7 Week Sabbatical: Tips To Take One Yourself! (3 of 3)

author
By Alexa Ward

What's On My Mind

We've had quite a series the last couple of weeks!

The sabbatical was nothing like I expected, yet everything I could have wished.

I'm back at work, refreshed.

I've mentally realized what was holding me back and have a plan to blast through them.

And...I had FUN.

And you know what's super cool?

The business didn't miss a beat.

Quite the opposite. Things actually sped up!

And even better?

Our amazing team laddered up.

I'm the luckiest business owner around.

Darla's our wise sage at the top, our COO. She can run the entire business without me. Everything starts with her.

Add our amazing Account Managers, coaches, facilitators, and all kinds of external partners helping with everything from podcast to fulfillment, and it's truly a dream team.

Back to sabbaticals.

Everyone thinks the advantage of taking one is for the person leaving. Time away. Perspective. Refresh.

But I actually think the biggest impact isn't for the person leavingit's for the people staying.

Getting yourself out of the way lets everyone else ladder up and discover they can do even more than they thought.

And for everyone involved, an extended time away lets everyone break out of their old habits to see what they really should be doing.

I've taken three or four sabbaticals over the years, and each has taught the team and me more than we expected.

The downside of a sabbatical is the expected mountain of work when you return.

I didn't have that this time.

I was up to speed in about two hours. And I only had two emails to review.

No joke: two hours and two emails to get back into it.

I almost couldn't believe it!

Our team blew me away. The systems they set up let me take a needed break, accelerated our business momentum, and let them experience a step change in their impact.

The key is...you have to set up the sabbatical in the right way.

Here's how we did it.

Step One: Create Back Ups

If you're going to truly take a sabbatical, you have to clear this first hurdle...

You can't be the only person that knows something.

If you are, people will be forced to reach out to you.

Most people think of this part wrong, by focusing on people: the team or direct reports.

You actually want to focus on workflows.

Write down a list of every workflow you're involved in.

For me, it was a list of all the client projects and the ongoing internal work.

For client projects, I created a list and found a backup for each one. Then I started including them in all the ongoing calls and communications.

For the ongoing internal work, I broke down the various steps of my workflows, then worked with someone who could lead that step without me.

That was pretty easy and handled everything that already existed.

But I was particularly worried about new things that would pop up while I was gone, like inbound emails, texts, LinkedIn messages, etc. I worked with the team to solve what we would do for each thing that might happen.

The key to this step is starting early. We started planning for this 5 to 6 months before I started sabbatical with the activity ramping up the month or so before I left.

This approach worked great.

Our team didn't miss anything while I was gone and blew me away with how proactive they were!

Step Two: Set Expectations

This came in two flavors: before and during the sabbatical.

Before: Since I had someone attend every call and meeting for 4 to 6 weeks before my sabbatical, it was easy to tell others who would lead things while I was out.

Again, pretty easy. Clients were excited I was taking some time off, cheering me on.

During: I was worried about letting people down who didn't know I'd be out, like someone emailing and needing urgent help.

We found a way to make this a non-issue.

The key was quickly setting expectations.

We did several things:

  • I had an email out-of-office message that said I'd archive and wouldn't read any emails received while I was out. No joke that I'd literally not read the email they sent. Ever. This might seem harsh but bear with me. If you're checking emails while you're out, you're not taking time off. Your mind will continue to work on the problems you'll see. No break. No perspective. And if you have a pile of 100s of emails when you get back, you'll be super inefficient in figuring out if the issue's been resolved, what you should do (if anything), and more. Ack! Coming back to mountains of emails scared the heck out of me. And it sure didn't sound fun. So the only solution is to tell people up front you won't be reading anything sent to you, and to helpfully direct them to someone who will. It worked exceptionally well. I'll put my OOO email message in the ps below so you can see it. One client got it and said it was the best OOO message he ever read. We had fun with this!
  • I had Darla triage all my emails. This was important. While the OOO agent told people who to go to if they didn't have a team member in mind, we were still worried about important requests that came in. And because I also use my work email for a lot of personal things, I was worried someone might not be able to get a hold of me for non-work things. Heck, even simple things like evites to parties might be missed. Having Darla be my backup self solved all this. This was especially important the first week or two of sabbatical but diminished over time as more people saw I was out. It worked perfectly. Side note: I trust Darla with anything in my life, so this was easy for me to have her run my email. My recommendation if you don't have a Darla in your work life? Find one, pronto!
  • Lastly, we thought through the other ways people reach out to me like calling me on my mobile, texting, and LinkedIn messages, to find a way to handle each one.

