Many business owners toil for years before feeling like they can take a week or two away without checking in regularly via e-mail or telephone to monitor things back in the office. The thought of taking a real vacation, much less a sabbatical, seems like an unrealistic dream.

Stories about people who take sabbaticals seem to center on employees who were laid off, or executives whose companies were acquired or who got so burned out that an emergency sabbatical was the only option -- for their own and the company' s health.

Can a business owner -- the person who holds the ultimate responsibility for the organization' s continued vitality or demise -- be spared for the weeks or months required for a sabbatical?

Real-world small-business owners who found a way

As impossible as it seems, there are small-business owners who found a way to take a sabbatical. How? By applying creativity and a little old-fashioned planning.

Al Lovata, CEO of Be Our Guest in Boston, MA, took a six-month sabbatical from the company in 1994. Lovata spent the time seeing how a not-for-profit organization runs -- an experience he says was critically important for his organization. During his absence, the company' s president took on broader responsibilities, expanding her skills in a way that wouldn' t have happened had he not taken the sabbatical. As a result, says Lovata, the two were able to take the company to a different level of operation after his return, thanks to their new skills and perspectives.

During Lovata' s tenure on the board of directors for a not-for-profit, the executive director resigned and board members suggested that he assume the role temporarily. "Be Our Guest had passed ' the entrepreneurial years' -- a time when I was washing dishes and running the company -- so there was a slight element of me looking for a challenge," he says. The opportunity coincided with his company' s slow season, making the decision to take time away from the business easier. "Also, intellectual challenges recharge my batteries, so this was the perfect sabbatical for me," he adds.

During his sabbatical, Lovata spent 60 hours per week applying his business sense to an organization that historically approached strategy and structure from a non-business viewpoint. "The experience was intense. I tested my business know-how and affirmed my skills, and I re-learned the importance of asking big-picture questions such as, ' What are we doing here, and why?' " he says. "The fact that I knew that the role was temporary really helped me be objective, and to more clearly see what made sense. When the personal stuff is involved, such as ' This is my business,' it can be harder to do that."

Lovata' s return to Be Our Guest after his sabbatical was the catalyst for several key ripple effects. One was in having to redefine his role -- and the roles of the colleagues who had taken on additional responsibility during his absence -- upon return to Be Our Guest. Additionally, he brought his lesson on the value of taking an objective view back into his own company, and now convenes his management team every year and a half to ensure that they are taking advantage of changes in the business and staying true to their mission. "When you' re knee-deep in a business, you' re in a pattern; you rarely step back and take an objective view," he says. "My leaving for the sabbatical, and certainly my return, shook up the business and all of our views of the business."

For other business owners, intellectual fatigue and "owner burnout" influence their decision to refocus and recharge through sabbatical. Needing to refuel due to the non-stop demands of business ownership, Bill Hayes took a three-month sabbatical from his Boulder, CO, printing firm in 1998, determined to explore the possibility of going back to work for someone else. During his sabbatical, Hayes spent a lot of time gardening and enjoying his family and friends -- something that didn' t happen very often when he was fully immersed in running his business. He returned from the sabbatical and, instead of closing shop and going to work for someone else, he opted to buy a similar-sized printing operation and merged it with his own, creating Estey Printing.

Yet Hayes carried one crucial learning from his sabbatical into the way he works today: "Don' t give up your hobbies, don' t give up your family, don' t work every single day. Go home and garden, because there has to be a balance if you' re going to grow your business."

This is sound advice, according to Linda Manassee Buell, owner of Simplify Life , a Poway, CA, coaching firm. Buell counsels her clients to ensure they' re passionate about what they' re doing, and integrate "time out" into their daily routines so that an emergency sabbatical never becomes necessary. Buell also emphasizes that small-business owners who feel like the business would fall apart when they' re out of the office need to ask themselves two questions:

  1. What they' re holding control of that they can let go, and
  2. Whether they' ve fostered a business-culture where everything must originate from or get channeled through them.

Incorporating sabbaticals -- whether 15-minutes or two months -- can help dissolve such unhealthy habits and create new, healthier ones.

So, what makes a sabbatical?

While on sabbatical, the business owner immerses himself in a hobby or favorite interest, wellness practices, volunteering, reading, travel or some other activity or combination thereof. What makes it different from the norm? That he' s not checking in by telephone or e-mail; while on sabbatical, he' s 100 percent away from the business. He gets the time away to re-energize and gain a refreshed perspective, and others at the company get a chance to spread their wings and expand their capabilities in a way that' s not possible while working in the shadow of the previous routine.

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization. Please use it mindfully.

The most effective interpersonal or organizational communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to get assistance from a qualified adviser.

Jamie Walters is the founder and Chief Vision & Strategy Officer at Ivy Sea, Inc. in San Francisco, CA.

This article-series is an adaptation created for, based on content featured in the book Big Vision, Small Business: The Four Keys to Success and Satisfaction as a Lifestyle Entrepreneur (Ivy Sea Publishing, August 2001), by Jamie Walters.

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