A meditation on sabbaticals

Via Fast Company Now, an article on sabbaticals I totally missed in last weekend's NYT: Sabbaticals Aren't Just for Academics Anymore. The article is mostly a survey of current practices in the US, positing that sabbaticals are growing, that they are a good way to help employees beat burnout, or to retain employees during slow periods.

In theory, I think sabbaticals are a great idea. My own personal experience was less than great though. Here are some thoughts on it, I'll attempt not to whine too much about IBM.

The setup

From 1994 through 1999 I worked at an insane pace, 16-18 hour days were not unusual. It was a highly stressful environment, multiple interwoven deadlines, competing corporate factions, frequent escalations. On good days I was totally confident I knew what I was doing and could withstand the onslaught. On bad days I barely kept my act together, because truth be told I frequently had no idea what I was doing (and there were few places or people I could go seek advice). My health went to hell, I had few personal relationships outside of work (and dating? dating was just a non-option).

I pretty much quit in late 1999 only to be offered another position.

For about a year, through 2000, I had perhaps the easiest job I'd had at IBM in years: managing the Olympic Games web site. Now, it was not without its stressful moments: nothing like having a key database get corrupted during the last dress rehearsal because it grew to 2,147,483,649 bytes. But i had a great team, and my job was mostly to provide a buffer between the team and the various executives and managers.

In the winddown after the Games I decided to take a break. In retrospect, I had enough documented vacation time that I could probably have just argued for 6-8 weeks off. But the end of the Games brought the end of IBM's involvement, so the management team dispersed (many retiring). It was easier to take a leave of absence which is what I did.

I'd first heard about sabbaticals when, in the wake of the Lotus takeover, we met with counterparts on the Lotus web team. Sabbaticals were part of the package at Lotus, available to employees after some period of time (I think five years? maybe seven?). It was an attractive idea, I thought it'd be a great way to bridge to something new at IBM.

Now, the NYT article discusses the sabbatical options for people, some are paid, some are not, some require some sort of plan of action or approval from the company beyond agreeing to allow the employee to take a sabbatical. It doesn't really go into what happens when you take a long break from work.

The sabbatical: a real break from work

My sabbatical started off with a two week trip to Australia, which seemed like a great way to start four months off.

On returning to Brooklyn, I spent a couple of weeks vegging. Flew out to see my mother, spent some family time.

I read, I surfed the web.

I contemplated building a blogging service but decided that wouldn't go anywhere.

Besides, I was returning to IBM.

Basically, though, I frittered away the four months I'd set aside. As the (initial) sabbatical was coming to a close I decided I wasn't ready to go back to work yet, and extended it through the end of August 2001.

Did some more travel, more reading, tried to bone up on technology skills that had rotted as I became more a personnel and project manager and less a grunt techie. Took an intensive three week class in Mandarin Chinese. I think I can still say My name is Mr. Plum, how is your rice watching?

In late June I decided to get on top of things and reach out to various people at work to see what positions were available.

The silence was stunning, but I wrote it off to mid-summer vacations.

I mean, come on, I was IBM's webmaster, surely there was a place for me somewhere. Hell, I had five years of pent-up education on running large scale web sites that could be unwound into briefings, consulting engagements, etc.

I had ideas I wanted to pursue, once I got back to work, and need to find a place I could pursue them in.

I checked in with IBM Research. I promised not to whine, so I'll just write that we couldn't work out a position.

In my head, I was looking to return to the IBM I'd joined ten years earlier, in reality the company I was returning to was completely different. My time at ibm.com and then the Olympic Games was time worked in a secluded part of the company: people knew we were doing some great things, but didn't understand what we were doing and generally left us alone organizationally.

As July morphed into August and August into September I ended up taking sort of a fallback job in consulting services. That worked out so well, I ended up leaving two months later.

What happened?

I didn't appreciate how much taking a break from a manic pace would cause me to never, ever want to return to that pace. Not that I necessarily liked doing nothing, I was frequently bored. But it set up my mood for what I was looking for in my next job: something predictable, 9-5, maybe 9-6. Not nights. Not weekends. And certainly not a different city every week (the consultant's life).

I didn't know how to articulate what I wanted to do without coming off like some slacker: you walk in and say you want a 9-6 job and managers look at you like you are on crack. What I wanted was to have a "normal" job, whatever that meant in 2001. I didn't want to serve at someone's leisure, beck and call. There probably were positions available that would have fit my skill set and my goals, but I didn't know how to look for them (and I'm fairly certain had I found one I wouldn't have know what words to use to get in the door).

I didn't appreciate the network of professional connections I'd made in my years as Corporate Webmaster, nor the impact of the number of people I'd apparently offended, pissed off, or just rubbed the wrong way. I didn't leverage the connections in the lead up to the sabbatical to articulate what they knew I could do and to help find or create a position to return to.

I also didn't appreciate that the network of contacts I had was very narrowly focussed within a slice of the company. In my little world of webmasters, user experience and interactive marketing people I was a office-hold name. But outside that world if I was known at all, it was as that jerk from corporate who said No, you cannot have www.ibm.com.java! There is no .java top level domain.

I was unfocussed. I had no master plan, other than a notion I'd had that I would:

  1. buy a 64½ Mustang,
  2. get a really decent sound system installed in it,
  3. and drive up and down the West Coast for 4-6 weeks.

(I did do a bit of a driveabout, from San Francisco to Seattle, via Crater Lake and Mt. St. Helens, over the course of maybe 10 days, bracketed by trips to Las Vegas).

But, again, I was unfocussed. I wasted days reading the web, catching up on years of TV I'd "missed".

And some of that was important...it's important to have unstructured time. But not necessarily nine months of it.

