You may think you can't take a vacation. But sometimes you need a break from your company -- and your company needs a break from you
In February 2000, Jo DeMars went out to lunch and didn't come back to work for four months. The president of DeMars & Associates Ltd. had been feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and drained of creativity -- not a terribly productive state for someone who had recently told her staff that she wanted her company to make the Inc. 500 list in five years. "I didn't have anything left to give," recalls DeMars, whose $1.5-million company, in Waukesha, Wis., manages warranty-dispute-arbitration programs for major automakers. "I found myself getting so wrapped up in the day-to-day tasks that I couldn't be strategic." That's a painfully common complaint among CEOs of growing companies, but very few take the dramatic step that DeMars did.
For DeMars, and for Louis Ravenet, CEO of Baltimore-based Invoke Systems, going AWOL was the first step toward transforming their companies. And although we're not recommending a four-month lunch break for everyone, there's certainly enough evidence to suggest that a brief sojourn not only is good for you but can be good for your company, too.
Demars had grown her business, now 13 years old, by meticulously managing every aspect of the company's operations. Over the years, however, she had become a classic micromanager, always letting herself be drawn back into tasks that she supposedly had delegated to others. "She'd delegate, but she'd still want control," says Natalie Fleury, a compliance-process manager. DeMars's employees, many of them in their twenties, were apprehensive about making their own decisions and sought her approval for everything. She took on tasks willingly, often motivated by the desire to protect her staff from the less pleasant aspects of business, such as dealing with abusive clients. "I never wanted them to worry," she says, "so I took a lot of it on myself."
"I found myself getting so wrapped up in the day-to-day tasks that I couldn't be strategic."
Those well-intentioned instincts were DeMars's downfall; she became so overwhelmed with minutiae that she lost sight of the big picture. Increasingly, she would fret about issues that she now understands were meaningless. "If someone came in with a wrinkled shirt, I'd think, 'Well, this "business casual" just doesn't work, and I've got to find another solution," she recalls. "A lot of it was making mountains of molehills, and when you do that, you suddenly have a mountain range in your life." The same attention to detail that had served her so well in the past was now eating away at her ability to keep things in perspective.
"I was burned out and exhausted," DeMars says. "I remember reading an article several years ago about CEOs taking sabbaticals, and it sounded great, but I just didn't know how anyone could do that. I thought I would be letting everyone down because everyone in the world needed me there -- I was like Atlas."
But by the end of January 2000, DeMars had reached the breaking point. Morale problems were infiltrating the office, and DeMars's health was suffering. Then she opened her E-mail one morning to discover that a key client was cutting back its budget for her company's services. She called her husband, Derek Prentice, in London. (Prentice has his own London-based consulting company and spends half of his time in the United Kingdom.) "I'll never forget that call," says Prentice. "She said, 'Come now; I'm not going back to work.' I dropped everything and packed my bags."
At Invoke, an $8-million Web-development and content-management company, CEO Louis Ravenet faced an entirely different dilemma but ultimately settled on the same solution as DeMars. He had grown Invoke with a core group of dedicated employees who were happy to work 80-hour weeks for their charismatic and highly creative founder. Ravenet jokes that one of his company's most successful software applications is named after him: Tyrant. Nonetheless, Ravenet had begun to feel that his company was outgrowing his particular set of talents. What then-10-year-old Invoke needed most was structure, organization, and sound management principles, none of which were Ravenet's forte. He also realized that he was becoming dangerously indispensable to some of his customers. "Once I was out flying, and I got a call from the tower telling me to come down immediately," he recalls. "As soon as I landed, a security guard handed me the phone, and it was a client. I spent the next hour and a half on the phone with him." It was a clear signal to Ravenet that he was probably not the best person to guide Invoke into its next phase. So in June 2000, Ravenet announced to his staff that he was taking a leave of absence; he would devote his attention full-time to iCommunicate, an Internet company he had recently founded, and leave Invoke in the hands of a newly hired chief operating officer. His staff was less than thrilled.
"I thought I would be letting everyone down."
Demars and Ravenet had no intention of bailing out of their companies permanently, and they had very different reasons for stepping away, but both CEOs used the opportunity to fill in management gaps that, left unattended, most certainly would have hindered their companies' growth.
