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Unplug to Recharge

Digital Library > Building and Inspiring an Organization > Time management “Unplug to Recharge”

Why getting away — with a purpose — is good for business.

You can’t be an effective leader without getting out of the office — at least occasionally. Escape may not be easy, but it’s critical, say entrepreneurs who share their thoughts and strategies for profitable R&R.

Unplanned R&R

Norm Alesi learned about taking a break the hard way.

President of Laurus Technologies, a $7.5 million systems integrator in Itasca, Ill., Alesi was playing volleyball last summer when he tore his Achilles tendon.

Alesi wound up at home in a cast, more or less immobile for the next two weeks, which forced him to manage Laurus remotely and spend less time doing so. Instead of working 10 or more hours a day, Alesi cut back to two hours. This was a real turning point, he says: "I realized that I’d been working in my business as opposed to on my business, that much of the work I was doing was busy work. I had mentored the right people to do what needed to be done — I just had to step back and let them do it."

Since then Alesi has restructured his schedule. He devotes two days a week to regular business and two days for networking and peer-group activities. For example, he’s become more involved in the Young Entrepreneurs’ Organization (YEO) and now serves as the learning chairman for his local chapter. Alesi devotes another day to home activities: coaching his children’s soccer team, helping with their homework and attending school activities. "I’m also helping my wife, an entrepreneur in her own right, get her early-stage business more entrenched," he adds.

Alesi says the experience has taken him to a different level. "I now have more positive energy. I no longer feel overwhelmed and buried in minutiae, which helps me look at the macro picture," he explains. "Allowing my employees to grow into a broader role has made them happier. There’s a more upbeat atmosphere around our office. And our business has been getting better — I’m hoping it’s related to the changes I’ve made.

"My life seems more balanced," he concludes. "You don’t have to bury yourself in work to make your company successful. If you have the right processes for your team and allow employees to grow into those roles, the business really can run itself."

Change of venue

"It makes me angry to hear some CEOs brag about not taking vacations — as if it were a badge of honor," says Susan Ascher, founder of The Ascher Group, a $6 million human-resources recruiting firm in Roseland, N.J. "Not taking a break is just plain foolish. Getting away allows you to recharge and get clarity on how to build your business."

Since 1990 Ascher has traveled to Nantucket each summer for a month-long vacation. Although she brings some work along and checks in occasionally, she believes the change of venue is key to regrouping: "It gives me the chance to daydream, as opposed to being in the office where I’m surrounded by things that need to be done and where I am constantly making to-do lists. When I’m out of that environment and sitting on a beach, it’s much easier to concentrate on major issues that will drive my company forward."

For example, while at Nantucket in the early ’90s, Ascher read Charles Handy’s "The Age of Unreason" (Harvard Business School Press, 1998). "That’s when I got the idea to re-engineer my company from a search firm to a contracting business," she says. A few years later, Ascher returned from another vacation ready to re-brand; the time away helped her to recognize that human resources was becoming a focal point of her business.

Helping employees grow

Last spring Linda Fodrini-Johnson found herself venting over some minor accounting errors. "I said something like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ which alarmed the employee I was working with," recalls Fodrini-Johnson, founder of Eldercare Services, a $4 million geriatric-care-management company in Walnut Creek, Calif.

A therapist by training, Fodrini-Johnson recognized that she was overreacting to the situation and practiced a little "self-therapy." Her prescription: some time out.

A few months later Fodrini-Johnson took a two-month sabbatical from Eldercare Services. She traveled for the first two weeks, but spent the remaining time at home, where she established a daily regimen that included reading, meditating, journaling and physical exercise.

The time off gave Fodrini-Johnson a chance for personal growth and introspection. It also recharged her creative energies: During her sabbatical she conceived a new product for Eldercare Services and began a book.

Yet equally important, Fodrini-Johnson’s absence bolstered her staff’s confidence. "One of my employees told me how much it meant to them that I trusted them enough to leave," she says. "Yet I don’t think the issue was so much me trusting them as that they learned to trust themselves. When you’re a creative problem-solver, people naturally bring all their problems to you. If you’re not there, it forces people to make decisions."

Out-of-town epiphanies

Like many entrepreneurs, when Frank Riordan launched his firm in 1996, he was working around the clock. "It was no weekends off and lots of late nights for two years," recalls Riordan, founder of DMC Inc., a $1.5 million engineering and software-development consultancy in Chicago.

Yet gradually, Riordan has moved from taking short breaks to a bona fide vacation: Last summer he flew to Tanzania for an African safari. "The trip was a dual adventure — the safari itself and the fact I didn’t have any contact with my office for 18 days," says Riordan, noting it was his first time away without a laptop or even a cell phone. "It was the experience of a lifetime. We saw amazing animals — almost too many to count or even remember. But what was probably most liberating for me was the realization that I really could get away."

His absence caused no fallout. "I wasn’t missed at all," says Riordan. "In fact, my first week back I had almost nothing to do." On one hand, the notion of not being missed was troubling, he admits, "but then I realized it meant I had done my job and set up the organization properly. My goal is to be the least-important person at my company."

Like Riordan, Lauren Evans barely stopped working after launching her company in 1993. Yet in 1998 Evans traveled to Australia to visit friends. "I was sitting on a beach there and thought, ‘This is a stupid way to live — working so much,’ " says Evans, founder of Pinyon Environmental in Lakewood, Colo., an environmental consulting firm with 12 employees and $1.3 million in annual revenues.

Evans resolved to reduce her hours and to take a vacation every year, preferably overseas.

Sticking to those goals hasn’t been as difficult as Evans thought: "A lot of it was simple time-management and organizational skills," she says. "For example, planning the next day before leaving the office at night and asking myself if something is truly a priority or if I just think it is."

Today Evans works about 47 hours a week and no longer goes into the office on weekends — and she’s getting just as much done as before. What’s more, she has taken several long trips, including visits to South America and New Zealand. "Getting away from your business helps you to disconnect emotionally, which helps you make better decisions," says Evans.

Writer: TJ Becker. tj@lowe.org

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