Need A Succession Plan? Take A Sabbatical

Long periods of time off let you test people for the next role.

By David BurkusAuthor, “Under New Management”

The majority of small business owners don’t have a succession plan, according to several surveys. While the exact percentage moves around with each survey, it’s almost always above 51 percent, and for a variety of reasons. Chief among them always seems to be that leaders are too busy doing other things to think about it.

Surprisingly, there’s a way to solve both problems at once: take a sabbatical.

Recent research, and the experience of companies from McDonald’s to Intel to the Motley Fool, has found that time off can be used to help stress test the organizational chart and experiment with potential leaders in interim roles.

In one study, researchers surveyed 61 leaders at five different nonprofit organizations with sabbatical programs. Each organization had slightly different requirements, but all required at least 3 months off and discouraged executives from visiting the office during the sabbatical period.

The researchers found the majority of leaders surveyed said that the interim leaders (those who filled in for them during their leave) were more effective and responsible when the sabbatees returned. Many even reported those interim leaders continuing some responsibilities and making the overall leader-subordinate relationship more collaborative. Some organizations even reported feeling much more confident in their succession planning since the interim leaders were able to try out the role and assess if they were qualified and, if not, what development opportunities were still needed. One firm was conducting a national search for a future executive director but ended up hiring the deputy director because she had done so well as the interim leader.

While the research on sabbaticals in the workplace is relatively new, sabbaticals themselves are not. McDonald’s has had a sabbatical program in place for their executives for several years. Many technology companies like Intel and Adobe offer them.

At the very least, having people rotate out for an extended period of time allows organizations to stress test their organizational chart. It gives potential leaders a chance to try out for the next role and it gives senior leaders a chance to see what happens when key people are suddenly not a part of the company anymore. That’s why Motley Fool has run a surprise vacation program for several years. Employees names are chosen at random and given two weeks paid vacation, but there’s a catch: it must be taken within the next four weeks. The idea is to make sure no single employee is so critical that the company falls apart.

You may not ever create a formal succession plan, with developmental goals for future leaders and a set timeline. However, by encouraging yourself and your employees to take time away…you’ll be helping prepare everyone for any sudden departures. For these and a lot of other reasons time off in the form of sabbaticals really pays off.

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