Leave of Faith

A sabbatical strategy for taking leave without taking down the ship.

I'm sitting outside our rented home in the Norman village of Vicques, sipping Chablis and watching the summer sky blush into dusk. At this moment, my colleagues at Fast Company are working diligently to produce this issue. I won't be back to help anytime soon. Instead, I'm on a two-month-plus leave, touring France with my family.

Like many people who love their jobs and feel responsible to their team, I find it difficult to take off even two weeks in a row. So how did I swing 10? Let's call it a combination of good fortune, careful planning, and a healthy appetite for risk.

First, the good fortune: My boss said yes. Actually, he agreed to my plan with much less resistance than I expected, simultaneously rendering moot my well-rehearsed defense and sparking fears that I was, perhaps, dispensable. The first moral? Just ask.

Once I got the green light -- I did agree to check email occasionally -- I dug into the planning. I had sprung this scheme seven months in advance, but Fast Company has little staffing slack. I'm deputy editor, and my absence could have heaped work on my fellow managers, who were already overstretched. The solution? Turn the problem on its head, giving some staffers temporary (and I mean that!) exposure to work we couldn't have offered them otherwise.

So my colleague David is taking over the lion's share of my job for two issues -- and a more junior editor, his. In February, David and I began having monthly breakfasts -- the basis of David's "externship," as he called it to our mutual amusement. We discussed my department's strategy and parsed the strengths of our writers. And for the long-term projects I supervise, I asked a few younger staffers to take over, bringing them into the decision making months ahead. Offering folks this experience gives the magazine a more capable, flexible staff -- and it makes our people happier, too.

Even with all that planning, I wasn't quite ready to give up control over work that's important to me. I had to emotionally accept what I already understood intellectually -- that I work with very talented people who can do great things in my stead. (So, okay, moral number two: I am dispensable.)

I had to let go in other ways, too. In the months before we left, my family was coping with aging relatives, serious illness, and the possibility of a career change for my wife. And in May, a bomb was dropped: Fast Company was being sold. (The magazine's new buyer wasn't officially decided until a week after I left.)

But I've learned this (moral number three, the most important): There will always be reasons not to take a risk. In fact, I was set to take a similar sabbatical two years ago when my then-bosses abruptly departed and my job changed. Not going then was the right decision, but it also made me more resolved to make it happen.

So I've worked hard to plan for what I can plan for. As for the rest, the unforeseen and the unpredictable, I'm basically hoping things work out. And as of this evening, I'm pleased to report, things seem to be working out quite nicely, indeed.

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