The Business Transition Blog

Time Off is Good for Your Business – Take a Sabbatical

I was originally inspired to take this time off by a speaker I heard at a TEC™ meeting. Craig, a business owner from Calgary, had realized incredible increases in business growth in both revenues and profits and was sharing some secrets with our group.

He had complained to his business coach that he was exhausted and working ridiculous hours. When he admitted he hadn’t had a holiday in years and was feeling burned-out, his coach told him to book some time off for a vacation.

“I can’t,” Craig said. “There’s just too much to do!”

His coach was adamant and insisted that Craig start with three weeks.

In spite of his misgivings, Craig agreed. He returned from his vacation with renewed energy and drive and was surprised to find that his business had actually done even better while he was away. He continued to increase his time off and eventually got everything in place to the point where he now takes three months off every year and volunteers his time overseas in a third world country.

Craig learned that while he was away, his senior management team felt more empowered to make decisions and to be accountable for the results or consequences of decisions both good and bad. They rose to the challenge and began making decisions that would have been put on Craig’s desk had he been around.

He also found that when he returned, he had new business insights and creative ideas to share that he wouldn’t have generated had he been in the office with his nose to the grindstone. Those ideas propelled his company to even greater heights, making his time off even more valuable to the firm than his daily labor could have ever been. Craig saw ways to “change the rules” that didn’t actually exist in his industry but were implied in the way everyone else did business.

Unfortunately, I can’t claim (yet) that my sabbatical had the same effect on my business. I still have work to do. That’s okay. I took some steps forward, a couple back, and will move forward again. That’s what I love about business. It’s a great metaphor for life. You can’t get ahead without some risk. You can’t improve without trying something different. You don’t always get the result you want, but you always get feedback and learn from every experience which actions you should repeat and what you should alter the next time around.

Learning to take time off and leave your business to fend for itself without you provides an eye-opening education you simply cannot get anywhere else, or in any other way.

Yeah, but …

I can just imagine the dialogue going on in your mind as you read this:

  • That’s irresponsible. I would never leave people to flounder while I’m off having a good time somewhere else.
  • I can’t afford it. If I’m not there working, I can’t justify paying myself a salary.
  • Why would my employees want to work hard while I’m off enjoying myself?
  • How do I track things to make sure we stay on course?
  • My spouse will never agree.
  • I’m not happy with my sales and profits now. What will happen if I’m not there to watch them every day?
  • What will we do with the house? The kids? The cars? The pets?
  • I love running my business. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do right now.
  • I have another twenty years to travel if I want to.

Yes, and you’ll have many of the same issues when it comes time to sell your business or slow down and gradually give yourself more time off. Consider a sabbatical as a trial run. I’d have to confess to having many of the same concerns – some of them justified as it turned out – but I went anyway. And remember: I have no regrets. You won’t, either. In their book Six Months Off, authors Dlugozima, Scott, and Sharp interviewed hundreds of people who had taken sabbaticals and did not find one person who regretted doing it. Not one!

Letting go is difficult for dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneurs. Our businesses have been our lives. But times and circumstances change, and we must take stock on an ongoing basis to see if we are still doing what makes us happy. We can become so intensely linked with our business that we fail to see everything else going on around us. Like the oblivious victim in the boiling-frog experiment, we adjust. We don’t consciously register that our health is failing, our relationships have become stale, and our definition of fun is going to yet another networking event. How did we get here?

It doesn’t really matter how we got here. We each took a different path. The important questions are: How do we move on? How do we let go?

Some signs state the obvious. What are the obvious signs in your business?

What Do You Really, Really Want to Do?

New Possibilities

What about you? If you had six months off, what would you really, really want to do? The possibilities are endless. You could:

  • volunteer overseas;
  • learn to paint, take photographs, cook, fly, write poetry, surf;
  • take university courses; get an Executive MBA;
  • climb a mountain or a series of mountains;
  • ride a bike across the continent;
  • hike the West Coast Trail or the Camino de Santiago;
  • live in Paris and learn French;
  • start a rock band;
  • spend unforgettable quality time with your children, grandchildren, or parents;
  • get in shape and run a marathon; or
  • read the stacks of books you’ve bought over the years but haven’t had time to open.

