5 min Read
November 11, 2014

A time out: Taking a sabbatical

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  Jobs, family, employers, and friends can exist one day without any one of us, and if our egos permit us to confess, they could exist eternally in our absence.  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”  

In the fall of 2013, it dawned on me that Big Duck, the business I founded in June 1994 and still run, was on the cusp of its 20th birthday. It had been an unusually challenging year at work, and I’d had a few personally difficult years, too. 

“How should we celebrate?” my intrepid Vice President, Farra Trompeter, asked me. Without thinking, I blurted out, “I’d like to take a sabbatical”.  My knee-jerk reaction got me thinking… Did I really need a break that badly? Or was it just a good time to take a step back and let others step forward?

Over the next few months, Farra and I talked more about it. What would it take for me, as CEO, to step away for a bit? How long was realistic? What opportunities or challenges could that afford Big Duck’s staff?

By February, we were both convinced it was do-able, and the dates were agreed on.  Farra graciously agreed to take on a few of my primary responsibilities, as did other members of our staff. I set about identifying all the areas and tasks that would need to be managed by others in my absence, thinking about who could do what, training them, and handing over the reins.

My day-to-day activities were dispersed across five people to avoid unduly taxing any one person. I worked to set up whatever I could in the months preceding my sabbatical so others wouldn’t have to take on more than was absolutely necessary. That meant a lot of planning, proactive communicating, and pondering. Along the way, I learned a lot: what I really do that nobody else does, and what it really takes to set up others for success months in advance. If you’d asked me, I might have told you I always try to set up Big Duck for long-term, sustainable success. But doing so in the context of me not being around for a few months sparked an entirely new perspective on what that could mean.

Walking away from a business you started, run, and have thought about daily for 20 years doesn’t sound easy, especially when you still love it all. But for me, it actually was easy to take a break, because Big Duck’s staff are so wholly capable and committed, and the business is happily stable. Discussing what was likely to happen— and exploring worst-case scenarios— also really helped my peace of mind and others’ sense of preparation. In advance, we agreed on how any crises would be handled, and what they should contact me about or just manage directly.

By August 15, my autoresponder was set to notify people who emailed me that I was away until November 1, listing the Ducks who could be contacted in my absence, and noting that any emails would be automatically archived and not read by me. My work phone number was set to auto-forward, too. I was officially off the professional grid for the first time since the Internet was invented.

While I was away, I spent time reflecting on work without feeling distracted by the usual to-do items and responsibilities. I had time to think about what I love about Big Duck, and what I should do differently as its leader. I took time to do a lot of things I rarely get time to do, and relished the sense of flexibility and lack of responsibility that came with it. I wondered how things were going, but I didn’t worry. If anything, I hoped my staff were taking advantage of the opportunity to be more entrepreneurial and explore their own leadership skills more deeply without me getting in their way. About half of the way through it, I found myself looking forward to coming back, seeing everyone, and tackling things with my newfound perspective.

When I came back, just shy of three months later, I was completely impressed and not at all surprised by what I found. The staff had not only kept things going, they’d advanced new ideas and projects, and stayed totally focused on our shared business objectives.  I was refreshed and renewed, and felt clearer than I have in years about where and how I should be spending my time at work. In 2015, I anticipate we’ll be launching a few new initiatives that are the product of my having had the time and space to look at the business from new angles. It was also clear that if I’d stayed away longer, things would have been fine, which has helped make it easier than ever for me to let go and trust my team.  I hope that’s a lesson I don’t unlearn. 

If you’d asked me months ago, I might have said that taking a sabbatical was selfishly motivated. And it was, in that I got a lot from it personally. But in hindsight, the opportunities it afforded all of us to redefine how we work together, shift and share responsibilities, and examine our own leadership skills turned out to be significant. 

It’s also been interesting to see how many people are curious about what it means, as the CEO of a small business, to take a sabbatical. It’s made me feel that there is a much greater need for leaders of institutions of all kinds to take periods of time to step away, and for others to step in. I’m looking forward to hearing your questions, comments, and insights on this subject- feel free to share them with me in the comments.