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Plugged in or Checked out?

How the C-suite Vacations

Executive checks email while on vacation

In decades past, the question of executives taking a vacation was typically more about “if” and “when”, not so much about “how”. And by “how”, I don’t mean deciding between a safari in Kenya safari, a private island getaway in the Seychelles, or a Norwegian cruise (though, sign me up for any of those). Rather, I mean how connected an executive will be while away, and how much time she or he will spend on work, if any.

Before smartphones, virtual private networks, international phone plans and omnipresent Wi-Fi, getting work done while sitting on the beach or from the chalet wasn’t really an option. Today, 70 percent of professionals admit to working while on vacation. More than a quarter (28 percent) said they wind up working more than they had planned, and we imagine that that number is even higher for top executives.

You feel like you need another vacation to recover from the overwhelming inbox and backlog of challenges!

While the benefits of a complete disconnect are copious, it’s not always a reasonable or even preferable. Tackling that neglected inbox upon return can be more stressful to some leaders than having a measured, disciplined approach to staying in touch with key projects and people while away. One executive characterized the not-working option as self-defeating, saying, "You feel like you need another vacation to recover from the overwhelming inbox and backlog of challenges!"

However, all those glances at email or Slack can often lead you down the rabbit hole, leaving your spouse wondering what the point of that long flight was (unless he or she is right next to you on their own laptop.) “My family does complain,” admitted a client I polled for this article, revealing that he checked email “two or three times an hour”.

Here are a few things for you to think about as you consider your vacation “how”:

Create a Getaway Plan

No matter what your personal policy—some work, all work or no work (all valid options)—communicate your plan at least two weeks before your departure. Inform key clients and team members about your intentions in order to manage their expectations and preparation, and create a better balance for yourself and your family.

The most important thing, I have found, is to set up an effective out-of-office email.

Prime your lieutenants for success before your departure with the information and resources they need to keep matters moving. Think of this as an opportunity for direct reports to step into the boss’ shoes for a week or two, and test their abilities. Who knows? They just may find a better way to address an organizational issue or solve a problem in an innovative way. When done correctly and genuinely, handing the baton to key managers in your absence accelerates trust and deepens working relationships.

If you do plan to work, establish clear parameters for when and whether to interrupt. Then relax, catch some rays, and trust your team.

The President of an insurance services firm describes his approach: “I give my team blocks of time when I am available and when I will be checking emails, texts and voice mail. When I do this, I find I spend less time during the day checking emails.”

“For those vacationing with me, it takes a lot of stress off of scheduling activities,” he adds. “They know there will be small blocks of time I may need to deal with work issues.”

"The most important thing, I have found, is to set up an effective out-of-office email," says the Chief Financial Officer of an environmental consulting firm. "Coworkers and external parties know to limit their emails and only focus on the most important communications."

Get out of the Weeds and Smell the Roses

Top executives typically live and die by their communication with the organization, clients, banks, law firms, and so on. The idea of not being available to make a decision, steer a discussion, or keep the heat on a deal or major initiative can be panic-inducing for many an executive.

I polled one client—the Chief Talent Officer at an Am Law 200 firm—about his vacation habits: “I personally don’t feel comfortable disconnecting completely. I have this fear that I may miss a great opportunity if I don’t jump on it, or that I may be the only one who has the information.”

He does admit—acknowledging the irony—that what he does, is not what he recommends to his associates:

I recognize that my approach is not healthy or correct. I preach it because I want the firm to have a healthy culture.

The mental rest one gets by stepping away from that black mirror is important; it can help us destress and unclutter an always-on brain, which leads to higher creativity and problem-solving capabilities.

If you must take a working vacation, work on big-picture items. Leave your smart phone in the hotel room and take along a notepad and pen instead. Inspiration tends to strike when we get ourselves out of our routines and in front of a sweeping vista, exquisite dish, masterpiece painting, or a seemingly banal but eye-opening exchange with a local.

“As an entrepreneur or business leader,” says Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, “if you didn't come back from your vacation with some ideas about how to shake things up, it's time to consider making some changes.” Inspiration will have better luck reaching you if you aren’t checking your phone for an email reply or ruminating on a difficult conversation you had with a client that morning. And inspired leaders make inspiring leaders.

Practice What You Preach

Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix, has stated publicly that he takes about six weeks of vacation a year, and he wants his employees to value time off as well. "I take a lot of vacation and I'm open about it internally to try to set a good example." Encouraging vacation time and unplugging is thought of as key to innovation and growth at Netflix, and Mr. Hastings has communicated that clearly.

Few U.S. employees receive as many as six weeks off—the average is 10 paid vacation days for private sector employees after one year of employment—and what PTO they do earn they often don’t take. Glassdoor reported in 2017 that “the average U.S. employee (of those who receive vacation/paid time off) has only taken about half (54 percent) of his or her eligible vacation time/paid time off in the past 12 months.”

Employees worry that taking vacation will be seen as a lack of dedication, or somehow reveal that—if everything runs smoothly in their absence—they are an unnecessary cog in the corporate machine. That’s why top leaders must set the example. Some leaders have gone so far as to pay employees to take vacation. While we don’t expect this policy will be sweeping across corporate America any time soon, the philosophy behind it is one to consider.

The Chief Talent Officer at a global strategy consulting firm explains her firm’s policy: “We say do what works for you, but our expectation is that you are unplugging.”

“I just did a complete unplug in last month,” she adds. “We went on a Mediterranean cruise. I probably wouldn’t do something like that every year but I did see the benefit in it. The most unsettling part was getting used to it. Once I did, I was able to really be in the moment; there was nothing else I could do.”

I just did a complete unplug in last month ... The most unsettling part was getting used to it.

As we careen headfirst into August, a primetime month for vacations in the U.S. and throughout Europe, the out-of-office messages (see our advice on that here) are sure to ramp up exponentially. If you’re one of those vacationers, go forth and unplug! Or don’t. But be intentional about it.

I reached out to the Chief Operating Officer of a global, rapidly expanding professional services firm to ask about his approach to vacation connectivity. Amusingly, he responded via text within the hour to let me know he was currently on vacation in Paris with his partner.

Enough said.

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