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A good leader can take a vacation

This article in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required, excerpts below) made me think about bosses who just can't unplug to go on vacation, even for a week.  Some highlights from the article:

It's vacation season -- but many executives not only limit themselves to breaks of just a few days, they also continue to check in with employees and issue directives from yachts, beaches and mountain resorts. Their refusal to turn off their cellphones and BlackBerrys means they are never relieved of work pressures no matter how remote or luxurious their vacation destinations. In addition, those executives who can't disengage from the office and delegate authority undermine employees' confidence to make decisions and be creative.

"The most successful executives presume that employees will act in the best interests of their company and to their full potentials -- and don't need to check in with them all the time," says Michael Mankins, a partner at consultant Bain & Co. "Those who can't step away and trust that decisions can be made without them never get the best work out of subordinates."


Michael Bonsignore, retired chief executive of Honeywell, thinks executives should fear being indispensable a lot more than fear not being needed. "Executives go to all this trouble to recruit and train people, so they should be able to really get away sometimes and nurture the management structure they've created by leaving decisions to others," he says.

He sought to do this when he was CEO at Honeywell -- by taking off three days at a time several times a year to pursue his hobbies of saltwater fly fishing and boating.

"My view of vacation was leaving work behind -- and trying to preserve the essence of my inner self," says Mr. Bonsignore. And because he maintained his interests outside of business throughout his career, he believes he can now enjoy his retirement more than other former CEOs who focused only on work.

He acknowledges that technology is making it increasingly difficult for executives to separate themselves from work and from their staffs even for a day. On fishing trips to remote areas in British Columbia, Mr. Bonsignore has observed executives. They "step off the float plane onto the dock, and the first thing they do is make sure their cellphone and BlackBerry are working," he says. The fact that they can connect so easily to their offices and staffs from anyplace in the world makes it harder to choose not to engage.

I also find it hard to unplug (my wife would say that I find it impossible).  I think that it is a requirement, however, to be able to recharge your batteries.  And, your subordinates need to know that they can be trusted to get the job done for a period of time.  Of course, emergenices will come up.  I think that the boss always needs to have a way to be reached in case of an emergency.  And, sometimes vacations come up at inconvenient times, such as in the middle of a big business deal, a merger, or a financing.

Part of being in a start-up means that you have to make sacrifices.  Speedy action is one of a start-up's advantages versus bigger competitors.  So, even a week-long vacation can make a difference at a critical time.  However, most start-ups do routine business most of the time.  There are always customers and partners to meet, engineering schedules to track, and candidates to be hired.  Usually, this work can be rearranged around a week-long vacation. 

If the thought of being behind is too scary, I'd suggest planning to come back day early from vacation so you can catch up on email before you head into the office.  That's far preferable than keeping up with your email every day while traveling.  Also, be sure to put an 'Out of Office' message on your email and voice mail so people contacting you know that they'll be a delay before they hear back from you.

Now, I wish I actually did all the things I recommend.  I know that it is tough to unplug.  But, the times I have done it have been great.  And, the people who worked for me were happy to have a chance to show that they could carry on just fine without me.  At least for a while.


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There are good reason to stay connected with the office and bad reasons. If there are simply not enough resources at the company, which is often the case with a start-up, then the luxury of at least being someplace else coupled with substantially reduced availability must be sufficient. On the other hand key executives of a large company should be able to go away without having to check in. They just have to be reachable in case of an emergency. If business cannot properly function without their direct involment, then those key executives are a business risk as they don't manage to build up a structure that functions without their ongoing involvement. What would happen to those companies, if such a key executive would be run over by a car? Would they cease to function properly?

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