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Vinita Bali: People Make Too Much of Work-Life Balance

Vinita Bali, CEO and MD of Britannia Industries, lives by her Blackberry and an organised calendar. She says, working on the go makes her efficient

Published: Nov 16, 2010 07:07:45 AM IST
Updated: Nov 16, 2010 08:44:46 AM IST
Vinita Bali: People Make Too Much of Work-Life Balance
Image: Mallikarjun Katakol for Forbes India
Vinita Bali, CEO and MD of Britannia Industries

I work from anywhere and everywhere. So my work happens when I am in the market, in our regional offices, or when I am in the car travelling to the airport. My work starts the moment I get into a car, because I am either returning calls or sending emails. For me, office is not where work happens. Perhaps the reason for that is that for so many years, especially the 11-12 years I worked in Coke, I was in a global job. So I was travelling all the time; between 150-180 days a year. I couldn’t possibly say that I would get back to the office and attend to this, so, the office becomes a mobile office. I need a place to keep my stuff, so that place is Bangalore.

I have a strong discipline for meetings I attend; like R&D meetings or operational review meetings. My calendar is fixed for the year; then everything else happens around it.

The Blackberry and an organised calendar is what I live by. Technology is a big advantage. The beauty of travelling today is that I don’t come back to a pile of paper. I clear up whatever I need to clear up on the road.

Working like this gives me more flexibility to manage my time. I still find the leisure time to do what I enjoy doing. If this gives the impression that all I do is get into the car and start working, it’s not true. When I come back to Bangalore by Friday evening, I have cleared up everything I need to. So Saturday and Sunday is mine to do whatever I want.

I have been travelling my entire career. I don’t get fatigued by travelling. Fortunately, I can sleep anywhere — in a hotel, on a train, on a plane. I also don’t think too much about jetlag. If I have landed in the morning, I just go to work. We don’t have flexitime here, I am in the office between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but travel is not an excuse for not attending to things.

It’s hard for me to describe a typical day. Because I usually take early morning flights between 6.00 and 6.30 am. When you land, the whole day is ahead of you. I work through the day. Then the evening is usually to meet people — either from work or my friends. I have friends in Mumbai and in Kolkata. And if there is anything happening there — a concert or play — I am organised enough to have tickets arranged for me there. That’s one very typical day when I am travelling.

I have a schedule in the morning where I do pranayam and my stretches. I also spend 30 minutes in the gym, either in the morning or in the evening.

I think people make too much of the work life balance thing.

You have to decide what is important to you, and where you want to spend your time. Somehow people who talk of this balance make work sound like something you have to do. There are aspects of work I may not enjoy or like. But by and large I like what I do, I like working, I like the stuff we do. It also enables me to enjoy what people call “not work”.

I love the theatre, classical dance and music. The interesting thing about travelling so much is that I can watch a play at the NCPA [Mumbai], and then a music programme in Chennai or in Bangalore.

I am the kind of person who is very focussed on what I am doing. So I can be really focussed on answering my emails till I reach Chowdiah [Bangalore]. Then I switch off my phone and email and I enjoy the play. Later I can very easily get in the car and switch on my Blackberry and answer a few mails by the time I get home. Even when I was in school, I would stay back and play a game of hockey and come back and finish my homework, then go for Kathak practice. It is very easy for me to get in and out of things.

Because I have worked in so many different countries and continents, I am reasonably comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. In business you are always chasing a moving target. You can’t say I have accomplished this and there is nothing more to do.

It used to drive me crazy that when you call for a meeting at 9.00 am, people thought it was anywhere between 9.00 and 9.15 a.m. The first few times I closed the door and said if you are not here by 9 a.m., you don’t attend the meeting. Deadlines are so stretchable in India and that drives me completely insane even now.

I lose my temper sometimes, but we still don’t have that level of discipline as a culture. It is hard if you are looking for near perfection and you don’t get it.

The analogy I use is that you say you are Sachin Tendulkar and so you don’t need to practice. But you are great only because you practice. I admire that in artists and sportspeople. They polish and chisel away till they get it perfect.

I once had the opportunity to interview Professor Ted Levitt of Harvard Business School and I asked him how many drafts he wrote before being published. He said he did anywhere between 22-25 drafts. The pen dropped from my hand. I thought if you are chairman, Emeritus and you are the editor of Harvard Business Review and you do 25 drafts, that is perfection.

