What’s The Margin?

by  John Schenkel  |  Leadership Development

As a Chief Financial Officer (“CFO”), this is usually one of the first questions I ask when one of our account executives tells me they just landed a new project. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint) I am a person who asks very pointed questions that require very actionable answers.

When I joined our business almost two and a half years ago, it was in critical shape. Our credit line was fully extended, we had unprofitable locations, and I needed to make drastic changes quickly. This required lots of hours and no time for vacations.

Even though the economy continued to erode, my team and I managed to find creative ways to reduce costs and improve our financial margin. However, I still felt that I needed to be available twenty-four hours a day. If you are on an airplane with me, I am the person that the flight attendant is challenging to turn off their cell phone.

In the midst of all this activity at work, a stirring was happening in my heart: I needed to leave a legacy.

I have a many passions: following Christ, to someday have a successful marriage, learning all that I can, pouring my life into young leaders, providing hope for those who are in prison, and using my talents to help special needs children. I sit on the boards for a few not-for-profits and for-profit organizations. There are many days where I leave my house at 6AM and don’t return till 10PM.

Now as a leader I am asking myself “What’s the ‘margin’ in my personal life?” I know that as a CFO, a for-profit business thrives by having a strong profit margin. Likewise, a human being thrives by a different type of margin— a kind of “space” that allows time for reflection and renewal. A person without enough downtime is like a company with too little margin in its Profit and Loss statement: stressed and vulnerable to failure.

As a leader, when you’re overloaded by activity, you can only think of yourself. You’re in survival mode, just trying to make it through another day. And that limits your usefulness in all areas of your life!

When you have no downtime (or what we CFO’s call “margin”) in your life and an incredible opportunity falls in your lap, your first response isn’t joy. Your first response is, “Oh, no! Another thing to do! Sorry, I’d like to do that, but I’m just too busy.”
We end up resenting the great opportunities people brings into our lives. You don’t have to live on overload. You don’t have to live in survival mode. Begin today to build a buffer around your schedule. Then enjoy the benefits of margin!

My question to you is “What’s the margin on Project You?”

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Sonia Di Maulo  |  01 Dec 2010  |  Reply


Love the margin analogy… buffer is so important and yet sometimes the most challenging thing to do. Really, for me, it’s about making choices that are aligned with my priorities and passions (like your list of passions and your community commitments – wonderful!).

Priorities and passions need to be written down and verbalized to help us stay focused on them. So when opportunities come up, we check our priorities first to help make a decision – a strategy used by many successful businesses to stay profitable… and help us create profitable margin in our own lives!

A great post to start my day, John! Thank you.


William Powell  |  01 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Such a sorely needed insight!

Survival mode can truly drain the life (and the joy of life) out of us in record time. In an economy with high demands and limited resources, this post couldn’t be more timely. Like Sonia said, priorities and passion. I’ve found that a 15 minute window of planning my next day works wonders. I prioritize tasks and actually write it down. When something is asked of me, I know for sure if I can or can’t do it and stick to my plan.

Thanks so much for sharing your insight John. Love it!


Deborah Costello  |  01 Dec 2010  |  Reply

This is such a powerful idea, John. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the many things pulling at us from all directions. It’s not that I don’t want to say yes to all the worthy people and causes in life, it’s that I do! That’s the struggle! It’s only in the past few years that I have started becoming better at making choices and being OK with saying ‘No..” It’s an important skill that needs development and practice. Thank you for the reminder!

Tristan Bishop  |  01 Dec 2010  |  Reply

This post is elegant and timely, John.

Ever since you invited me to see Tony Schwarz at Configurations, I’ve been pondering the need to build margin into all areas of life. As I’ve pursued it, I came upon an illuminating (but irritating) realization: Just because I have ability in an area I enjoy, doesn’t mean the project in question truly NEEDS to be done. As a finite resource, I have a responsibility to be a steward of my time, rather than just a manager of it.

I think the most difficult part of being empathetic leader is learning to decline requests that matter deeply to those you care for, but aren’t realistically possible for you to take on. Without the ability to respectfully decline, I’ll never build margin. But I agree with you that margin is mandatory and without it, we wither. So off we go, to find a way!


Shawn Murphy  |  01 Dec 2010  |  Reply

John, indeed leaving behind a legacy requires down time to be present in the moments when making an impression in the lives of those whom you are serving. If there’s no margin, there’s no legacy, or at least not one that is desired.


Mike Henry  |  02 Dec 2010  |  Reply

John, Great post. Too often we commit our time and our energy to lesser activities and we don’t create any margin for the more important and weightier goals. Like you said, we begin to only think of ourselves when we get overloaded. But even before that, often we get in that condition because we’re not careful to hold something in reserve for the most important goals.

Thanks again, Mike…

Susan Mazza  |  03 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Great analogy John. And thanks for sharing a window into your world with us.

One way to create margin in our lives is to get over that we need to do it all ourselves. For those of us in business for ourselves it is a particularly easy trap to fall into.

And to build on your analogy you also have to “budget” time to invest in the things that keep you whole, healthy and satisfied in all dimensions of your life.

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