Take a micro-sabbatical

I opened my own and my elderly mother’s end-of-year financial statements as if they contained moldy oranges that I didn’t want to smell. I’m not sure which was worse: Telling my Mom that she’d have to cut back on Christmas gifts for grandkids or realizing I’ll likely delay my retirement. I thought back to 2001 when I’d taken a year-long sabbatical and wondered if I should lament the financial opportunity cost. That’s when I realized that even from this precarious 2009 perch, I had no regrets about that year. Putting my professional life on hold was as positively transformative to my experience of life today as the four years I spent getting a doctorate degree has been consequential to my strategic thinking skills. I am a strong proponent of sabbaticals. But let’s be realistic. Unless you’re a recent graduate who chooses a year of service work over trying to find a career job in the worst job market since the Great Depression, you’re unlikely to want to invest in a sabbatical today. I can understand that carefulness, and I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to spend 2001 improving my writing skills and living life on my daughter’s schedule had I known my retirement accounts would drop by a third in 2009. Yet despite the natural tendency for us to react to fearful times by doubling our work efforts, that is exactly what we should not do. Let me explain. First, ignore economists’ projections because they’re using models created in steady times to predict today’s anything-but-steady economy’s future trends. Consumption’s hit a pivot point and even an enormous government stimulus (including its multiplier effect) won’t fill the gap given our national debt. What we have to do today, therefore, is learn to live contentedly with much greater uncertainty. Purposeful direction coupled with flexibility to respond to a highly uncertain and likely erratically changing environment have become vital individual and organizational attributes going forward. Staying on the tightrope wire connecting focus and flexibility is the challenge. President Obama has this grace, which is why he can remain calm in the face of our national crisis. We need to master the same calmness to best direct our work and personal lives. I believe the only way to achieve such calmness is to just “STOP” occasionally. Take a micro-sabbatical. Step away from daily routines for a day. Spend time by yourself in nature or journaling to reflect on values that you want to guide actions and decisions going forward. Spend time with people and in experiences that you love. Listen for what fuels your passionate spirit. Your business team should spend time off-site—away from managing revenue shortfalls—rethinking your company’s business model. The book I initiated during my sabbatical argues that business model innovation—not product differentiation or branding alone—will become a requirement for organizational success in the next decade. Or, as my friend Barry Callen said, “I get it. If you can’t be your industry’s Wal-Mart, avoid becoming its Sears. The book teaches how to Target-ize.” This advice applies to nonprofits, too. Spend some time away from work with professional friends creating a personal strategic plan by answering important questions about your life: What am I passionate about? What life’s purpose reflects my story and would excite me about the future? At my death or retirement, what do I want others to say about my accomplishments and values? What key milestones will I have met in five years if I’m on track? Who’s vital to my future happiness and success? What most deters my happiness and success? What unique gifts do I bring to this world? What latent talents might I develop? Where and how can I best apply my gifts and talents given opportunities I have or could create? What outcomes can I commit to for 2009? Fear is a powerful temptress for forgetting what is most sacred in our lives and losing confidence in our ability to overcome whatever happens. Uncertain times stir up this kind of fear. Take a few one-day sabbaticals this year and you’ll move more joyously and smoothly through potentially tumultuous seas. Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant and co-author of Beyond Price: Differentiate Your Company’s Business Model in Ways that Really Matter (Greenleaf Book Group, $22.95). Contact Kay at kay@plantescompany.com.

Madison Magazine - March 2009
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