by Lisa A.K. Kirchenbauer, CFP®, RLP®, CeFT®
Recently, I returned from my second six-week sabbatical in six years. Under two different teams, I was able to (almost) completely unplug from the business. In preparing for my most recent sabbatical, I received interesting feedback from a variety of business owners—including some financial planners. While most were very supportive, many could not imagine being able to leave their business for even a two-week vacation. In a world where many of us will chose or need to work longer—and also need to build a succession plan—a break from our businesses is not a “that would be nice to do,” but rather a requirement for being successful on many fronts.
Running a business can be a soul-sucking, never-ending effort. Over the years, we can get lost in the weeds of the business and lose our passion and connection to why we even started it.
The Business Case for Sabbaticals
Making the business case for a sabbatical isn’t hard to do. Two 2017 articles, one in Forbes1 and the other in Harvard Business Review2, make a convincing case for both the personal and organizational benefits of taking a sabbatical. Both articles report that the Society for Human Resource Management found that 17 percent of employers currently offer either a paid or unpaid sabbatical leave of anywhere from weeks to months. And sabbaticals aren’t just for academics anymore. Intel and Motley Fool are just two companies providing their employees with this much-needed benefit. McDonald’s began its sabbatical program in 1977.
The Harvard Business Review article reported on research that found sabbaticals don’t just benefit the employee, they allow the company to “stress-test” their capabilities and procedures. For our company, my sabbatical was part of a longer strategic initiative to get me out of day-to-day operations, which also helped us test our ability to weather a continuity planning situation where I might be out for a period—an important requirement for SEC-registered advisers.
Benefits for Business and Team Members
Both your business and your team members can benefit from sabbaticals. With each of my sabbaticals, I found that the team grew stronger, more confident, and more cohesive as a result of their added responsibilities for client care and the day-to-day running of the business.
In preparation for being out, we also had to arrange to get me out of processes that someone else would need to handle. This freed me upon my return to focus on activities closer to my “unique ability” (what we love to do and do best) as Dan Sullivan, a coach for entrepreneurs at Strategic Coach, likes to encourage owners to pursue.
Harvard Business Review reported that not only did the employee gain some space to think creatively and strategically about the organization during a sabbatical, the opportunity to decompress had lasting benefits for the employee and organization beyond the time away. For me, now a month back into the business, I can still see the benefits and increased sense of pride and ownership that my team feels because of this exercise.
As part of our employee benefits, we offer a paid sabbatical (shorter than mine) once you have been with us for at least five years. In a couple of years, we will have two team members eligible for this benefit, and I look forward to helping them plan their time away.
What Do You Do on Sabbatical?
While I was out, I decided to not overschedule myself, given how scheduled I tend to be in the business. My theme for this sabbatical was “relationships.” Given that I have two boys in high school, I wanted to be around more for them, help manage all their springtime activities, and get some more time with friends and family.
I began my sabbatical at FPA Retreat in Arizona because I love Retreat, I have many friends I wanted to connect with, and I didn’t have to answer emails! It was a busy time on the home front, and I came away realizing I need to take time off for the next couple of springs to help my husband manage our family’s full spring schedule. Along the way, I also fit in more yoga, meditation, naps, and lunches with friends. I also read two incredibly deep books—something I would never have been able to do in a regular work/life schedule. The one book that seemed most apt for my sabbatical was Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey by James Hollis, Ph.D. Being able to take in each chapter and slowly process what it had to say was a luxury that can only come from time away.
Planning and Preparation
A successful sabbatical comes from thoughtful planning and preparation. I announced my time away in the spring of 2017. As part of our quarterly strategic planning through the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), we began to talk about concerns the team had, what training, knowledge transfer, and shift of duties needed to be in place before I left. We spent time talking through what-ifs such as a market downturn, a client leaving, an SEC audit, etc.
Because the office is one-and-a-half miles from my house, I reassured the team that if anything like a serious market downturn or SEC audit came, I would be available to jump back in as needed. That said, I pointed them to past emails sent to clients in 2008 and 2009 to respond to volatile markets—available for repurposing as needed. As we went through the day-to-day functions of the business that involved me, we would look for ways to temporarily or permanently transfer them to someone else.
How Do Clients Respond?
