How Sabbaticals Can Support Succession and Transition
Finalized on October 25, 2023 | Published November 28, 2023
By Monisha Kapila
Last month I returned from my second sabbatical at ProInspire. This sabbatical is unique because I am in my final six months in this job (I announced in January that I will be completing my tenure at ProInspire this December). Bianca Anderson and I began discussing this sabbatical about a year ago as we planned out the timeline for my final year at ProInspire. ProInspire’s policy allows staff to take a two month sabbatical every 5 years. Initially, I wasn’t sure if it would make sense to do a sabbatical in my final year at the organization. Through discussion, I realized that it would be supportive for me to have space to imagine what is next while I am still employed by ProInspire. Bianca shared that it would be helpful for the organization to begin to see what gaps may come up while I am away so we could address those before I leave at the end of the year.
Now I have experience as a CEO with two very different sabbaticals:
- Sabbatical in summer 2018: I was the sole CEO and our staff was 7 full-time employees. The purpose of this sabbatical was to pause and reset – read my lessons from that sabbatical here. While on sabbatical, I maintained my responsibilities to approve payroll, participated in one major meeting with a foundation partner, and approved our updated branding.
- Sabbatical in summer 2023: I am serving as Co-CEO and our staff was 12 full-time employees (we hired while I was on sabbatical!). The purpose of this sabbatical was to prepare for my transition out of the organization. While on sabbatical, I was able to disengage from nearly all work responsibilities. I did two calls with our Executive Team in my final weeks of sabbatical to catch up on key strategic questions before I returned.
I believe sabbaticals can be an important tool in succession and transition. Even if an individual is not planning to leave their role, just the act of stepping away forces the organization to figure out a way to fill the gap while someone is away.
Here are three ways that sabbaticals have helped me with succession and transition:
Shift Responsibilities: Taking a sabbatical forces you to shift your responsibilities. When I took my first sabbatical in 2018, I had been leading ProInspire for nine years. This was the first time I actually wrote out all my responsibilities and went through them methodically to identify who would hold what during my time away. When I returned, we realized the need to build more systems around finance and fundraising in the organization because those had been difficult to continue in my absence. In 2023, the sabbatical was a tool to support my transition out of the organization. I had already been sharing responsibilities with our Co-CEO Bianca Anderson, and COO Kristen Lucas. This time, the planning around shifting responsibilities was more permanent, because the expectation is that I would not take those back on in my final months of the organization.
Rest and Reset: Sabbaticals are different from vacations because they are an extended period of time away from work. The longest vacation I have taken at ProInspire has been two weeks, but both of my sabbaticals were two months. Having this kind of spaciousness really enabled me to rest and reset. In both cases, I prioritized slowing down, having special experiences, and trying new things. I also did things that I often push aside during the day-to-day busyness of having a full-time job and caring for my family, such as organizing spaces in my house. All of these helped me build new habits that I can bring into my day-to-day life as I return to work.
Prepare for What is Next: During my first sabbatical, ProInspire was just starting to come out of the “startup phase” and I had never had a real break as founder (including when both of my kids were born). That first sabbatical gave me a chance to step back from my role as the founder who always thought first about what the organization needed. I was able to start to imagine what I wanted for the future. I returned with the clarity that I was energized about the work ahead at ProInspire, but I would be ready to leave within five years. I shared that with our Board in September 2018 and we began to discuss succession planning for the organization the following year. During this recent sabbatical, I was able to start to envision who I am besides being the Founder of ProInspire. While I didn’t focus too much on planning for what is next, I feel emotionally prepared to step away having had the sabbatical.
If you have the opportunity for a sabbatical, here are some tips:
- Plan out your sabbatical timing 9-12 months in advance: This helps the organization to begin planning for your absence. Similar to when a team member goes on parental leave, preparation for a sabbatical can include identifying what work will be paused while you’re away, shifting responsibilities, and identifying temporary consultant support. Consider what time of year to take your sabbatical – both personally and professionally. There is never a good time to step away for an extended period so know that you will have to miss important activities regardless of what time of year. I chose to take my sabbaticals during the summers so I could make the most of time with my kids while they weren’t in school. Both times I took sabbaticals were also years that we were doing strategic planning so I missed some aspects of those processes, but they were also great experiences for our team to take up more leadership.
- Set individual goals for your sabbatical time: The idea of having a large chunk of open time can be exciting and overwhelming. Setting goals upfront will enable you to plan how to structure your sabbatical. For example, do you want to stay home and develop a new routine? Or do you want to travel and have experiences? Sabbaticals can also be a time to focus on things that you don’t have as much time for in day-to-day life, such as house projects or exploring new hobbies (I did those on both my sabbaticals). I was able to work with an executive coach in setting goals for my sabbatical, which was a valuable support for me.
- Create a sabbatical plan to share with your team: I created my sabbatical plan using a template that colleagues created for parental leave, so I could write down key aspects of my responsibilities in one place. Leaders with executive responsibilities may still need to engage on key decisions while on sabbatical. I was able to identify an escalation plan that included things that I would want to be informed about even while on sabbatical. I also identified important institutional areas where I could be available for thought partnership.
- Block time to wrap-up tasks before the sabbatical begins: With both of my sabbaticals, I had to complete a number of tasks during my first week off. This year, I calculated about 8 hours of time I spent on final wrapup tasks such as completing my sabbatical plan, sending out communications, and finalizing documents to hand off to others. If possible, I recommend you hold two days in your final week of work to complete those tasks so they aren’t carrying over into the sabbatical time period.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity for two sabbaticals over the past 5 years at ProInspire. These have been critical for sustaining my own leadership and for strengthening our organization to prepare for succession and executive transition. If you are looking to create a sabbatical policy for your organization, learn more about the latest research at The Sabbatical Project and Durfee Foundation’s Sabbatical Guide for Nonprofits.