who have been left behind.

Q: Speaking of your family, both you and your wife work in the social good sector. How do you teach your kids about the importance of philanthropy?

A: If philanthropy’s your way of life, your kids will grow up with it. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, they likely know what you do, and you are a role model for them. Your friends and their friends’ parents also serve as their role models. I do think, in the end, they have to find their passion, but introducing them to the world is an important step. We recently took the boys to visit Cuba, and I think they learned a lot about how lucky they are — and how many other people in the world are far less fortunate.

Q: Accion’s culture is family-friendly and stresses the importance of achieving a work-life balance. What is your advice for finding and maintaining that balance — for those just starting their careers, as well as those of us who have been working for quite some time?

A: My first piece of advice is to find a job that you love. If you love what you do, you’ll enjoy doing the work. That sounds so simple, but a lot follows from that. If you love what you do, you’ll enjoy the time you put in, the reading, the traveling, the calls.

Second, find a partner, friend, or community that really understands you. It’s much easier to balance work and life if you’re in sync with those who support you — and whom you support. When someone else understands what you do, you can help one-another make it all work.

Finally, embrace the time that you have out of the office. Use it to pursue whatever you’re passionate about — volunteering, sports, music, or whatever it may be. Cultivate your interests — they’ll make you happier outside of the office, and they’ll make you better at your job when you get to work.

The truth is, if you get all of that, you’re already headed in the right direction.

Q: How important is flexibility in the workplace?

A: When I was at Citi, I led the effort to create a flexible work environment across 100 countries and the full range of Citi’s businesses. It was incredibly complicated — but worthwhile. Some managers resisted the changes because they believed in line-of-sight management, which is a little silly and anachronistic.

It’s much easier at Accion. Because of the nature of the organization, almost every manager has staff in different countries. So everyone is highly sensitized to different time zones, travel schedules, cultures, etc. I hope we have created an environment that encourages us to respect each other and encourages time with family and friends. We all work very hard, but we know how to have fun, and I hope we balance it all out.

Generally, I think we hire smart, capable people who are committed to the mission and are willing to work very hard. They’re going to get the work done — so you don’t need to worry too much about what time they get into the office — and what time they leave. I think that’s great. One of our core values is ‘respect.’ I think a flexible work environment that allows us all to strike a healthy balance in our lives is all about our respect for one another. I am very proud of the culture we have created — and I think we should never take it for granted. It’s like exercise: you have to keep up the work to maintain that right culture.

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