So, sliding into September 2001 I was a bit of a sub-surface mental wreck. I felt abandoned by the company I'd done so much for (in my head), sacrificed so much for. I was stuck with a job which no one could describe to me, and which sounded promising until the first session I had as a consultant.

Into this mix, stir in 9/11. From 1997 thorugh mid-2000 I'd lived in Battery Park City, and woke up every morning to the reflection of the WTC towers in my windows. I loved the WTC, in all its ugly glory, in a very boyish, isn't-this-cool sort of way. I even had a yearly routine even of going to the roof of WTC 2 the first clear day of the year (if you've ever been on the roof of a 1300 foot building in winter, you'll appreciate both how stupid this was, as well as how clear the view was).

On returning from Sydney, I'd moved in with my girlfriend in Brooklyn Heights, so I was "safe" from the physical effects, but not so much from the other effects.

Had I had my wits, and I now know I didn't, I would have just stayed on sabbatical through the end of the year, dealing with 9/11 and performing a real job search.

Instead I latched onto the first position that came along, and when I hated that, latched onto the next job that came along. It's not a very smart way of career management, and has pretty much trashed my ability to get a job.

My advice...

So, what's my advice to a dedicated employee pursuing a sabbatical?

Before you leave...

  • Seek out other people within your organization who have taken a sabbatical and pick their brains. Organizations have their own culture, you need to suss out how the reality matches the documented approach to sabbaticals.
  • Determine early whether you are returning to your current position, or to a new role.
  • In either case, define what your position will and won't be on your return. The organization can and will change while you are away, think about what factors would cause you not to take the position, or would change the position.
  • Get things in writing, print off copies of the organization's policies with respect to sabbaticals or leaves of absence. Once you are out the door you may not have access to the documents, and if they change in your absence you may end up being caught short.
  • Truly understand your organization's approach to sabbaticals and leaves of absence. At IBM I was warned that there was no guarantee of a job on my return, which I sort of waved off, they have to do that, right? But while there was no guarantee of a position on my return, I had to guarantee that I would return on command, if necessary (which didn't happen).
  • Assume you don't come back, what do you need to take care of, wrap up, get copies of? There's a million reasons you might not come back, having nothing to do with how much you like your job or coworkers. You are going away, you are taking and making a break from work. You may find something else you really want to do.
  • Make a plan. How are you going to spend your days? Are you going to school? Are you going to write a book? Read a book? Travel? Make a plan, review it with your friends and family. Structure your time and be aware of how you are spending your time.
  • Plan your reëntry. when will it occur? How far in advance do you need to check-in? What factors will affect your return? What are the repercussions if you decide not to return?

While on sabbatical

  • Keep to your plan, your schedule, your structure. Keep aware of how you are really spending time and either revise the plan, or change the way you're spending time. Only you can decide how well you spent your time on sabbatical.
  • Keep in touch with people from work. Frequently enough that you don't feel totally out of touch, infrequently enough that you're out of the loop on day to day, week to week tasks, problems and issues. You're not doing this for your employer, you're doing this for yourself first and foremost, and you're keeping up professional-personal relationships.
  • Enjoy the time. Again, only you can decide how well you're spending your time and meeting your goals. In a sense, you are working for yourself, your pay or reward is the time off, the education gained, the experience gained from whatever it is you decide to do.
  • Keep a log or journal or diary, both so you can track your time, as well as so that you can look back a year or more and recall this time away.

Reëntry ...

You've been gone for 3, 6, 9 months. A year perhaps, more in extreme cases. A lot has changed with your organization, some good, some not so good. You've changed.

If you're considering not returning, don't be hasty. Review why you don't want to return, did you find something else to do on your sabbatical? Do you not like the organization as much now that you have some distance? Do you think there is another position out there, at another organization for you?

If you decide to look for another job, start the process well before your scheduled return date. If you wait until the weeks immediately before your return date you'll feel rushed, and you will be rushed. If you're mind is elsewhere, on that other job lingering out there, you won't be very effective on your return to work, which will make the experience seem miserable.

If you do return, you're going to feel like a new employee, unless you return to exactly the same position and team as you'd left. Even then, in theory someone else has been doing "your job" since you went on leave. The culture will be just a little different. Depending on the organization you may be welcomed back by all, or you may get treated as the guy who took six months off while we all worked our asses of.

In retrospect...

I do not regret taking a leave of absence, a sabbatical, from IBM at all. I think it saved my life in multiple ways, physically and spiritually. It broke me from some very bad working habits, it broke me away from an unhealthy working environment, it broke me away from an unhealthy approach to work in general.

I do regret not being structured about it. I regret not taking the time leading up to my leave to plan it out better, and to plan my reëntry better. I regret not acknowleding the professional relationships I'd had, nor attempting to mend the relationships that had frayed.

I regret not taking the organization at its word: no obligation to place me in a position on my return. I can't complain that I wasn't warned, I knew full well what I was getting into (not that I comprehended what I was getting into). I knew many of my organizational ties, my professional networks, would be broken or disappear while I was on leave, yet didn't do anything to mitigate the fallout.

If you need a sabbatical, take a sabbatical. But be aware that organizations are living, breathing things and will change while you are away. The company you return to will not be the company you left. You will not be the same employee on return as the person who left.

The only comparison I can make to shared experience is this: the summer between your last year of grade school, and freshman year of high school. The structure of the two schools may have been similar, they may have even been in the same buildings or campus; the students may be mostly the same students you went to grade school with; but the culture is different and even amongst all the familiarity you'll feel off. The advantage of being a professional on sabbatical, returning from sabbatical is that you really can control what you end up doing. Unlike high school, you can decide to alter or leave the situation.

«Blocking Referer Spam (shorter version) | Main |Leashes and Water Coolers (or: Getting the EGR Valve Replaced) »


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner