Seven Year Itch

The Benefits of a Sabbatical

written by Alissa Walker
photography by Mitch Tobias

 

One morning in early 2011entrepreneur and UCLA Anderson graduate James Green ('88) was on a boat with his family in St. Lucia, anchored in six feet of crystal blue water. Each morning, after the weather report, the radio operator in the marina would ask a trivia question, handing out a gift certificate to a local restaurant as a prize. On this particular morning, Green's family won. "When we gave the right answer, there was so much joy on the boat," he remembers. "Wow! We were giddy." He grins widely as he re-enacts the moment almost two years later-it was the high point of his year, he says.

Not quite the annual highlight you'd expect to hear from a highly successful executive. But so much had changed since the year before. After graduating from UCLA Anderson and working at Disney and Pixar, Green was in New York, where he'd been hired to run three startups in quick succession, all of which became progressively more difficult to run-and progressively less successful. Instead of getting excited about going to work, Green, who had fond memories of sailing as a boy in London, found himself plotting a way to get back on a boat. "I would have pictures of boats from magazines, like boat porn by the bed," he says. When he sold the latest startup, he told his family, they would set sail. "I remember the day the final signatures were on the paper and coming home to my wife and saying, "One year from now, we're going. I'm done.'"Selling the company was just the beginning. Green then sold their house and nearly all of their belongings-and he bought the Ondine, a 55-foot catamaran. For the next year, with his wife, their ten-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son as his crew, Green sailed down to the Caribbean, across the Atlantic and throughout the Aegean Sea. The entire family documented the journey through videos, photographs and blog posts.For Green, the adventure not only revitalized his career, it restored his passion for work. He found himself feeling like he did when he was working at his first startup, he says. "One could argue I'm doing the same thing as I was doing before-except I'm excited, I'm more imaginative and more fun to be around, and I'm more driven. There's really no downside."

Sagmeister

While sabbaticals are commonplace in academia and the arts, they're increasingly becoming a way for entrepreneurs to pursue projects that make them more valuable as both people and professionals. "You come back stronger," says Green. "Professionally, I have no doubt I am more successful, and I look more successful having done this than had I not."

In his popular 2009 TED talk, "The power of time off," New York-based graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister offers a theory on how time off is crucial for creative development. 3M and Google, for example, allow their employees to use 15-20 percent of their time to work on personal projects, which ends up yielding profitable new ideas for the companies. Riffing on that formula, every seven years Sagmeister embarks upon a highly structured year-long break, although calling it "time off" is actually a misnomer, he says. "I normally work more hours than in a regular year. We just don't do any client work, but instead pursue little experiments that might yield results for clients in the future." Sagmeister's off-the-clock experiments are so productive that the work which comes out of them influences his firm's work for the next seven years. From his 2000 sabbatical came a series of insights, which he then parlayed into client projects, site-specific artworks and the book, Things I've Learned In My Life So Far. And during his last sabbatical in Bali, Sagmeister spent a year studying his own pursuit of happiness. A museum exhibition named "The Happy Show" is currently touring North America and a documentary film is planned to debut later this year. But his clients win, too, he says. "Our clients get a free R&D year," he says. "They don't have to pay for it, but it still benefits them."

Green Family Adventures

In our current business climate, true time off for formulating new ideas is actually very hard to come by," says David Lewin, the Neil H. Jacoby Chair in Management at UCLA Anderson. Even though we might feel like e-mail and smartphones and the Internet might offer us "flexibility," it's actually allowing us to work more, he says. "I think this business of working at home, or on location or on the beach, the main thing it does is expand the work day. You're tethered to your work more than ever." Structured sabbaticals, he says, might be the way to truly achieve work-life balance by getting back some of that time that's been encroached upon by technology.But taking a sabbatical is not just about battling burnout, it's about embarking upon a project that will make you even more valuable to your company, your employer or your clients.  Professor Kevin  McCardle used his time away from Anderson last year to learn from other educational institutions. He spent time auditing a new MBA class at Duke so he could bring the curriculum back to UCLA, then headed to INSEAD's Singapore campus for a research project.  McCardle stresses the value that came from acting as a kind of  exchange student between countries and institutions. "I think the going away part is important," he says. "You go and you see how other places and other people do things. I came back with new ideas, new ways of working."

Like Green's global ports of call, Sagmeister's sojourn to Bali, or McCardle's trip to Singapore, traveling internationally was a goal of investment advisor Peter Cowen's ('85) sabbatical. In 1988, the UCLA Anderson graduate sold his computer networking startup and spent a year traveling around the world. He believes the act of traveling taught him invaluable skills as a young entrepreneur, namely how to meet and forge quick relationships with strangers. "You have to read people and decide who you spend time with," he says. "There are ways to read early signs about people to figure out who they are and decide if you want to spend time with them."

