The CEO’s guide to sabbaticals: how to take extended time off as a leader

While many firms offer extended leave, their CEOs rarely take that option. Should more leaders consider going on sabbatical – and how can they ensure that things run smoothly in their absence?

231024 Ceo Sabbaticals

In August, Vice Media’s chief people officer, Daisy Auger-Domínguez, ended the internal email announcing her departure from the company by saying that was going on a “radical sabbatical”. She has since described her prolonged time out from the business world as “rejuvenating”, but not everyone in the C-suite feels so able to take extended leave

It’s particularly rare for a CEO to go on sabbatical, for instance. The leader, usually the public face of their company, is accountable to the board of directors and shareholders, carrying the can for all key business decisions. Given the weighty responsibilities of the role, it would seem hard for the holder to justify taking much more than a couple of weeks off at a time.

“There’s still a lot of stigma attached to taking an extended break as a CEO,” says Ben Bryant, professor of leadership and organisation at the International Institute for Management Development, Lausanne. “People will interpret that move in different ways. Some may think it’s an admission that the leader can no longer cope with their workload. They may see it as a sign of weakness.”

In his experience, CEOs tend to go on sabbatical if they’re facing extreme burnout. Sometimes it’s a sign that they’re about to leave permanently, either of their own accord or with gentle encouragement from the board. This can be particularly problematic for a plc, harming its share price when investors make assumptions about the fitness of its leader. 

Are CEOs becoming more open to sabbaticals?

Yet there are signs that views are changing. Kristo Käärmann, CEO of fintech firm Wise, is currently taking a three-month sabbatical to spend time with his family, for instance, while Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of LGBTQ campaign group Glaad, has enthused about how her sabbatical has benefited not only her but also her colleagues.

“I hope this becomes more common, because I think it‘s an extremely good move for personal development,” Bryant says. “If CEOs are taking a sabbatical as a chance to reflect, it can only be a good thing for their corporations.” 

Amy Williams, founder and CEO of Good-Loop, recently took four weeks off to explore the US’s national parks. The firm offers all employees an extra month of paid leave after five years’ service, but Williams was initially reluctant to take the opportunity herself. 

“As CEO, you’re always so busy,” she says. “There’s always going to be a reason not to do it.”

I brought back new ideas for how we could grow the business

But, after seeing how many employees returning from sabbatical seemed to have been reinvigorated by their time away from business, Williams was eventually persuaded to follow suit. 

“And someone told me: ‘If you don’t use your entitlement, you‘re signalling to others that they don’t have permission to take time off or that they’ll be judged for doing so,’” she recalls.

It wasn’t a complete break: Williams did check in with the business once a week for progress updates. Nonetheless, she claims that her time away helped her to become more patient and manage stress more effectively. 

“Something that feels urgent is often in the wash the following week. It was a good lesson in maintaining a sense of perspective,” she says.

Simon Bacher, co-founder and CEO of language learning app Ling, is a keen traveller. After dedicating six years to building the Thai-based business, he decided that he needed two months off to “recharge the batteries. This was about taking a break and seeing how well the business could run without me.”

Bacher went to Mexico during his time away. He swam in sea caves, dived with sharks and also spent time with the country’s burgeoning digital nomad community.

“I brought back new ideas for how we could grow the business – big-picture ideas about where we could be in 10 years,” he says. “That would never have happened if I’d just stayed and kept running the day-to-day operations.” 

Although Ling has no formal policy entitling others in the company to take extended leave, Bacher remains open to the idea.

Company-wide benefits

Williams notes that her absence enabled members of her team to take on extra responsibilities. She believes that it was a valuable developmental experience for those colleagues, enabling them to practise some new skills. 

“I noticed some real glimmers of incredible leadership among them while I was away,” she says. “I would never have seen those if I’d been there, because I’d have dealt with many of the issues myself. It made me aware of where I create ceilings for my team.”

It’s made me far more trusting in my leadership team

Before he went on sabbatical, Bacher had spent time restructuring the organisation, delegating some of his work to colleagues. The changes were designed to give him and his wife, Khwanoi Kanyarat, who co-founded Ling, more time to devote to strategic planning. 

“In the two months I was away, we didn’t have a problem,” he says. “It’s made me more hands-off and far more trusting in my leadership team. It means I can focus on other matters of importance to the business.” 

How to make sure the business runs smoothly while you’re away

But, like Williams, he couldn’t switch off totally from work while on sabbatical, given that the smooth running of the business was still his ultimate responsibility. 

Bryant says: “There can be a mutual force where people still feel the need to run decisions past the CEO. Similarly, the CEO may want to keep an eye on things. It can be hard for them to cut themselves off completely.”

To help put a clear dividing line between her work and time off, Williams hired a virtual assistant to sift through her email inbox and notify her of any urgent matters. 

“Every Monday I’d have a call for a couple of hours with my PA, who helped me to manage all of the communications across the week and keep in touch,” she says. “That worked really well.” 

Bacher admits that it was harder for him to draw that line. He found himself regularly reading Slack messages on his phone. But he adds: “When I saw that I could really rely on the people I’d delegated to, I checked in less and less.”

He would advise other leaders contemplating a sabbatical to start planning their breaks months in advance, to “set up a system of how your responsibilities will be delegated”. 

Bacher also found the so-called OKR system of management, which focuses on objectives and key results, to be a useful system for his colleagues to follow in his absence. 

If you don’t have that sort of structure in place, it’s hard to take a step back because you must continue setting the direction,” he warns. 

Although business leaders must put in extensive groundwork to ensure a successful sabbatical, taking an extended break offers clear benefits, both for them and the wider organisation. Whether it‘s time spent coming up with new business ideas or simply recharging the batteries, a sabbatical can be just as refreshing for the CEO as any other employee.