Is it OK to take time off when you run a business?

Author
Alasdair Mackay
Founder | Clearwater Advantage Limited
8th January 2019
Member roleChamber member

You take your business seriously don’t you? Of course you do, or you wouldn’t be running it – you’d be taking the easier option and working for someone else. So does that mean you have to work all day, every day and never take any time off? I was caught in a conversation with someone recently who took exactly that view, but I’m not so sure.

You have to be seen to be working hard to be taken seriously.

The basic argument put forward in favour of never truly taking time off was that running a business is a serious matter and when you are needed you must be instantly available; otherwise you just don’t get how important it all is. Any number of things can happen while you’re on leave: from board meetings to emails from important clients and operational issues that need solving quickly. If you are the one running the business you must be on call at all times, which means checking your emails on the ski lift and keeping your phone on during dinner: whatever it takes. But the unspoken sub-text was clearly that always being in demand is both a badge of honour and a comfort blanket.

What is best for the overall health of the business?

I often find the biggest challenge for business leaders is to recognise objectively what is in the best interests of their business as a whole, rather than what they instinctively feel is right based on their own needs. If a business is run on the basis that the board members are never on leave, it runs the risk of creating some unnecessary problems:

Agility. Businesses need to be able to respond and act quickly in a changing world to generate and maintain an advantage over their competitors. One of the best ways of embedding agility in the organisation and culture of a business is to delegate decision-making to the lowest practical level commensurate with maintaining proper control. Recruit high quality managers at all levels and give them real responsibility and authority for their specialist areas and the whole organisation starts to buzz with activity and enthusiasm. Trust them to make the right call at the right time and you will quickly see the returns. On the other hand, a business that doesn’t trust its managers with delegated responsibility but relies on centralised control of the paper clip budget by directors (even when they’re on leave) will always be slow to react and will see too many opportunities pass by.

Resilience. Nobody in a business is indispensable. Get over it; it’s true – even if you started the business yourself and have been at the reins for several years. There will come a time when even the most controlling director won’t be able to be contacted when a decision is needed. If the rest of the hierarchy aren’t prepared for this it could lead to paralysis and a small problem turning into a crisis. The healthy business has a culture and practice where the top team focus on over-the-horizon strategic issues and have created a resilient management structure beneath them that keeps current operations going. Routinely taking some time off and exercising your team in coping without asking for direction means they can manage when they have to do so at short notice. Oh, and making sure your top team hand over their responsibilities for a couple of weeks once in a while is a great way of making sure any irregularities are spotted early. In some sectors it’s mandatory for some key position- or account-holders, but it’s also good practice across the board.

Future-proofing. Not all business leaders are comfortable thinking about what will happen when they move on, much less actively planning for it, but it needs to be done. Even if you plan to stay in place for the foreseeable future, you need to build a competent and robust team beneath you as the business grows. Never really taking yourself out of the picture is the surest way to tell your team that you don’t quite trust them. Conversely, if you genuinely let people step up when you’re away you do wonders for their development and self esteem and you quickly learn who you can trust the most.

Burnout. There are several areas where business turns to other fields for thoughts on best practice. One of these is the world of sport, whether it’s world-class football, elite athletics or some other area of particular relevance. One thread among the lessons to be learned from these high-performance fields is that nobody can work at full pace forever without seeing a drop-off in their performance. In the same way that athletes build rest time into their training programmes to maintain peak performance, business leaders need to take a proper step away from the business when they take time off. Otherwise they’re not really recharging the batteries and they won’t perform as well as they could when they return. So the next time you take some leave do it properly; switch off from work issues and look after yourself. Don’t feel guilty about it; looking after your mental and physical health is about keeping yourself in peak condition for the greater good of the business – it’s the professional thing to do.

But there needs to be a sense of balance.

I have argued strongly for the approach of taking proper time off from your business from time to time. There are arguments on both sides of the debate and every business has different needs, but I know from experience that this approach works. However, it would be completely wrong to take a dogmatic view and say you should lock yourself away in a hermitage on a mountain top to force the issue. Where I do agree wholeheartedly with the person who was arguing the other side of the debate, is that once in a while you have to suck it up and accept that you are ultimately responsible for the business and your leave may have to take second place. The key to success is to train and educate your team in how to play the game. You don’t want them ringing you up every time the photocopier needs more paper to be ordered, but you certainly don’t want them keeping a major problem with your biggest client on ice until you get back to work in a fortnight. They need to know when to crack on with it, when to do something about it and keep you in the loop and when to ask you to dive in and take over. Only by making it a matter of routine that you periodically hand over to the team will you all get the balance right. Some people reading this may be horrified at the thought of not being in absolute control for even a few days. I can only urge you to try it; you, your team and the business will benefit. So take a brave pill and give it a go – you’ll be impressed with the results.

Alasdair Mackay is a business scale-up advisor with Clearwater Advantage, supporting high growth businesses in stepping up to the next level. For more information see www.ClearwaterAdvantage.co.uk

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