My friend Glen Jackson who wrote the book has a great saying: you can handle things Easy --> Hard or Hard --> Easy.

His perspective is that taking the easy path in the short term will make things hard later. But if you tackle the hard thing early, it'll be easy later.

That's the key thing about the above approach.

People might guess I was still checking in if I had a "soft" OOO message.

Having a "no fooling, I won't be reading your email, ever" message, they not only knew the facts but happily adjusted.

Here's the thing. Everyone wants you to be happy. They want you to win at this one life we get.

I found people were excited I was taking time off, and they were happy to work with someone else to solve a short-term issue.

They appreciated I wasn't reading emails and would archive all of them.

Hard --> Easy is the way to go.

Step Three: Have A Blast And Smoothly Return!

This is the ongoing internal stuff.

Remember that I took seven weeks off. That's a lot.

(And I needed it!)

Over that long of a time, something is going to need your attention.

Here's how we handled them.

  1. Have a single point of contact as the duplicate you. In my case, everything that might be communicated to me went through Darla first. That was her idea and a brilliant one! This let her be a "last line of defense" to protect my time away. She mentioned after I returned that there were many things people thought needed my attention that she could handle. (Thank you Darla!) Key to success: have one trusted person try to handle things before anyone reaches out to you.
  2. Pick a threshold dollar amount of what matters to you. A dollar amount threshold is effective because about anything can be converted to financials. It's clear. My team and I chose $100,000. The team knew I trusted them to handle any problem that had an impact below $100K, and to reach out to me for anything above that amount. Your amount will differ based on the scale you oversee. Subtract or add zeroes as you wish. In my seven weeks, we had a couple texts and three short calls on one strategic issue. That's it. Three calls and a few texts over seven weeks. Amazing. Key to success: getting clear on when your team should reach out to you is important. Setting a dollar amount makes this crystal clear.

Lastly, here's how we avoided me having to dig into 100s of emails when I returned.

Super simple: the team created "Mo update" for me, documenting everything that happened in a Word document.

We took about 90 minutes to go through as much as we could, but honestly, they accomplished so much that I had to review much of it later.

All in, it took about 2 hours to get the live update, read the rest of the document, and read the two emails pinned in my inbox that had details I needed to see.

Out seven weeks and up to speed in two hours.

Wow.

Honestly, I didn't even know that was possible.

If I put myself in my mindset a year ago, I wouldn't believe this was possible.

Still in the middle of the pandemic, our business was growing like crazy, and our core team trying to quickly add resources to fill our client demand.

And me working way too much, almost out of control.

Squeezing 3 days to go backpacking with my friend Jim felt like a massive accomplishment last September.

And here, only a year later, I was able to take seven weeks off, hitting refresh on my entire life.

What a gift.

I'm back.

I'm not talking about just being back from the sabbatical.

I mean, I'm really back.

That's the value of stepping away and slowing down.

I sorted through the junk in my head.

I got perspective.

And I was able to reconnect with Becky during our challenging cancer battle...all culminating in celebrating 30 years of marriage.

This sabbatical was amazing.

I hope you can take one soon.

There's something special about stepping away from what you have.

You realize it's the thing you need.

Mo

Ps. Here's the copy of my sabbatical out of office message. I had two goals when I wrote it: 1) Have a Hard --> Easy approach

2) Personally connect with the recipient.

A Canadian senior leader at one of the top worldwide management consulting firms got it and told me later "this is the best out of office message I've ever read!" That made me smile.

Here you go...

I’m out on an extended seven-week sabbatical, returning August 8.

ALL MY EMAILS ARE BEING ARCHIVED and won’t be read.

No worries though—if you need help, just reach out to another BIG team member.

Or just email training@bunnellideagroup.com and someone will respond quickly.

What the heck am I doing for seven weeks?

- Playing in the Ultimate Frisbee Age 50+ World Championships in Ireland

- Celebrating my 30th anniversary with Becky

- Supporting Becky as she runs a 15-mile burro race in Colorado

- Backpacking a few times

- Seeing old friends

See you in August my friends…

Mo

Ps Have a great summer!

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