Sabbaticals have become a lot like stock options. An idea that once seemed exciting and alluring now seems like just another fringe benefit. Sabbaticals are “a retention tool, a technique to avoid burnout,” says Aimee Chamernik of Hewitt Associates, a human-resources consulting firm that has designed sabbaticals for such establishment companies as Nike and Ralston-Purina. The more common sabbaticals become, the less compelling they become.
Which means that it’s time to start over: Are you ready for a radical sabbatical? Forget spending a few months – after 10 years of service – to dabble in pottery or to learn Italian. People are using radical sabbaticals to question their priorities, to challenge their life assumptions, to reinvent themselves. “More people are granting themselves extended time off to take control of their lives,” says Nella Barkley, president of Crystal-Barkley Corp., which designs individualized work-life plans. “They see a sabbatical as a clean slate, a chance to change their relationship to work.”
Rogers Weed and Julie Bick, a husband-and-wife team, are a case in point. Weed, 34, had spent five years at Microsoft as a Windows product manager. Bick, 33, was a veteran Microsoftie as well. When Weed and Bick left their jobs, they left unvested stock options on the table. Still, Weed was unfazed: “You don’t get to wind back the clock on your life, no matter how much money you make.”
The duo spent the first 10 weeks of their sabbatical traveling through Asia. But they didn’t treat their time away merely as a ticket to ride; they wrote new tickets for their careers. Bick transitioned from software programs to punditry, writing a book called All I Really Need to Know in Business I Learned at Microsoft (Pocket Books, 1997). The book made waves, wound up on several best-seller lists, and started its author on a career as a writer and lecturer. Weed, meanwhile, made a transition from software programs to politics. He signed on as a volunteer with Tina Podlodowski, a Microsoft veteran who’d been elected to the Seattle City Council. Among his other civic contributions, Weed laid the groundwork for adding a collection of online transactions – reserving softball fields, paying parking tickets – to the city’s Web site.
After nearly a year, Weed went back to Microsoft with a new set of credentials. One of his former bosses, who was aware of Weed’s passion for politics, learned about his sabbatical and offered him a job as publisher of Slate (www.slate.com), the company’s online political magazine. Weed jumped at the chance. “The time off helped me gain perspective,” he says. “It’s easy to put your head down, look up 20 years later, and wonder about all the things you didn’t do.”
Linda Yates and Paul Holland, another husband-and-wife team, also traveled on their sabbatical. And although they returned to jobs not unlike the ones they’d left, they came back as changed people. Yates, 35, a veteran management consultant, is CEO of Strategos, a high-powered firm cofounded by Gary Hamel, coauthor of “Competing for the Future” (Harvard Business School Press, 1994). Holland, 37, is a veteran of startup mania. He was vice president of European operations at Pure Software – a high-tech highflier that went public at $17 per share, peaked at nearly $44 per share, and was acquired for about $650 million less than two years after the IPO.
“We were cubicle convicts who broke out of our cubicles,” recalls Yates. She and Holland stayed on the run for seven months. They visited some 15 countries – including Botswana, Bhutan, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Thailand – and engaged in a whirlwind of hiking, mountain biking, sea kayaking, and volcano climbing.
The two cubicle convicts returned as bronzed adventure travelers. Yates rejoined Strategos. Holland reentered the world of startups as vice president of worldwide sales at Kana Communications Inc. in Palo Alto. (Pure Software was sold during his sabbatical.) So what changed? Everything. “In our business, you spend your life looking ahead to the next meeting, the next presentation,” says Holland. “On this trip, I felt ‘present’ in my own life. That feeling hasn’t gone away.”
The trip made Yates a better listener: “My idea of listening used to be waiting for someone else to stop talking. I learned to sit, stay quiet, observe. In August, we passed the one-year anniversary of our return. I draw on the experience every day.”