We have been working in teams for a number of years, so clients had someone they could go to while I was out. Over the year leading up to my sabbatical, I increasingly had my two associate financial advisers lead some client meetings to build their credibility, confidence, and relationship with the clients.
We announced my sabbatical three months in advance and received many positive messages of support from both clients who had experienced the last sabbatical as well as those who had not. I encouraged my associate financial advisers to connect with our clients while I was out to further deepen their relationships.
We are big believers in “walking the talk” at Omega, and I believe that it’s important for me to model the strategies that we encourage clients to employ. Over the years, we have had several clients take between-job sabbaticals, as well as longer sabbaticals to rest, heal, and navigate through bigger life and career transitions.
When I returned from my sabbatical, I emailed our top 25 clients to check in during my first week. I also sat for an hour with each team member to debrief on what they worked on while I was out. Each team member had put together a spreadsheet of client contacts, in chronological order, with some notes that served as a reminder to them and a quick reference for me. We also brought on two new clients while I was out—a job that had been mainly my effort in the past.
One of my biggest fears in leaving for six weeks was how we (really, my office manager) would navigate my company emails. While not as bad as some people’s inboxes, mine can be a challenge to navigate each day.
In advance of my sabbatical, we began unsubscribing to emails where possible, setting up better auto-archiving of some emails (sorry Michael Kitces!), and generally practicing at having someone else manage my daily emails. We decided I would have no access to corporate emails or files while I was out (I had to leave my decoder at the office when I left), but we also agreed on a set of reasons or situations that our office manager would reach out to me: death of a client, loss of a client, SEC audit, serious compliance issue.
As it turned out, the biggest exchange of emails resulted because I had a lot of personal and travel contact information in Outlook and had no access to it. Lesson learned.
The gift of not having to check work email for six weeks is hard to underestimate. The even bigger gift was coming back to two email folders I needed to check: Needs Action and FYI. We have continued to use these boxes to clear my inbox each day and to use while I am out at conferences or on vacation. A definite post-sabbatical benefit.
Sabbaticals are no longer a nice benefit, they are a critical strategy to stay fresh, focused, and productive in today’s 24/7, high-pace, and high-communication era. If you are trying to build an organization with transferable value, a sabbatical can be an important first step to assess where you stand. Taking a successful sabbatical requires an intentional team effort to make it a win-win for everyone involved.
Lisa A.K. Kirchenbauer, CFP®, RLP®, CeFT®, has been president of Omega Wealth Management LLC in Arlington, Va., for 18 years. She is also a certified Kolbe® consultant and author of “The 5 Essential Skills™ of an Exceptional Planner.” She is a member of the Strategic Coach community, and Omega implements the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) to run its business.
10-Point Checklist for a Satisfying and Meaningful Sabbatical
Set a date, put it on the calendar—don’t hedge.
Talk with key internal stakeholders as soon as possible to build support and accountability for your time away.
Take time to look at all the key actions you are involved in and look for ways to start training/shifting/outsourcing those functions. Remember key functions like banking, compliance, prospecting, and client onboarding.
Think through worst-case scenarios and prepare your team.
Create rules for when and why you can be contacted, if at all.
Separate personal emails and contact information from your work email account.
Let your clients know at least two months in advance in case they need to check in before you go.
Don’t answer emails while you are out, unless it is a true emergency.
Ask your team members to keep some notes on client interactions so you can get caught up quickly when you return.
Be intentional, but don’t overschedule your time away. Savor the freedom and flexibility.— L.K.
Prepare for Your Sabbatical with These Resources
Strategic Coach. A great group entrepreneurial program that helps you build a stronger business and a more satisfying life.
Entrepreneurial Operating System. An easy-to-manage strategic planning system that helps typical business owners gain a clearer vision, better structure, individual and organizational accountability, and greater traction within their organization.
Reboot Your Life: Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break. This book by Catherine Allen, Nancy Bearg, and their co-authors was what I used to prepare for my first sabbatical six years ago. It’s a great primer for planning your first break from work.
Stopping: How to Be Still When You Have to Keep Going. This book by David Kundtz is a recommendation from my friend and life planning colleague, Ed Jacobson. It’s a great resource while on your sabbatical. —L.K.