It didn’t happen often, but at times during the middle of dinner with my family on the back deck of our sailboat in the middle of the tropics, I'd get a text message on the satellite phone saying I needed to address an urgent client email. So I'd fire up the broadband satellite link, download and address the email, and be back to the dinner table in about 20 minutes.
If this was interrupting my vacation, I wouldn't be pleased. But I didn’t mind at all because answering these emails was making possible the two and a half year sailing trip around the world I was taking with my family -- an ultimate working sabbatical that led to the business principles discussed in my new book The Liberated CEO (Wiley, Feb. 2014).
When most people think of work sabbaticals, they think of cutting off contact entirely. But for entrepreneurs and executives, that might not be possible without jeopardizing a business and losing clients. I was looking for a middle ground. I narrowed down my core duties to allow me to spend time with my family -- and make my business stronger.
It could work for you, too.
While I spent years planning my trip, what I’ve learned is that this model can work for anyone who wants to step out of the day-to-day. Even if you just want to have two months off to spend time pursuing another dream, or just not thinking about work, it is possible.
To make this happen on a smaller scale, apply a few key principles:
1. Limit your connection to the business to your true, single best use, eliminating all other activities.
Are you a champion at closing the deal? Then make sure during those two months off you’re present for the meetings when the deal is closed. For me, that was spending time with clients, doing big-picture strategizing and working with new clients.
2. Trust your best people.
Be out of touch and allow others to step in. The good people on your staff who truly know your service model need to be free to make the critical day-to-day decisions. Allowing them to take that leadership role is a gift for them, too, and it’s not possible if you’re always there.
Good employees, when properly compensated, will figure it out. Just not being available forces them to step up in a way they may not with your around.
3. Be reachable in emergencies.
If there is something that the “boss” needs to address, your staff is able to contact you. You still function as a backstop. Think of it like mentoring from afar.
But you may be surprised at how little they end up needing you -- and how good that is for everyone. I noticed that many “problems” either worked themselves out or, as they sit and wait for the boss to address them, someone in the firm just stepped up and addressed the issue at hand. That enabled me to spot and cultivate the next generation of leaders in the company.
4. Pay employees well.
You need to have a good compensation plan that motivates employees for both the long and short run. Doing this gets them to think more like owners, and look for long term solutions to challenges.
5. Make sure you have efficient processes, implemented with the latest technology, so no one is waiting for you to make a move or finish a task.
For my firm, this was accomplished with a powerful customer relationship management (CRM) program with fully integrated workflows. This may be the most important tip of all.
The workflows are critical at handing off tasks to different people in the firm, allowing for a kind of set-it and forget-it process. That way, people were not waiting for me to complete a task. They could move onto other duties and know that when I was able to complete the task, the system would “hand” it back to them. This really helps when teams are working in different time zones and for flexible schedules.
It’s probably not hard for you to imagine how stepping away from the day-to-day for a few months could invigorate you. I have now been back from our trip for three months and I am looking at my business with a sense of excitement and entrepreneurial drive that I have not felt in years. I sit here in my mid-40’s, but feel like I did at 26 when I first launched my business.
You might be surprised at how much a sabbatical helps your business, too. What I found was that as I empowered the staff, customers and employees no longer looked to me for their answers -- they looked to the company.
Related: What Would You Do With 17 Days Off?