I’m on my way back to Silicon Valley after a mini vacation with in-laws in a laidback little slice of Americana: rural Wisconsin. We raced ATVs through woodland trails, took leisurely walks around the lake, and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. We goofed around with the kids, engaged in raucous political banter, and indulged in way too much beer and bratwurst.
To call it “rejuvenating” doesn’t even begin to express the effect it had. It reminded us why we work so hard at our jobs. Why we endure the stress and break our backs. We do it for our families, our friends, and those all-too-rare days that we get to live and love to the fullest.
Meanwhile the pressure to be “on” or at least connected 24x7 has never been greater, especially among senior executives and business leaders. For many of us, it’s not a question of getting more time off to decompress, but figuring out how to get away without feeling as if we’re abandoning ship and letting our stakeholders down.
It’s not that we don’t value the obvious benefits of disconnecting and taking a breather. Nobody in his right mind would question that. Time off doesn’t just recharge our batteries; it’s more like a tune-up that brings us back to peak performance. Still, we have all sorts of reasons – some valid, some not – for avoiding vacations.
Perhaps the most plausible concern is the high rate of change and competitive nature of today’s global markets. Vacations are usually planned way in advance and major business problems seem to have a way of coming up at exactly the wrong time. It’s as if they have some sort of sadistic and prescient sense of timing.
I’ll never forget how my board directors reacted when I told them I was heading to Guatemala for a week while our startup was going through a difficult time. The board did not openly question my judgment or commitment as CEO, but their concern was perceptible … and understandable.
Nevertheless, I went to Guatemala, had a great trip, and ended up spending a fair amount of time on the phone negotiating a bridge round of funding to keep the company from going belly up. We ultimately went under, but not because of the trip. It was the dot-com bust. Hundreds of Silicon Valley startups bit the dust in 2001.
When it comes to strategic issues that simply can’t be delegated, I think the course of action is relatively straightforward. There’s usually no reason to overreact to the optics (how it looks or perception) and cancel a trip. Just get on the phone or online as needed. It’s really not that complicated.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s a good idea to leave your lieutenants or your board in a lurch and let your company fall into a sinkhole while you’re kicking back on a tropical island for a month. But you got to where you are by making tough tradeoffs and smart decisions. This is no different. You are better off learning to manage perceptions and your own feelings than succumbing to unjustified pressure or panic from stakeholders.
That said, there are plenty of executives that fear going off the grid for all the wrong reasons – usually dysfunctional reasons. Some don’t have the discipline to stay off email and let the world turn without them for a few days. Others are control freaks that can’t abide one decision being made outside of their presence. Ironically, they usually hire weak executives that can’t manage without them. We call that a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then again, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both card-carrying control freaks that managed to scale two of the biggest and most powerful corporations the world has ever seen. They used their issues to their advantage while minimizing the downside. They knew when to be hands-on and when to delegate.
Meanwhile, I’ve seen some CEOs avoid being out of the loop for fear of losing power and influence. That strikes me as about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Can you imagine working that hard and accomplishing that much only to be terrified of losing it all if you turn your back for even a second? How tragic is that?
Basically it comes down to this. Leaders serve three masters: themselves, their families and their companies or stakeholders. The priorities may be personal, but no matter how you look at it, you have to figure out how to keep all three balls up in the air. You can do that as long as you don’t let perceptions or your personal demons get in the way.
Remember, if your family bails out on you because you’re a raging workaholic that never has any fun, I don’t care how much money you make, you will still be miserable.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, former senior executive, columnist and author of the upcoming book, “Real Leaders Don’t Follow." Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting where he advises executives and business leaders on strategic matters. Contact Tobak.