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The best way to do your job? Don’t

December 15, 2021, 1:10 PM UTC
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, writes, “I am convinced that every CEO can and must take a sabbatical to benefit themselves, their team, and their organization.”
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COVID-19 has permanently changed the landscape of the American workforce. Suddenly we’re thinking more critically about where we work, how we work, and the expectations we have of ourselves and our teams. That shift has led to some tough questions around how we manage work in 2022 and beyond. One of them is how we view sabbaticals.

As I considered the sabbatical offered to every GLAAD staffer after seven years of service, it seemed unfathomable at first. As president and CEO of GLAAD, the world’s leading LGBTQ advocacy organization, I operate on a 24/7 news cycle, working with business leaders, media organizations, and advocates to accelerate acceptance for the LGBTQ community. 

On my last week at the office, I told my wife, “I love thinking about work and solving problems for our community. Why am I intentionally stopping what I love to do?” Little did I know that the answer was right in front of me: to do it better. 

A CEO sabbatical is often seen as a large risk. For public companies, it could raise shareholders’ concerns and temporarily impact stock price. As we reassess how we show up at work, let’s take this moment to recalibrate how we view a sabbatical. Instead of it signaling a problem, let’s start seeing it for what it is, an opportunity for growth for the entire company. 

Reframing the sabbatical in corporate America gives everyone the ability to find a new way of growing the company, drives retention, and ultimately can drive the stock price. As I return to work not just with a new mindset and a fresh strategy but transformed by the time and space the sabbatical offered me to think, I am convinced that every CEO can and must take a sabbatical to benefit themselves, their team, and their organization.

With COVID restricting travel, I challenged myself to take a low-key, home-based break with time to meet friends for lunch, play golf with my father, travel the coast with my mom, take my kids to and from school, and address my physical health and emotional well-being. It seemed like a luxury, but within days I realized it was a necessity. In that restorative space, I was able to develop several key professional takeaways that apply to every business leader:

A CEO’s sabbatical is a much-needed pressure test for the entire organization. I had spent seven years building GLAAD from a stagnating nonprofit to a global force for equality, developing a world-class team at the same time. In my absence, I saw that our organizational structure was sound, with my CCO and COO stepping up. Along with our supportive board, they quickly and efficiently addressed internal issues and put out daily media fires for the LGBTQ community from DaBaby’s misinformation about HIV to Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special

Things won’t stay the same—and that’s good. After you return from a substantial time away from your business, things won’t go back to the way they were before. This is a desired outcome, because you stepped away to create momentum that moves your company forward. That pause allowed space for our team to grow and for me to have time to design ways to challenge them even further. With a new perspective the answer to some quintessential questions can be transformative: What works for our team, and what doesn’t? Which new responsibilities do you want to keep, and which do you want to lose? 

As leaders took on new responsibilities because of my absence, their skills and confidence grew, and therefore their leadership took on new wings, driving innovation. With global businesses, media companies, sports leagues, and social platforms requesting GLAAD’s consultation on diversity, equality, and inclusion at an exponential pace, it would have been nearly impossible to make time to address these critical questions. Now, they are the ones who will shape the way we drive impact for the LGBTQ community.

CEOs need substantial time off to lead vision and strategy for the organization. I run our organization startup-style because of the urgency and commitment needed to combat intolerance and rampant misinformation. But stepping back showed me that I could shift nuts-and-bolts responsibilities to others, while I mapped out big-picture strategy. My sabbatical made clear that I needed to develop a broader coverage plan, a succession path, and deepen our bench.

I’d always seen “work” and “life” as a barely manageable either/or, but my sabbatical offered me fresh perspective on what balance could look like. This reconfiguration seems essential as we try to bring more women into the C-suite, who still do the heavy lifting when it comes to managing households along with their careers. Our frenetic workplaces and schedules are long overdue for innovation and change, especially in the wake of historic burnout.

The sabbatical was a huge test for me and for GLAAD, and I believe we both came through with flying colors. It’s still early, but I am heading back with renewed vigor, a long-term strategy, and a team that I trust. I can only hope other CEOs will take the same work-and-life-changing journey.

Sarah Kate Ellis is the president and CEO of GLAAD, the world’s leading LGBTQ advocacy organization.

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