There’s no shortage of options. The problem may be having too many options from which to choose. In my book I describe a process we call Getting Your Life on a Roll — GYLOAR™ — that helps you to explore what’s important to you in the big picture and then brings it back to your day to day activities and changes you need to make to get closer and closer to your ideals. After doing the exercise, look at what you said was important to you in that process, then ask yourself if it would be wise or feasible to accelerate the time line on that and bring it closer.

The Bucket List

If you haven’t already done so, watch the movie The Bucket List starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. It is as funny as it is poignant. It chronicles the final weeks of two men who meet in a cancer ward and decide to do all the things they wished they had done earlier in their lives. They sky-dive, drink expensive wine in the world’s finest hotels, travel, and spend some quality family time. Their “bucket list” included all the things they wanted to do before kicking the bucket.

What’s on your bucket list? If you knew you only had six months left to live, how would you consciously spend those last six months? Now ask yourself this: How do you know for sure that you do have more than six months left?

What I learned with my disease is that life is short; we can be struck with death, disability, or disaster at any time, and we absolutely must make the most of every moment. Within reason, we should do what’s important to us now so that we have no regrets. Even though my businesses did not run the way I had planned or expected when I left, I have no regrets about taking the time off. None. Neither does my wife, who tends to be the more practical one in our partnership. There is no question that it was the right thing to do at that time. And if things didn’t go as well in my business as I planned, then I learned from the unexpected, ascertained what needed to be improved upon, and have become a wiser, more seasoned businessperson in the process. We make mistakes and we learn our best lessons from them.

Southeast Brook Falls, Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

The Goal – A Six Month Sabbatical

On June 1, 2007, I set a goal on paper:

[G]The Goal

Dawna and I have our personal, business and career affairs in order so that we can take six months off and travel around North America, taking a sabbatical and the time to enjoy things while I am still physically able.

Target Date: May 31, 2008

What are the benefits?

  • Forces me to get focused on what’s really important business-wise in the next year.
  • Forces me to get mentally prepared to deal with my illness as a reality that will hamper my physical activities in the future.
  • Forces me to put my health first and deal with it as proactively as possible.
  • Time to spend with Dawna, rekindling our relationship, doing things that we will both enjoy.
  • Time to reflect on life and decide how to proceed into the next stage.
  • Time to get caught up on reading and writing.
  • Opportunity to write a book.
  • Avoid the sense of regret I would have if I didn’t do it now and couldn’t later. (I have very few regrets in life and would like to keep it that way.)

What are the obstacles?

  • My businesses are not ready to operate without me.
  • Question of how clients, affiliates, and staff will react.
  • A major program we are working on is not running yet. Needs me as a champion to get it off the ground and to develop.
  • Financial – don’t know what it will cost or how we’ll finance it.
  • Need answers to a number of questions:

    Gross Morne National Park, Newfoundland

    • What do we do with the house?
    • What do we do with the cottage?
    • What do we do with the pets?
    • Where do we want to travel?
    • What are the best times to travel?
    • What means of transportation/accommodation will we use?
    • Can we do an international home exchange?
    • Can I increase my physical stamina? How?
    • Can I get my businesses to run without me? If so, how? Who will do it?
    • Should I sell the business? Bring in a partner?
    • What do I do if after taking six months off I decide I don’t want to come back to the life I am currently leading – especially working so hard on my business?
    • What do I do if I set up my business to run without me, or sell it, only to miss it so much that I regret doing that?
    • Who can I call on to help me make these decisions in an objective, dispassionate way?
    • Should we sell our cars?
    • How do I maintain my energy, enthusiasm, and motivation to drive the business while planning a sabbatical for a year from now?

What are the solutions?

  • Get my businesses in shape.
    • Discuss plans with my managers – get buy-in.
    • Put remaining procedures and processes in place.
    • Identify gaps and begin to fix them.
    • Increase sales and set aside some cash for my expenses.
    • Mentor and coach my VP to position him to act in my place.
  • Begin to talk about my plans with clients and affiliates so they are supportive and understanding.
  • Write articles on what I’m doing to make it seem more normal and get others interested in taking sabbaticals as well.
  • Check out costs and anticipated expenses for the time we are away and set up a bank account for putting money away.
  • Make a decision on the major program. Go or no go? If I have to choose, the sabbatical will win.
  • Start discussions with Dawna to determine where she would like to go.
  • Contact various tourist bureaus across NA to have them send us their promotional packages.
  • Check out RVs to see what it will cost and what we should expect to pay so we can negotiate the best deal.
  • Get physiotherapy to establish exercises to strengthen muscles I can use to be more comfortable.
  • Offer the cottage to close friends and family who will take good care of it. Set up a schedule on a first-come first-served basis.
  • Get someone to rent our home for six months.
  • Get Dawna to speak to her boss.
  • Identify people around North America whom I can interview for research on the book.

