The Vacation Strategy: How Taking Time Off Helps Develop Your Company's Leaders

You probably think that taking time off will harm your productivity, and the work of your team. Surprisingly, the exact opposite may be true.

When you plan your vacation time intelligently, it can be a huge win-win: time to relax and refresh for you, and an opportunity for your team to develop their leadership skills.

This post will explain how to do it right, and what mistakes to avoid.

Shift Your Mindset

Modern companies understand that vacation time benefits employees as individuals and makes the company a more appealing destination for the smartest talent. Most managers and leaders recognize the theory, too, and are determined to take more time off and improve their work-life balance, right up until a minor crisis hits a week before their vacation starts.

Perhaps you’re one of them.

I recently returned from a three-week vacation in Maine, where I honed my photography skills, met a host of new and interesting people, and refreshed my mind and body. When I returned to work, members of my team had stretched their skills, tested out new strategies, and grown in confidence.

Giving up a little control can feel scary, but I know from long experience that the benefits can be enormous. When you work hard, you deserve a break to recuperate and recharge your batteries. Equally, members of your team deserve a leader who models the benefits of time off, giving them permission to do the same when it’s their turn.

Recognize that the company won’t fall apart if you’re not there for a few weeks. Quite the reverse; it will become stronger, as every employee steps out of their comfort zone and uncovers new potential.

Align the Expectations of Customers and Colleagues

Before I left for my most recent vacation, I sent an email to my entire team letting them know that I wanted them to feel comfortable taking vacation when it was their turn, that I encouraged their growth as managers and leaders, and that I would be accountable for any actions they took on behalf of the team while I was away.

I also told them that, while I would be contactable in an emergency, I wouldn’t be easily accessible via email, and that I might be traveling to places where I would not have a phone signal. To help myself disconnect, I set my phone to sync only personal emails, not work emails.

This created a clear distinction between working remotely and being on vacation.

My team knew that I was going to be away for three weeks, that they were invited to step up in my absence, and that they would not be harshly criticized for any decisions they took during that time period.

You may feel that going away amounts to abandoning your responsibilities. When you take the time to keep members of your team informed, they will respond proactively to your absence, filling any holes and growing as employees and people.

Create a Support Team

Do not simply abandon your team and hope they will learn to swim without you. Give them clear parameters so that they understand the timeline of your absence, their responsibilities while you are away, and whom they can reach out to if they need support.

Do the same for any clients who may be expecting to reach you during your vacation. Communicate the dates you will be away clearly to them and give them an alternative pathway to finding support.

If you own a small business, or you’re a solo entrepreneur, you can nurture a distributed team, even if that means hiring temporary support workers or investing in some call center coverage. Whatever the size of your organization, it is possible to carve out time for vacation and communicate effectively with people who may want to reach you while you’re away.

The key to making this strategy work for you is to do it consciously, giving your clients fair warning that you will be out of reach and providing your team with outlets they can turn to when they need support.

Time Your Vacation Carefully

If you’ve just founded a new startup or you have a huge product launch coming up, now is not a good time to be away for three weeks.

Ideally, your team will have worked together for at least six months before you depart for a significant period of time.

They should be comfortable with one another and ready to offer support in the case of any challenges emerging. You want them to be settled and comfortable with their roles, not in the middle of transitioning to a new position. This is a time for them to grow together, not for uncertainty and insecurity to take root.

Additionally, there may be portions of the fiscal year that lend themselves more easily to vacations than others.

When I worked in Europe, I was accustomed to taking a vacation in August because it was a European habit. Most people anticipated taking time off at that time of year and it was part of the broader culture, so it was easy. No one expected me to be readily available around the clock in August.

Think carefully in advance about the best time to go away, and there’s less chance that your plans will be derailed closer to your leaving date.

Take Longer Vacations

As crazy as this may sound, it’s true. The ideal duration of a vacation is at least two weeks.

Why? It’s because your team need time to adjust to your absence. If you go away for a week, people won’t shift their understanding of their roles. They will wait for you to return.

You probably have had the experience of clearing your desk for a week off, only to return to a full workload. A week is not long enough for the pressure of your absence to build to a point where decisions need to be made.

If you need a short break, take a long weekend and turn on the autoresponder. If you want your team to reach into uncharted territory, you need to be gone for at least two weeks, preferably three.

I’m very grateful that I work for a company, and with a management team, that makes this possible for me personally. It’s a huge privilege to take substantial vacation time. It’s also the key to encouraging real growth while you are away.

Reconnect When You Return

I never leave for a vacation without scheduling a time to reconnect with my team on my return, both individually and collectively.

This is absolutely vital to developing trust among team members. They know that, when I come back, they will have an opportunity to share their experiences and talk through any decisions that they struggled with.

This also gives me a chance to encourage and support them. It is not a chance to criticize them and tell them what they should have done differently.

If you want your team to develop leadership skills, you must accept their autonomy and trust their capacity to take decisions. You want them to feel comfortable sharing their experiences with you, so it’s extremely important that you’re prepared to listen to them and learn from what they tell you.

Most of the time, I’m 100% comfortable with the decisions my managers take in my absence. On the rare occasions that I’m not, it’s highly unlikely that the consequences will become irreparable within the few weeks I’m away. It’s far more likely that any bumps in the road represent an opportunity for growth, for me and for them.

The Six Steps to a Successful Vacation

Taking a holiday from work can be a time of freedom, adventure, and relaxation. When you follow these steps, you can return inspired to find that your managers and direct reports have grown in your absence, strengthening your trust in them and building a better team.

1. Believe in the value of vacation. Know that you need time away to replenish your energy and refresh your perspective. Realize that it is possible to organize your vacation in a way that benefits everyone involved.

2. Communicate clearly in advance. Team members need to know what to expect while you are away, so give them clear expectations. You may be surprised by how well they respond to the extra responsibility.

3. Provide pathways to support. Give colleagues and clients confidence by letting them know where to turn when they are in difficulty.

4. Choose the right time to be away. Make sure that you take your vacations when your absence is manageable. Ensure that your team is tight enough to thrive together.

5. Take at least two weeks off. For this strategy to be successful, you need to give it long enough to work. People need time to adjust to you being away; give them that time.

6. Close the circle. Meeting team members when you return gives you a chance to understand and learn from their experiences, support any big decisions they have made, and make any necessary adjustments.

Follow these steps and you will have the satisfaction of experiencing the benefits of a vacation with a clear conscience, knowing that it is good for you on a personal level and a benefit to your team.

When my team operates at a higher level, I’m free to focus on important strategic issues. My managers become more comfortable dealing with issues on their own, and develop a liking for taking on responsibility.​

The result is a motivated, capable team, and the peace of mind that comes with knowing I can go away for a while and trust them to do a great job.