My Six Months Off from McKinley

My Six Months Off from McKinley
Person with a lake and mountain in the background

A lot of organizations aspire to really “be something” in the eyes of our employees, members and clients. We want to be seen as innovative and important to the field, of course, but also invested in our teams. And because the incoming millennial workforce has put a well-documented emphasis on work/life balance and the need for employers to offer a more holistic approach to benefits (including telecommuting, flexible scheduling and unlimited vacation), we only benefit by embracing our aspirations.

I’m writing this blog post after experiencing first-hand what it means for an organization to “embrace its aspirations.” I’ve just finished a six-month sabbatical and am returning to my role as Senior Vice President of Consulting at McKinley Advisors completely refreshed, refocused and more grateful than ever to be a part of this team.

During my time off, I thought a lot about personal identity and professional contribution and how to strike a balance between both—not just for myself, but for McKinley. What I discovered was that, done correctly, offering sabbaticals and other opportunities for staff to recharge does more than just refresh a single team member or attract young talent—it also enables teams to rise to new occasions and boosts the retention of valued staff.

Organizational Benefits

Offering extended time off can be a daunting proposition. If a key team member is out for one, two or even six months at a time, it’s easy to imagine that the absence could translate into decreased output, missed opportunities and a sense that the organization is putting its key strategies and even mission on hold. But done correctly, sabbaticals offer a chance for other team members to develop new skills by filling different roles, effectively strengthening the entire operation.

Consider what it would mean for one of your high-performing team members to be gone until May. Think about the skill sets your organization would lack, the slack that would have to be picked up both day-to-day and in the long-term. While it may seem anxiety-inducing at first glance, the absence also creates an opportunity to bring other talent into situations they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to. They’d have to think further, try new things and, as a result, they (and your team) would become stronger.

An organization that is willing and able to take a flexible approach to employee retention also benefits from the goodwill it builds in staff.  Sabbatical is a real, meaningful reward for hard work, and offering it can reshape the work-for-reward structure of your organization, putting a premium on employee excellence as a means to earn extended time off. For me, it tested the McKinley values I’ve believed in since my first day on the job over ten years ago; it proved that we’re a company of words and action.

What was the benefit to McKinley? When I first left on sabbatical, I found myself on a flight to New Zealand, sitting next to another consultant. Though desperately in need of a recharge and some time in the mountains (and not at a desk), I couldn’t help but “talk shop” with my seatmate. That incident convinced me that I hadn’t lost my passion for the association community and McKinley. What I needed wasn’t a different career path; I needed to reconnect with myself as a person.

How It Works

If extended time off is something you or your association is considering, it will be important to establish clear guidelines and qualifications. After all, you can’t simply offer this to anyone at any time. Instead, you’ll want to develop a method for recognizing exceptional staff commitment and performance in a deliberate, meaningful way.

Will it be three months or six? Paid or unpaid? What processes are in place to ensure that all of a person’s responsibilities are being accounted for? Asking questions like this ensures that you aren’t merely leaving the change to chance—and that both the organization and the employee are set up for success.

But please don’t make the mistake I made by getting caught up in the “not the right time” mentality. It was easy for me to build a long list of reasons to delay the sabbatical—to the point that the sabbatical became a need and not simply an aspiration. It’s never the right time, which also means it’s never the wrong time. If one of your key team members is asking, there’s a good chance she needs the break now.

In Summary

In the course of six months on sabbatical, I recharged, I planned my future and I confirmed that McKinley is without a doubt the place I want to be. My colleagues generously made it possible for me to reconnect to my life outside the office. I logged hundreds of miles on the trail, slept in a tent surrounded by wombats and wallabies, met my friends’ new babies, watched meteor showers, cared for a friend with declining health and even bought a getaway cabin in Colorado.

But it’s not just me that’s changed. In my absence, dozens of team members have stepped up to the plate and grown. We’ve attracted some strong talent. We’ve solidified our reputation as an organization that cares about its employees. We’ve created opportunities for people to feel valued. Next week, the McKinley team will come together for our annual Thanksgiving potluck (an event that magically seems to happen even though I know there are a lot of staff working hard behind the scenes to make it happen). This year, I’ll look around that table at all of my colleagues who made this year of adventure possible, and I’ll give a special word of thanks.