Some executives finding rewards in ultimate getaways

At a time when U.S. business tends to focus no further than the next quarterly returns, some executives are trying something new to plan further ahead.

They've decided to disappear for a while.

Business leaders are taking sabbaticals ranging from two to six months to step back and think about where their company is going. At the same time, as the staff steps up to carry on, management gets a preview of the next tier's potential.

The practice does not appear to be widespread. Dropping out still doesn't come easy to hard-driving entrepreneurs or competitive executives, several business leaders said.

But people like Steve Coleman, a partner at the Platinum Group in Eden Prairie who helps arrange such leaves, said he's seeing some growing interest among the 40-plus crowd.

Some are burned out; others want more family time. Some are taking a dry run at retirement; others are facing big career moves. What they usually have in common, Coleman says, is they want to prepare for change.

"I would say the trend is more owners are aging, coming to a time they might want to move on to something else, or want to leave and come back in a different capacity," Coleman said. "The thing that seems to drive it is they can try this, but nothing's permanent. They haven't made an irrevocable decision."

Still, the process is a bit of a gamble for the business. That's why Coleman recommends a yearlong strategy for planning, execution and re-entry.

One of Coleman's clients is Jeff Prouty, chief executive at the Prouty Project, an Eden Prairie consulting firm that specializes in strategic planning and team development.

Prouty is scheduling a four-month leave next summer that will take him and his family to China. They'll travel the old silk route and visit Tibet. They also plan to volunteer at the orphanages where he and his wife adopted their two daughters, Paige and Shea.

Prouty expects the new experiences will generate all kinds of ideas for his company: "I want to reflect on the past 20 years, clear my mind, and then think about the next 20."

He and his six employees will begin preparing at the company's annual planning retreat soon, Prouty said. They'll define each person's role while he's away, and they'll define which decisions the staff should make in his absence and those they shouldn't.

Coleman calls these "red light" issues -- as in dashboard alert lights.

"What are their boundaries?" Prouty said. "Fire our bank? Not an option, I'd say. Change the firm's name? Definitely not an option."

At re-entry, Prouty hopes his team of employees essentially will keep running things, so he can stay a step removed.

"I could focus on the decade-to-decade stuff, not so much the day-to-day stuff," he said.

Re-entry can be the toughest phase for everyone, Coleman said. "The gravitational pull is always to go back to the way things were."

At Express Scripts Inc., a pharmacy-benefits management company with offices in Bloomington, Sue Sommer took a very different kind of sabbatical last year. The time seemed right, she said.

A general manager at fast-growing Express Scripts, Sommer wanted to spend a chunk of time with her family.

"My wake-up call came the summer before my oldest son's senior year in high school," said Sommer, 45. "I thought, 'We're looking at colleges and senior photos and I'm not around half the time. Where in the world is time going?' "

Her successor was ready to take over. But she knew her next step would be a big one, certainly involving relocation.

"I also needed some time to really think that through," Sommer said.

During her six months away, she spent a busy summer with her husband and three children. In the fall, when the children were in school, she filled the days as she chose.

"I didn't have to be anywhere," Sommer said. "I could go to the gym. I could read. Until then, I didn't even remember what it felt like to have down time. I think you need to let your mind wander, have fleeting moments, to feel refreshed."

Her new job materialized in July, when her company bought Curascript, a specialty pharmacy in Orlando, Fla. She now works Mondays through Thursdays in Orlando, and her family will move there next summer.

There's no good count of work sabbaticals. Companies allowing paid leaves rose from 4 percent in 2004 to 6 percent last year, according to annual benefits surveys by the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional organization based in Arlington, Va. The survey didn't ask about unpaid leaves.

It's also hard to know how many employees in that 6 percent of companies ever use their sabbatical policies, or how many companies grant sabbaticals even though they have no formal policies -- including Prouty's and Sommer's.

Speaking for herself, Sommer believes her break basically kept her on track with her company.

"I'm not sure if I would have been up for this big change if I hadn't had the break," she said. "I think my company was great for doing this for me, and I feel very committed to it."


Star Tribune


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