The first thing DeMars did when she decided to prolong her lunch hour was to call a meeting with Sean Zielinski, her general manager; Joseph Geck, a consultant who had worked with her in the past; and Prentice. Prentice agreed to spend two weeks every month at DeMars, where he would develop a new marketing and business-development plan -- projects that his wife knew were important but for which she could never seem to find the time. As a consultant, Geck had begun to implement a set of processes and standards to help the company more efficiently manage its 17 employees, 36 independent contractors, and 300 volunteer arbitrators. Now DeMars was counting on him to continue that work and to step in as her temporary successor.
"I had been talking to Jo on a regular basis, and I knew the company was going through a tough time," says Geck, who agreed to act as interim CEO. DeMars was also hoping that Geck's hands-off management style and his dearth of industry-specific knowledge would force her employees to step up to the plate.
For their part, DeMars's employees were skeptical at first. Natalie Fleury called her boss the day she left and asked how the company could ever move ahead "with no captain at the rudder." DeMars reassured her that the company was in no danger, but that did little to assuage the company's young staff.
Geck's strategy was to stay focused on the big issues; he devoted his time to developing long-term growth strategies and to following through with proj- ects that were of specific interest to DeMars. At the same time, Prentice immersed himself in market research and discovered that although the company and its CEO enjoyed an excellent reputation in the industry, DeMars was largely perceived as a one-client business. "We had to look at expanding into new markets, and we had to change the perception of the company in the marketplace," Prentice says. Neither Geck nor Prentice was inclined to micromanage, so Zielinski and Fleury were forced for the first time to make decisions on their own. With Fleury attending to policy issues and Zielinski taking care of process-related concerns, the two came into their own as managers. Fleury, for instance, was free to oversee a dispute-resolution program as she saw fit and to develop a training program on her own. "It really did force me to take things by the reins," she says. "If Jo had been here, I don't think I would have been able to spearhead things that easily. There would have been more need for checking in." And Zielinski emerged as a first-rate operations manager.
In the meantime, DeMars spent lazy days at her 40-acre farm in Boscobel, Wis. "I sat, I read books, I crocheted, I walked, and I hired a personal trainer," she recalls. "And I didn't worry about the company." Not much, anyway. She did return to the company for meetings of a newly appointed advisory board, and she attended a six-month review with a client. But when there was a request to write a proposal for a potential customer, DeMars restrained herself. "The idea that someone else could do it seemed impossible," she recalls. "But Natalie did it, and she did a beautiful job."
Louis Ravenet also chose his temporary successor carefully. Mark Barrett, a manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers, had hired Invoke consultants to solve thorny software problems. "I called him and said, 'Aren't you tired of calling in the A team? Why don't you come work for the A team?" recalls Ravenet. Like Geck, Barrett had already earned credibility among the employees he was being asked to steward. He was also exactly the type of manager Ravenet needed. "He's funny, but he's also a structured, organized manager," says Ravenet. He explained to his 89 employees that Barrett was being brought on as COO but would act as CEO for several months during Ravenet's provisional defection.
"What Mark will bring to you," Ravenet told his staff last June, "is process, organization, and structure that will scale the company to the next size." To some employees that sounded like a nightmare, and a few went with Ravenet to iCommunicate. Invoke's attrition rate jumped from an enviable 1% to 8%. "People who felt very close to Louis didn't like the company without him," says Barrett. "It was disheartening because some of them were key people. It was confidence rattling for me." But the dust eventually settled, and under Barrett's watch Invoke began to evolve as Ravenet had imagined it should.
"Instead of working 90-hour weeks, we can now deliver projects without people having to kill themselves," says Barrett. The result: "Under Mark's guidance, people who were formerly good performers have blossomed into superstars," says Ravenet. Jamie Birger, a senior developer who has been with Invoke for five years, says he's happier and more productive now. "In a very passionate environment you can burn out from exhaustion," he says. "With Mark, things are more structured, and I feel that things have calmed down a bit. That's a good thing."
"It's like it's not my company anymore. It's grown up."
