Winning your freedom to explore

Asking your employer whether you can go on a sabbatical may stir up all kinds of anxiety. How do I justify such a request? Simple. Just say that Winston Churchill went on one and had he not, we could have lost World War 2.

When Churchill was fired in 1929 he disappeared abroad in what he called his “wilderness years”.

One of his curiosities took him to Germany to research the Battle of Blenheim. While in Munich he was in a position to meet Adolf Hitler, who at this stage was considered by most of Europe as a model leader. Churchill knew very little of his character or doctrine but had heard rumors of his already violent treatment of the Jews, which he discussed openly with the man who offerred to arrange the introduction, a German-American businessman named Ernst ‘Putzi’ Hanfstaengl.

Churchill waited for two days but Hitler, who appeared at the Regina Palast hotel almost daily to dazzle people less famous than the British politician, did not show up.

The snub aroused Churchill’s suspicion and together with witnessing the aggressive marches of crazed youths preparing to die for the German fatherland, he went back to London to make a landmark speech in parliament calling for action against the Nazi’s – a line that would isolate him politically but which would ultimately bring him back to power to lead his country at its darkest hour.

A sabbatical is without doubt a key source of experiential learning, innovative ideas and a key source of professional renewal yet employers, to their detriment, don’t always see the value.  There is a new battle brewing and you can be the leader to prepare not only your company but your country. Here is how:

Prepare your company for battle.

The Deloitte’s Shift Index shows the average life expectancy of a Fortune 500 company has declined from around 75 years half a century ago to less than 15 years today. Corporates are being challenged by more innovative new start up’s. If they do not give employees the opportunity to go out and discover key innovations that can be developed in house, they risk losing key talent to rising competitors or losing the innovation battle all together.

Key Action: Create a trend reconnaissance plan that you will explore on your sabbatical and identify which ones relate to your company?

State your ambitions for leadership

A paper by professor William Maddeux of INSEAD has shown how managers with multicultural experience are promoted more frequently because they develop creativity, social intelligence and emotional resilience- all key by products of a purpose driven sabbatical. HR managers are continually professing that they are short of key talent so why not propose your sabbatical as your leadership boot camp.

Key action: Use your next performance management review to identify your key growth areas and then identify sabbatical experiences that can develop them.

Set up a reconnaissance station

There is also the option to reconnaissance a new market off your own back by throwing in a few meetings and doing some on the ground customer research in the countries you visit. You may even be seconded to another country for a period of time.

Key action: Organise a meeting with your strategy or marketing department and identify countries, projects or research challenges that you can put yourself forward to explore.

Know when you are the weakest link.

HR managers want engaged staff in their company, management want to invest huge amounts of time and money in leadership potential that are actually going to stay, organisations want employees to take ownership of their careers. In spite of this organisations are often reluctant to give employees the freedom to clarify they are in the right place. Certainty is power and someone who returns to their role after a sabbatical will bring a whole new level of purpose and focus. If not, they will make way for staff who will really be assets to the organisation over time.

Key action: Create a list of all the different careers you would like to experiment with and who knows, your company may be able to offer you work experience in other roles or in other countries.

Go AWOL                                                                              

Sometimes your company just lacks the vision to see how a sabbatical could be a win-win or you want a period of time with a complete blank canvass. Often we just need to cast ourselves into the void to embrace uncertainty, surprise and adventure. This may be time to travel, reflect or just open yourself to possibility.

Key Action: If you are going to cut the cord, don’t see your previous company as a closed door. Create a blog and include your HR Dept and fellow colleugues. Even though you may be on your own quest you will enjoy key insights and make new contacts for the benefit of your old organisation. Not only will you enhance your reputation but you may just change the culture of the company for the better.   

Set up a secret war room

“Facts are better than dreams”. Winston Churchill famously quoted this when explaining why he set up a secret office that would give him unbiased and concrete information on the war. Knowing full well that his generals would dilute, rationalise or bias certain information out of fear of reprisal, he wanted the best information to make effective decisions.

When developing your own sabbatical plan, we are hit with a wave of new careers, packaged experiences, get rich quick schemes or silver bullet degrees that overwhelm and limit our ability to make effective decisions. Create a coaching relationship with someone who offers the unbiased, non-judgmental and objectives awareness around how you can maximize your sabbatical. Only you can embrace your own unique vocational journey so it is important to work through limiting beliefs and value conflicts with someone who can create a custom designed experience.