From this list, I went on to develop specific action steps that are too numerous to detail.

Dawna was cautiously happy about taking time off but needed to get permission from her employer. Because of my history as an entrepreneur, she wasn’t totally convinced I was committed to leaving my businesses behind and would in fact follow through on the date we had set. As a result, she put off asking her manager for the time off until the last minute in case I changed my mind. As it turned out, even though she was the first in her organization to ever ask for a sabbatical, her employer was quite supportive.

With that hurdle cleared, we continued to work away on our list of solutions and the multiple action items that flowed from that list. Everything seemed to fall into place. When I made the announcement at a general staff meeting that I was leaving for six months, they applauded! Now, I could have taken that two ways but I chose to believe that they were happy for me and were prepared to help out. To our surprise, everyone we shared our plans with was supportive and encouraging. No one tried to dissuade us.

We ended up starting our sabbatical ahead of our original target date. On March 6, 2008, we left our home and headed south. And we have no regrets. It was wonderful on many levels. It did strengthen our marriage and our relationship. It did give me time to think, plan, and reflect on my life and where I was going next. It was an incredible trip and we saw places we had only dreamed of in the past. Along the way, I met many fascinating people who had sold their businesses and openly shared their stories with me. I did find out where the cracks were in my businesses and I’m currently in the process of fixing them as I prepare my own companies for transition.

I could tell you much more about my sabbatical (and if you’re really interested and want to see pictures send me an email). But the main message I want to share is that it is possible, that it is something you should do when you are physically able, and that it is a powerful test to see if your business is ready for sale.

New Theories on Motivation

Even though it has been shown time and again that the “carrot and stick” forms of motivation don’t work, employers continue to use these methods to attempt to motivate employees to improve performance. “If you hit these numbers, you’ll get a bonus! If you don’t, we’ll find someone who will.”

It doesn’t work.

And some recent studies have proven that there are three other ‘motivators’ that are more reliable in achieving the kinds of results you may be looking for in your employees.

If you want your management team to drive better results so you can increase the value of your business, take a look at this video. It’s well worth the time.

Click here.

Set a Goal to Take a Sabbatical

New Mexico

We took a trip around North America in a small RV

In 2007, my wife Dawna and I decided to plan for and take a sabbatical of six months traveling around North America in a recreational vehicle. I had a few goals that were important to me.

  1. I wanted to rekindle my relationship with Dawna. We had been married for over 30 years and we weren’t as close as I wished. We knew we could do better, and living together for six months in such tight quarters would either strengthen our relationship or kill it. We figured it was better to know now, while we were both still relatively young, which way it was going to go.
  2. I wanted to give the employees at my two main companies some space and a chance to run things without me overseeing them. While I had taken some of the actions I’ve discussed in my book, I knew I wasn’t completely there yet, so this would be an excellent test to expose any cracks and determine what was still required to expand my freedom from my historically hard-driving pace at work. There’s nothing like jumping into ice-cold water to find out where the holes in your wetsuit  are.
  3. I wanted some time to research and begin writing a book on business transition and succession planning. I wanted to meet and interview entrepreneurs in many locations who had sold their businesses whether successfully or unsuccessfully, triumphantly or with regrets. I knew that their personal experiences and what they learned through the process could benefit other business owners who were, as you are now, looking at their options.
  4. With some sense of urgency, I wanted to travel and do things that I could still do which would become progressively more difficult the longer I put them off. Driving long distances was becoming painful. Simply getting in and out of our RV was hard work and any serious hiking was out of the question. Yet even with the understanding that I already had limitations, there were countless places to see and things to do that had to be undertaken and enjoyed, now or never.

We began planning our trip about a year in advance. We set a date and began to work backwards. I soon realized that there was very little literature or written advice that I could find to help us prepare for a sabbatical. We had to figure out much of this on our own. One book that was helpful is Six Months Off by Dlugozima, Scott, and Sharp. In a current search, I see that there are another half dozen books written more recently so the topic is becoming more popular.

In my next blog, I’ll be giving an example of a goal strategy that worked and provided us both with 6 months off.