Take a Break! Leaders Benefit From Sabbaticals

So you think you're indispensable. Think again.

A new study by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services shows that non profits and their leaders benefit if the top dog takes time off. The study, Creative Disruptions surveyed the nonprofit leaders who had taken time off, the staff members who replaced them temporarily, and the funders who made it all possible.

nonprofit leaders, sabbaticals, capacity-building, nonprofit CEOThe big "a-ha" moment was the realization that the organization won't fall apart if the CEO leaves. It did not mean that the CEO should be fired; it did mean that the CEO and the board gained a much deeper appreciation for the abilities of the staff.

That alone makes this idea worth a second look. Non profits are often led by dedicated founders who "are" the organization or who have done things "their way" so long that new ideas and technology aren't even brought up.

Employees are assets and should be appreciated as such. Letting go just a bit may make everyone – leader, board, and staff – aware of just how valuable a good staff is and just how many new and interesting ideas it can generate.

The post-sabbatical result for many organizations was more shared decision-making, more delegation of responsibility and, often, a new definition of what the CEO really should be doing.

There were downsides: some found that staff was not ready to take over and needed training; others found that the CEO had been the chief fundraiser and revenue slid during the sabbatical.

The CEOs who participated described themselves as rejuvenated with new ideas for doing their jobs better and even for re-structuring the organization. Some came up with a whole new way of delivering services or new programs.

The second-tier staff who stepped up to do the CEO's job found out whether they really wanted to be the planned successor: some did, some didn't. And they came up with ideas for improving operations.

But beware: a sabbatical is not the same as taking a long vacation! The success of the sabbaticals in the report was due to careful planning and strong support from funders.

Funders not only paid the salary of the CEO and, often, extra support staff, they also provided pre-sabbatical planning for the CEO, the board, and the staff. The organizations weren't left in the lurch, without a leader. A plan was put in place ahead of time, interim CEOs were selected, and the board was brought in as well.

Funders concluded that for a small investment – $25,000 to $50,000 – they got a big return:

  • revitalized leadership
  • better governance
  • capacity-building in the second tier of management
  • stronger relationship with the grantee

Funders are, of course, crucial to this capacity-building, re-energizing technique. Their money is needed as is their training and planning. But the most critical contribution of funders, according to the report, was "to use their standing in their communities to create a culture of 'permission' for leaders and their boards to support sabbaticals."

In other words, funders have to acknowledge that it's OK to need a break.

As pointed out on Crain's New York, that paid off for at least one such grantee – The Support Center – when its CEO was hospitalized. Because he'd had a sabbatical earlier, staff was ready to step into the breach and carry on, confidently.

The concept of the sabbatical is not new. Academics have long had access to such programs. And, in the for-profit world, short sabbaticals are common, especially where creativity is part of the job. The Harvard Business Review describes this phenomenon.

The benefits in all realms seems to be recharging and new ideas.

Do you think your organization would benefit from a CEO-sabbatical? Do you think the benefits would be worth it or could $25,000 be used better elsewhere? Does your organization have the second-tier to handle a CEO sabbatical? Should all employees get a sabbatical after 5 or 7 years of service to a company?

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