Refresh your Leaders with Sabbaticals
By Jon Lokhorst, CPA, PCC, Lokhorst Consulting LLC
The word sabbatical has roots in Hebrew, Greek and Latin terms that all mean a rest from work. The concept of a sabbatical leave traces back to ancient Israel when Jews took a one-year break every seven years from planting and growing their fields. In the late 1800s, Harvard University began offering faculty a paid sabbatical as an employee benefit. Intel was one of the first corporate employers to provide sabbatical benefits, starting in 1969.
In recent years, increasing numbers of employers started offering sabbatical leave to combat burnout and inspire employee retention. When offered, sabbatical benefits are typically reserved for the organization’s senior leaders, with fewer employers providing sabbaticals more broadly among their employees.
In this article, you will hear from three MNCPA members who have experienced the benefits of a sabbatical themselves, and helped their organizations coordinate the logistics while other leaders have taken sabbaticals.
The benefits to leaders
“It’s an amazing gift to have time for absolute rest, unplugged from work emails and telephone calls,” said Faye Hayhurst, director of finance and administration for the MNCPA. “I was able to fully disconnect from my work responsibilities without a loss in pay.” The MNCPA offers a six-week sabbatical to its president and directors every six years, with the option of extending the leave with two weeks of vacation.
Ben Ellingson, partner and national assurance leader at Eide Bailly LLP, appreciated “the opportunity to disconnect, pursue other passions and spend time with family.” His firm requires partners and principals to take a six- to eight-week, fully-paid sabbatical every five years. Ellingson, who has experienced two sabbaticals, said the first one took a full week to transition, but the second one only took one day.
Like Hayhurst and Ellingson, Wipfli LLP Partner Bob Cedergren found it helpful to unplug from his firm.
“No email, no laptop,” he said.
Wipfli’s sabbatical policy is also mandatory for partners and principals, with a six-week paid leave after 10 years as a partner, with additional sabbaticals every five years after that. Cedergren spent a week alone at a cabin in northern Wisconsin at the beginning of his sabbatical.
“I thought I would have a hard time disconnecting, so I appreciated the chance to decompress,” he said. From there, he and his wife enjoyed “doing things we hadn’t had a chance to do before with a full schedule.”
The benefits to organizations
Cedergren observed that it’s easy for accountants to scoff at the cost of the sabbatical, especially if measured by a reduction in billable hours. But the benefits far exceed the costs.
“I’ve watched leaders in our firm come back energized, refreshed and enthusiastic,” he said. “They come back with new ideas as their brains unclog from the hectic pace.”
The sabbatical leave also provides an opportunity for other leaders in the organization to step up and take on new responsibilities, according to Hayhurst. “It’s an opportunity for you to show value to the people who will be filling in for you. Show your trust in them and equip them to cover for you.”
Cedergren and Ellingson noted that when a partner is on sabbatical, it enables the next generation of leadership to take on more responsibilities for client relationships, some of which continue when the partner returns.
“When the partner is gone, it affirms the concept that every client belongs to the firm,” said Cedergren. “It’s an excellent way to demonstrate to clients that we have a full-serve team they can work with.”
Eide Bailly and Wipfli have developed a structured process to guide in planning for upcoming sabbaticals. Leave time is approved and scheduled up to a full year in advance, with staggering among leaders to keep from leaving gaps within the partner group. In both firms, designated individuals are assigned to monitor emails and voicemail messages while the partner is gone. Client introductions ensure each client knows their go-to person in the partner’s absence.
Hayhurst reviewed her prior year’s calendar for the same time frame as her sabbatical, enabling her to recall and anticipate the tasks, issues and other concerns that would need to be addressed while she was gone. It also provided an opportunity to identify matters that could be placed on hold during the sabbatical to address when she returned. With advance preparation, Hayhurst realized that “Wow, they can get by without me.”
Advance preparation is valuable for the return to the office, too. Cedergren suggested keeping enough time open on the calendar to reconnect with others in the firm. Ellingson said that when he returned, he made the rounds to get updates and work through client situations. This allowed him to catch up on what happened while he was gone. He kept track of fresh ideas that came to mind while he was on sabbatical, so he could come back to them for further review after returning to the office.
All three leaders emphasized the importance of rest and not taking on too many commitments while on leave.
“Don’t pressure yourself into doing something fabulous,” Hayhurst advised. “Embrace it,” Ellingson suggested. “It’s hard to envision being completely unplugged for two months. But it’s valuable time to decompress.”
Use the sabbatical for simple yet memorable experiences. Hayhurst devoted part of her sabbatical to a road trip out West, where she visited her daughters along the way. Cedergren shared an example from one of his partners who used his sabbatical for a memorable experience with a special needs son. “They spent the time at their lake home where they could enjoy fishing together,” he said.
In a Bloomberg.com article, Jennifer Moss, author of “The Burnout Epidemic,” cautioned against the drive to be productive. She suggests taking time to reflect on what’s important in life and avoiding feelings of guilt for not accomplishing something major.
Moss also cautions against viewing sabbaticals as a standalone tool to combat burnout. Noting that a lack of rest is only one cause of burnout, Moss suggested that leaders encourage healthy boundaries to make the benefits of a sabbatical more sustainable. She referred to the need for a well-balanced work diet: sustainable hours, connections with colleagues, and projects that are interesting and meaningful.
Jon Lokhorst, CPA, PCC, is a leadership coach, speaker, trainer and author of “Mission-Critical Leadership: How Smart Managers Lead Well in All Directions”. An MNCPA member, he works with organizations to develop leaders everyone wants to follow, build teams no one wants to leave and deliver exceptional results. Jon regularly speaks for MNCPA conferences and events. You can reach him at email@example.com.