In June 2000, Demars returned to her company. "I feel much more energized and enthusiastic, and I'm encouraged by the growth I've seen in people," she says. Fleury says her boss is "much more laid-back and willing to delegate and leave it delegated." Geck will stay on as CEO, with DeMars, who still owns 100% of the company, as president. She admits to a few initial "turf issues" with Geck but insists that the blending of their management styles has been "enormously beneficial" to the company. Prentice continues to spend time at the company as well; he hired an advertising agency, is revamping the company's Web page, and has put in place an aggressive new business-development plan. "We're now being invited to bid by clients who we have never bid for before," he says. Perhaps even more important, he perceives a dramatic shift in company culture. "There's increased confidence among the young management staff," he says. "And Jo has confidence that the staff can do the work; she's learned to take a broader view."
And although DeMars is pulling back her presence at the company to half-time, she feels that the work she now does there is more meaningful than what she was accomplishing before taking her leave of absence. She's had time, for instance, to write the company's first comprehensive five-year business plan, to create a new division, and to begin thinking seriously of acquiring another company. "When I come in now, I feel genuinely appreciated and that I can make a difference," she says. "Before, I felt I was spinning my wheels." In fact, she concedes that she probably should have taken her break much earlier. "If you wait too long, you run the risk of making stupid decisions, destroying your credibility with your employees, and losing your self-respect," she cautions.
Things turned out a bit differently for Louis Ravenet. His presence at iCommunicate gave the start-up just the shot in the arm it needed; on April 11, Microsoft acquired the company, which develops online customer-service technologies. As part of the sale, Ravenet agreed to move to Seattle and work for the software behemoth for a specified period of time. That ended his immediate plans to return to Invoke. So Ravenet sent Kam Talebi, iCommunicate's former chief financial officer, to Invoke as CEO. "He brings the same creative skill set that I have," says Ravenet. "I couldn't go back, so I sent my best person." Ravenet will maintain ownership of the company but won't have a role in day-to-day management; Mark Barrett will continue on as COO. "I go back there, and I'm proud because it's so organized and it's run so smoothly, but it's like it's not my company anymore," Ravenet says. "It's grown up."
Donna Fenn is a contributing editor at Inc.
On the Road Again
Three years ago Stacy Brice mustered up the courage to take a vacation from AssistU, the Baltimore company she had founded in 1997 to train, coach, and support "virtual assistants" -- individuals who provide administrative support to clients virtually. "I went to California and did 12 days up the coast in a convertible, and every time I checked into a hotel, I'd call home," she says. "It was relaxing, but not in the way it would have been if I just took off and left the company with someone else." Sound familiar?
Brice found her "someone else" later that year. She hired Marie Schulz, who lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as her own virtual assistant and discovered that Schulz was "the closest thing to me that I've ever found." The following year Brice decided to try a radical experiment: she'd take not just a vacation but a five-week sabbatical, leaving Schulz in charge with very specific instructions. Schulz would take on all the day-to-day responsibilities of running AssistU, which has no employees but consists of a 250-person community of virtual assistants. And she would contact Brice only if there was an interview request from the media or if there was an extreme emergency. Then Brice and her husband hit the road, starting in Orlando and driving, well, wherever they wanted to. "I didn't want to have a plan," she says. "It was wonderful and romantic and carefree. I didn't call in, I didn't bring my laptop. I counted on the fact that Marie would call if she needed me."
"Before this wonderful five-week experience, I really believed I needed to answer all my E-mail."
The arrangement worked so well that Brice did the same thing last year. "I found that taking time away is not only rejuvenating and relaxing, but I come back with new ideas," she says. "I see possibilities where I might not have been able to see them because I was too tired."
In 1999, for instance, on her return she wrote a 700-page training manual and created a higher level of certification for her program. Last year she put together plans for a seminar at sea for her community of virtual assistants. But perhaps most important, Brice gained new perspective on her role in the company.
"Before this wonderful five-week experience, I really believed I needed to answer all my E-mail," she says. "Now Marie screens it, and I'm down from a couple hundred pieces a day to about six." Brice also signed on two AssistU alumni to volunteer as community director and alumni director; Schulz took on additional responsibilities as training director. "I came back and realized that I could give away a lot of responsibility. I figured out what I was doing that I could let other people do, and I put them in place," Brice says. That meant, of course, that she was less accessible to people who had become accustomed to her undivided attention, but the change was not nearly as jarring as she had expected. "You can take yourself out of the middle of things," she says, "and as long as people still get what they need quickly and efficiently, they're perfectly happy."
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DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen Y Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success (McGraw-Hill, 2009), about ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.