Taking a Sabbatical Can Change
Your Company (for the Better)
In May I shared that I would be taking a few months away from TiER1. Many people asked me to share my experience and what I did. It’s tough to distill 3+ months of hanging out into a meaningful thread. The simple story was this: there was a lot of family time, a lot of travel, a lot of reading, and a lot of new stuff I did for myself—and on occasion in between, I thought about work. But not much and not often. It was awesome. It was personal. And it was the right thing for me at the right time.
But today, I want to share some perspective on why I believe it turned out to be worthwhile from a business perspective.
Creating value by stepping away.
Many CEOs and executives I talked to over the past several months expressed great interest in my so-called “sabbatical,” often saying they dreamed of doing something similar someday (or lamenting that they can’t really imagine doing it). Most quickly noted, “You must have a great team that you really trust.” I do, and I do. But I have thought about what causes this to be a difficult thing to do and what can be gained from it as an organization. Here are five key reflections on the positive impact taking extended time off has and some things to think about for other leaders who might consider it.
First, simply thinking about it can make you stronger.
When I began thinking about taking extended time off, I got immediately hung up on the “What if something goes wrong?” idea and the fact that I might put the business at risk, be irresponsible, and even let people down. After a long time wrestling through that, I then got hung up on the “What if nothing goes wrong?” idea, that is, what if I—and even worse, others—find out I’m not that important anyway!
The idea of taking extended time off is both compelling and scary. It can be very hard to conceive how to make it work. There is no question I was blessed with an incredibly supportive team, company, and board…and also some very good timing. However, there is also no question in my mind that any leader, with enough foresight, can eventually make it work.
Many leaders don’t think it’s possible to leave, at least in part because of the false sense of security we get about being “in control.” The reality is that, given adequate planning, the short-term performance of most businesses would not change significantly purely due to the absence of any one person. What’s more, as leaders we actually “control” our businesses far less than we might believe. But either way, thinking about stepping away creates a level of clarity about how things do (or don’t) work, where real value is created, and what ultimately needs to be addressed. And if there are real reasons you can’t step away, exploring those reasons can expose weaknesses in your system and help you identify where to focus to build a stronger organization. A healthy organization should never be so dependent on any one person, for the organization’s sake and for the person’s sake.
Second, it allows you to reset the future.
When I left we cut all the ties. No email. No texts. No meetings. No phone calls. This was incredibly refreshing for me and also very challenging and engaging for others. It forced them and allowed them to grow and think differently…it also allowed me to come back into the organization with a fresh perspective on how to best contribute to our future. As a high-growth company (25% per year on average) that I’ve been involved in from the very beginning, there are many things where my sheer presence caused people to default to me: sometimes out of deference and respect, sometimes out of a (likely false) perception that I had better answers. Breaking all those ties at once helped everyone think about how others can—and perhaps should—make certain decisions and where I truly can have a unique impact on our future. We are still sorting it all out, but it’s clear to me we’ll look back on this as a major catalyst for future growth.
Third, it alters perspective.
It’s no surprise that stepping away from the organization creates a new perspective. For me, the biggest thing it did was allow me to look at the business at a broader level, independent of the details and discussions that consume us every day. It helped me look more objectively at big things that matter and little things that don’t. And it helped me think about the energy that is sometimes inappropriately allocated between the two.
It also helped me think about my own style and behaviors and how they need to adapt as our organization has shifted and grown. For example, I need to communicate more broadly and more frequently. I need to reiterate our vision more often as there are more people who are new to it. And I need to make our operating model, principles, and expectations more explicit so it is increasingly clear who we are, what we’re about, and how we work.
Fourth, it creates resiliency.
Stepping away can do tremendous things for the organization, but two things were very evident.
The first was that it strengthened our confidence, reassuring people that we do have a really strong business that has a really strong system to it and is capable of performing independently of any individual person. The second was that it created stronger relationships across key management roles. During my time away, our team developed deeper trust, more openness, and a better appreciation of each other’s roles, having to work together more directly without me or anyone else “in charge.” Both of these make us more resilient. A truly healthy, high-performance organization is resilient. It can withstand people coming and going and it can withstand stresses on the system. Intentionally building resiliency in any way possible is a worthy undertaking.
Finally, it sets an example.
While there is no doubt that there were people in our company who were unsettled or nervous about this when I first announced it, there was also overwhelming support. The most common thing I heard was completely unexpected…it was “thanks.” Thanks for leading by example and showing people that we do care about people taking adequate time for themselves and their families. I honestly had never considered this dimension of it.
As I talked to others throughout the summer, I met more than one executive who said, “We have a program that allows sabbaticals, but no one ever uses it.” When I would probe more, I would hear that perhaps people are fearful it will be seen as a weakness or setback in their career, or perhaps they don’t believe it’s truly feasible or supported.
As a leader, however you take breaks, whether it’s just on weekends, extended vacations, or a full sabbatical, it’s critical to set an example to others that rest is important. I’ve worked with many enlightened leaders who authentically care about their people and teams and want them to live healthy, full lives; and yet, they choose a much more demanding expectation for themselves, not recognizing the disservice they do to others in the process. We have to lead by example. Send the calls to voicemail, don’t respond to texts, delete the email account from your devices on your breaks. Not just for your sake but for the sake of those you lead.
A full life and inspired work.
In all, it was a great summer and afforded both me and TiER1 room to grow. While I had many personal reflections as well that perhaps I’ll save for another post, I would sum all my reflections up in one belief that was validated: Work is an integral part of life and life requires a rhythm; work and life are not two distinct things in conflict with each other competing for energy. Rather, at its best, work leads to a fuller life and a healthy life leads to more inspired work. And extended time off can be one way to support them both.
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