Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mandated Sabbatical for Leaders

Leaders should take a sabbatical once in 2 years??

Can this be institutionalized? This blog post idea came up after reading up articles about Steve Jobs health and his forced vacation from Apple leaving to his successors - Apple’s shares slumped down by 5.7% after hearing about Jobs health news. There was a lot of talk on media, internet about CEO jobs unexpected absence raising uncertainty over leadership, innovation, deal-making, Apple brand building et al. There were talks about Jobs earlier sabbatical and how it influenced Apple and how it will be influencing now; There is also a good amount of bytes spent on Apple sustaining innovation during this period and how it can bounce back etc etc. Tim Cook (COO) is currently acting as the chief-in-command for Apple and recently Scott Forstall (senior VP of iPhone software) gave a good performance in the Macworld- this really signaled the fact that Apple could continue to pull off its marketing campaigns without Jobs at least for some time.

I am not attempting to write about Apple or how it can work in Steve Jobs absence- I want to correlate this to a concept in management on whether leaders should mandatorily take a sabbatical once in 2 years or not. The open questions are:
1. Is it really healthy for the company?
2. Is it really good for the shareholders?
3. Is it feasible in the long run?
4. Is it sustainable?
5. How long should the sabbatical be?
6. Is it 1 month, 2 months or 3 months?
7. Will the incumbent organization benefit because of this sabbatical? Will the leaders bounce off with new ideas after getting rejuvenated?
8. How do we calculate ROI on this sort of thing? What should be the measure?

In my view, I think at a high level, top leaders taking a short sabbatical is certainly healthy for the organization in two ways-
1. Can strengthen the organization in leadership development & succession planning and get new perspectives- There will be mandated change and there will be a culture of change
2. Can allow the leader to think of revolutionary new ideas, new ways of making the organization achieve its objective- This is possible during a sabbatical as technically the leader is still thinking about the organization

Diving deep in to point one- Strengthen the organization in to leadership development & succession planning:

Leadership development is becoming very important due to change in demographics as the “baby boomers” are getting to retirement age. In addition to this, it has been estimated that 50% of the organizations are facing talent shortages especially in the mid-management and director-level positions. There is an acute need to respond to generational differences and organizations are trying to understand the difference between generations, motivating employees from different generations, leveraging talent of these generations.

Typically lot of organizations have a mandate for succession planning and developing leaders in the pipeline- But the statistics say otherwise! Succession Planning plays a crucial role in developing a strong leadership pipeline. This has to work at all levels and not just at the top level or only at the middle level- The culture of succession planning enables a culture of change and its necessary for all organizations to undergo this. When leaders take a sabbatical, they necessarily have to get the successor focus on all the issues, challenges that s/he was doing; This creates a degree of self-assurance for the successor and indirectly builds up the confidence for both parties. Imagine all of these wrapped in a process and a culture whereby all leaders mandatorily should take a sabbatical and come back to reassess where things stand. It is also a reflection of how well they have built teams that can withstand without the leader and also enables the leader to sit back and think of new ideas for the organization. We all know the challenges surrounding it? The challenges are different for a public listed firm, VC backed firm, privately held firm. But, hey we are still talking about the concept- At the top part of the decision tree, if the decision is YES for a sabbatical, then we drill to the next decision tree- Is it a public/private/VC? Then we get to the next level of challenges but at a high level, are we in agreement?

For the attention to detail readers, I will dive deeper in to each one of the challenges in my next blog- I do not want to digress from the core topic of mandating a sabbatical for a leader?

On Point Two- Gives time for the leader to think of new ideas!

This is definitely a loaded statement- Does it mean that leaders don’t think of new ideas while they are working? Are they not supposed to think of it all the time? It is an utopian thought to get everything done at the same time- How can organizations create this framework whereby leaders get some time to think of fresh ideas? We all can guarantee that a “true” leader will be always thinking of continual improvement even when s/he is on vacation or a sabbatical- Its anyways leading for a positive change in the organization. You can take the sabbatical from the leader but you can NEVER take the leadership thinking from a leader. With this optimistic view, don’t we all acknowledge that this creates a framework where in leaders understand the expectations, go back to the drawing board in a leisure manner and think about it in a holistic manner. I am sure that this will happen and everyone will benefit from it tremendously. A lot of people in Silicon Valley are eagerly waiting for the next big blockbuster from Apple as they all feel that Steve Jobs will come up with some cool idea during his health break! Maybe it will happen- We never know!

In addition to this, it will also give time for the leader to think of challenging roles/areas in his current portfolio rather than walking away from it. Let me give an example- Most of the time, leaders get bored with their current portfolio and they want change (although this is never openly told but it’s always there!). The sabbatical can help leaders understand the fact that the “grass is never green on the other side”. It gets back the rigor and focus of new ideas!

What do you all feel? I know that I have consciously made it provocative in some instances but the idea is to publish my thoughts and get yours as well on this topic!


Varun Chopra said...

Hi Prakash..Firstly, this is a very well written article & I think you've built a pretty compelling case for senior leaders to go on a sabbatical. While a large part of your thinking resonates with mine, I am struggling with a few things:
1) Theoretically while it is tough to refute, how practical is this in reality?
2) One could also argue, that sabbaticals are for "others", and not for senior leaders, because isnt the entire rank & file of the organization looking to them for direction, especially given the current tumultuous times? And a leader going on a sabbtical during such times may perhaps give the wrong signals to the organization?
3) Each leader (and this holds true irrespective of the where in the hierarchy a leader is), has his/her own style of doing things - how can an organization deal with a short term change in leadership style? Wouldn’t this perhaps would cause more upheaval rather than benefit the organization?
4) In the case of Apple, if I’m not mistaken it was an involuntary sabbatical on both occasions, not sure if Steve Jobs or any other leader in his place would do something like this voluntarily.
Look forward to hearing your views on this.

Bill Bliss, Executive Coach said...


To echo what Varun said, this is a good post indeed. As someone who works with leadership and succession issues most of the time, this is particularly thought provoking. I look forward to others weighing in on this. In the meantime, here are some comments/observations:

I am not sure that the 2 year time frame is appropriate. After all, it can take about 18 to 24 months to fully implement and assess the strategic initiatives of a top leader. Also, the opportunity for others to take the helm and try their ideas may be enough for the insecure leader to not take a sabbatical to protect what they believe is the right vision and approach. The 2 year time frame for a CEO or direct report to the CEO may be better off being in the 4-5 year range.

Alternatively, perhaps there can be shorter and more frequent times that senior leaders take time to just go away and think. For example, why not have a CEO and other senior leaders take 3-4 days or a week each quarter or twice a year to go away and think. True, it is not the same as a sabbatical, yet, some very creative and timely thinking may be able to happen in that time period.

I am glad you have gotten back into this - this is a very interesting topic.

Bill Bliss