People around me do find this tedious, and sometimes it comes back to me.

Sometimes I am empathetic and at other times I am unreasonable. The worst in me comes out when results are not delivered and there is no pro-active communication on why it has not happened.

I am not the kind who goes away on four weeks of vacation. I take shorter, more frequent breaks, like taking three days off. When I am travelling abroad, I take a few days off and do something around that.

(As told to Mitu Jayashankar)

(This story appears in the 19 November, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Pradipna Lodh

    It is necessary to have some spare time for oneself. Travelling takes most of the time of an individual. Too much demand at the workplace can take a toll on health.

    on Oct 28, 2014
  • Laxmi

    hi, i have a question......what about work-life balance in middle class women?

    on Dec 28, 2012
  • Shobha Tawde

    Well, that's quite a day for any person living in Bengluru. Would surely love to have a leisurely chat with Vinita someday.

    on Dec 27, 2012
  • Shobha Kishore Tawde

    Mam,impressed with your daily schedule.Unless there is consistency and disipline from with nothing can be attained.You are the kind of role model I would love to present to the youth, for whom I am arranging a three day camp called RYLA.ie;Rotary youth leadership awards.You who are a Rotary Alumni would surely understand the need to touch lives of those around you through meaningful interaction. Rtn Shobha Tawde Dist 3170 Kolhapur,MS

    on Nov 1, 2012
  • Dr S Srinivasan

    this esteemed lady has perhaps not ever heard of emotional intelligence

    on Sep 22, 2011
  • Hari

    It's easier said than done. This is perfect work life balance for a single person. I don't know the subject has a family. Even if she has I am pretty sure that she has to rely on somebody to take care of personal things. She works in the car - How is that possible unless you have a driver. Now having a driver in India is luxury. Abroad its only possible for the rich. I think to talk about work life balance you need to be qualified and be at middle level with family and spouse working and a couple of school going kids. its not advisable to talk about work life balance when you have 10 people under you to take care of your personal/proffessional stuff. Nevertheless I appreciate Vinita Bali for her commitment towards work and it doesn't happen without personal sacrifices.

    on Jul 13, 2011
    • Shirish Ratnaparkhi

      Hi Hari, I read your comment after I read a great article. Every word counts. May I ask you a question? "Given a chance" - would you like to have "Work-Life balance"... with same set of difficulties you mentioned? Do you want to look at the possibility side of it? Are you keen? That will be more important! Solutions are available. I am practicing person with same set of difficulties. Most welcome to contact on shirish.home@gmail.com Good luck!

      on Nov 1, 2011
  • Sarayu

    As she is in such position that she work from anywhere, but the people who work under should go to office. She did not mention about family, how she balance her personal life, how come article title is given as work-life balance?

    on Mar 22, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Please take feedback from your collegues and friends and family on what they think of you. Whatever you said tells me it is all about you in life. The very title of the article gives it away 'People make too much of work life balance'. Just because you are in a position to say things today, does not mean they become standards for people to operate in.

    on Feb 16, 2011
  • Kiran

    Great madame. U are confident.

    on Dec 22, 2010
  • Radhika

    Liked her focus on work and she is able to make time for attending music and meeting friends..there is no mention of family..people who usually want "work-life" are talking about being able to spend time with family which has a higher demand on time and energy..though we can do everything with her attitude of getting in and out without trouble :-)

    on Nov 25, 2010
  • Prashant Modi

    Interesting insights. More on the lines of " work is life". I agree that if you make use of the time in transit etc - you will always have enough time to complete your work.

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Viswanath

    I am impressed the way Mrs.Vinita Bali manages her work and personal life. I see it as her way of doing things, which is reasonable for her. I take a note on how she is able to use technology to save some time for activities of her interest. To me from the article it seems that she is committed to both professional and personal life and is able to manage them to her satisfaction.

    on Nov 24, 2010
  • Shabina Welde

    Why does the article let her dismiss work-life balance? It seems like it's all work, work, work for her.

    on Nov 23, 2010
  • Ankit Samaria

    This was a nice article. Thank You Forbes Team. Interviews like this help us understand how big people function and different things we can learn from them. I request you to please regularly, say weekly, come out with such articles of successful business personalities. Thanks once again.

    on Nov 22, 2010
  • Deepak

    Sounds like she's a Hitler.

    on Nov 17, 2010