Jon Stewart will be back in the anchor chair tonight. The popular host of the Daily Show, who’s racked up more Emmy Awards than years he’s been at the helm—18 wins in 14 years—spent this summer directing Rosewater, his first feature film.
Clearly Stewart didn’t get the memo on the benefits of taking a mini sabbatical sans screens to enhance creativity. But you can hardly blame him for wanting to shake things up after such a long stretch in the same job.
His timing, in any case, was impeccable. Stewart’s penchant for political satire strikes the strongest chord with viewers in the run-up to a presidential race. Stepping away for a few months when there’s no election news to cover made good sense. The ratings bore this out, only taking a small dip over the past several weeks.
As a career move, sabbaticals are becoming more accepted by companies, from General Mills to Gawker, as studies prove that the breaks increase staff retention and contribute to higher future productivity.
Though Stewart is the famous face behind one of Comedy Central’s most recognized properties, even his return to the set won’t be as simple as having the interim host John Oliver slide over and cede the spotlight. As leadership consultant Abhay Padgaonkar points out: "Michael Jordan's return from a long hiatus was triumphant, but the same can't be said for Steve Jobs. His multiple absences were distracting and caused a tremendous amount of speculation and disruption."
How successfully Stewart manages his comeback will be an object lesson for leaders in any industry, at any level. To tease out the issues involved, we polled some workplace experts to get their best advice on smoothing the transition back to work.
Manage the Message.
Thanks to a clever turn by the Daily Show’s writers, interim anchor John Oliver opened each show with an elaborately constructed excuse for Stewart’s absence. The challenge coming back will be to continue to manage the message of his sabbatical so the water cooler gossip doesn’t hold sway, says executive recruiter Charley Polachi.
James Green is very familiar with this: Before becoming CEO of digital ad technology firm Magnetic, Green built and sold four startups, got burned out, and left it behind to sail different parts of the world for a year. He found that there isn’t anything specific you need to communicate about your ability to make a comeback after being away. "You just need to do your job better than anyone else. If you slip, everyone will know," he says. Instead, Green found that "people wanted to know what I got out of taking time off. And that answering those questions was easy."
John Oliver had tremendous shoes to fill in Stewart’s absence. After all, Stewart’s been named America’s Most Trusted Newscaster in the post-Cronkite era. Those who fill in for any executive on leave deserve to be acknowledged, both privately and publicly, says Amanda Augustine, a job search expert for online matching service TheLadders.
Augustine suggests taking this two-part strategy:
Create an ally, not a competitor. Before you officially return to the office, sit down with your seat-warmer who kept business running in your absence and be grateful for his or her efforts. This is a great opportunity to build a connection with your substitute and get debriefed. Not only will this help you ramp-up sooner, but it can supply you with a fresh perspective on your business.
Recognize your replacement with grace. Don’t pretend (s)he didn't exist or act like a silent hero. (Stewart has said on the show he thinks Oliver has done an amazing job.) As any good public speaker will tell you, it’s important to pay attention to those who present before you. Referencing this person to your audience makes the transition smoother. The same can be said when you’re returning to a role and bidding adieu to the substitute. Recognize your replacement and be gracious. Reference his or her work when you’re meeting with your team and clients. This behavior accomplishes two goals—it will convince those around you that you’re back up to speed with the business, and it will make it easier to reconnect with your team and establish a good rapport.
David Lewis, president and CEO of human resources at outsourcing firm OperationsInc, cautions that ignoring the time that passed and what may have occurred during that period is a huge mistake. Embrace the gap, instead, he says. "'What did I miss?' should be your mantra," he suggests. Ignoring the possibility that returning to the ways you and your team were doing things before maybe a mistake, too, if the new way is working better.
"When you are as dominating a presence and talent as Stewart, you rarely yield to much in the way of change," Lewis explains. "Egos and insecurity of those in entertainment, as well as in the real business world, tend to interfere with the returning party truly embracing change. This attitude could be the beginning of the end for them."
Fast Company’s published a small mountain of helpful suggestions for returning to productivity after a break. But leadership consultant Padgaonkar offers one more crucial tip: "Make sure that the reason for the long hiatus is fully behind you before returning. Otherwise it will keep rearing its head and result in diminishing your effectiveness."
Aaaand . . . that's a wrap.
[Photo courtesy of Comedy Central]