Cowen Image

His experiences abroad also came at an interesting time-he arrived in Eastern Europe as the walls were coming down in the Czech Republic-and what he saw first-hand ended up changing the trajectory of his career. "I saw all these American companies going into these fast-growing markets," he says, remembering, for example, standing on a beach in Phuket with the man who was bringing the Club Med brand there. Upon returning home, he began consulting with Israeli companies bringing products to the U.S. He was only able to do this after spending time in the country and learning the cultural nuances and negotiation styles, he says. "The by-product of learning about different cultures and appreciating them, then being able to relate that to my work, was an added benefit. I'd encourage people to go to places that are a lot different than ours." 

In fact, there's research to back up the claim that taking a sabbatical outside your own culture might be the most effective," says Margaret Shih, professor in management and organizations at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. She points to a 2010 study from the Journal of Applied Psychology that shows how making diverse cultural connections during international sabbaticals can increase creativity, making for more successful entrepreneurs. "They come back revitalized and rejuvenated, and their experience within a different culture allowed them to look at their work in a different way." 

Although the offering of sabbaticals may be seen as an unnecessary investment for a company-especially in a recession-they're  actually vital to a healthy corporate structure, and can lead to a more competitive workforce due to their ability to reduce stress and increase motivation, notes Shih. "It becomes more and more important as the economy is becoming more of a knowledge economy," she says. "People are most important to the company's knowledge, so they need to invest in the people."

Investing in employees was exactly the strategy Patricia Pogemiller was following when she helped to launch the sabbatical program at Deloitte, widely regarded to be one of the most progressive programs in the United States. Employees can choose from a one-month, unpaid sabbatical, or a longer, three- to six-month sabbatical where they receive 40% of their salaries. An application process asks employees to outline what they'd like to accomplish during their sabbaticals, which Pogemiller says have ranged from intensive language immersion programs to volunteering in local schools.  "Since 2009, only 350 employees have taken sabbaticals out of the firm's roughly 40,000 eligible employees, but the most important part is that the option exists," says Pogemiller, who currently serves as Deloitte's director of talent acquisition. "It doesn't cost a lot to maintain, it doesn't have a lot of participation, but it has lot of cachet," she says. "That's a huge benefit to our company to have it as part of our flexibility portfolio." It also creates tremendously loyal employees, enhancing Deloitte's  retention, says Pogemiller. "These are not typically people who leave."

How many people do you know who get a job at 22, and then retire at 65? I don't think there are very many jobs left in the world where change isn't built into the rhythm of what you do.

But as entrepreneurs increasingly choose less traditional career paths-like launching a one-person startup instead of joining a corporation-what officially counts as a sabbatical? And how long should they stay away? A serial entrepreneur going on a long self-initiated trip between startups isn't the same as an organization financing a year off for senior management. As the roles of business change, it's possible we'll see more riffs on the sabbatical format like Green's, where entrepreneurs choose to take time away between projects, rather than work within an institution for many years to earn sabbatical time. "How many people do you know who get a job at 22, and then retire at 65?" asks Green, who has already planned to take another year off when he transitions out of his current job. "I don't think there are very many jobs left in the world where change isn't built into the rhythm of what you do."Of course, taking time off in this unformalized way does come with a gamble. By the time the Ondine reached the islands of Greece, the trip had become more expensive than expected-Green says he spent double what he planned to, dipping heavily into his savings. Even more troubling to Green was that he started to become worried about his ability to get hired when he returned to the real world. But something amazing happened when he flew back to the U.S. for interviews. "Everyone wanted to meet me, and getting meetings and trying to get new work was easier than it'd ever been," he says. "This made what I had done before look much more successful. It repositioned me." The key to making his sabbatical so marketable, Green thinks, is the fact that he dutifully chronicled the entire experience online. "I had this dream and I wanted to do it, so I went and did it, and here it is," he says. "I don't know if this was true 20, 40, 50 years ago, but today people like people who make choices and take risks and take control of their lives."As he began his new role as the CEO of the online advertising company Magnetic in October 2011, Green's sabbatical made him somewhat of a corporate legend-he was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article, and when Magnetic announced his hiring, the press release included several paragraphs about the Ondine as well. But it's clear that his value isn't measured by the last company he bought or sold. On his resume, sandwiched between two CEO roles is perhaps his most important job description yet: "Captain at Ondine."

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