How to design a business sabbatical

Even before a business owner is actively thinking about transition issues like success and retirement, fatigue and uncertainty can creep in when considering what to do next in life. That's when it can be helpful for the owner to take a sabbatical away from the business to have time and space to truly explore life after work.

Freed up from day-to-day operations, owners can unplug from meetings, emails, voicemails and financial reports to spend time gaining a renewed outlook on life and filling up with new ideas. Usually, this starts off with rest and renewal, healthier life choices and travel. The exploration often takes owners to adventures, warm climates, international venues, seminars, conferences or classes for gaining new non-business skills.

Consider the following three-step process for taking a sabbatical:

1. Determine feasibility for a sabbatical

Experiences of other owners demonstrate that there are two requirements for an effective business sabbatical: a stable, healthy business with positive cash flow, and capable people to run the business while the owner is away.
In this way, everyone is included — no one is excluded — and, almost always, each person is thankful to be part of the process. Questions to ask each stakeholder:

2. Define parallel responsibilities

As the owner commits to going away for a specified time, usually 90 to 180 days, managers must commit to step up and take charge. The key to parallel commitments by owner and managers are well-defined expectations for bottom-line results.

Clear definitions about what the interim management team can and cannot do are important. Examples include hiring, implementing new products, changing financial institutions or selling the business. There may also be an expectation that the owner shouldn't be disturbed unless there's a death or near-death situation.

3. Negotiate a re-entry process

When returning from sabbatical, it's better for the owner not to return to the same job or office. After all, the sabbatical has been a step toward making a transition. If management has done a good job, why demote them? Rather, this is a good time to redefine the owner's new role and confirm new responsibilities earned by the management team.

After a negotiated re-entry, the owner and managers are held accountable by periodic reviews to ensure "gravity" does not pull either party back into the ways things were. Instead, keep the new picture clearly in view. New habits become rooted after several months. Gone is the fatigue and uncertainty so prevalent before the sabbatical. Take advantage of the renewed energy and focus.


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