Skipping vacation time is a potential disaster

And if there’s a disaster while you’re gone, that can be a good thing.


(Photo: Randy Faris/Corbis)

Summer is here, and while a CEO’s thoughts should be turning to the beach, the idea of leaving subordinates in the lurch can sometimes make managers second-guess their much-needed vacation plans. For some bosses, setting their smartphones to airplane mode—even for a few hours—can feel like unnecessary surgery.

Unfortunately, skipping vacation time is a disaster waiting to happen, says Rick Kathuria, a former management consultant who’s now director of the project-and-vendor management office for law firm McCarthy Tetrault. He believes too many managers fail to take time to recharge—and risk burning out. “When I started my career, a mentor of mine was working crazy hours,” says Kathuria. “He was travelling the country, spending three or four nights a week in hotels. One day, out of pure exhaustion, he passed out in his room. He was in the hospital for two weeks.” While that might not have been his idea of a holiday, the executive did learn one thing: his team could function just fine without him.

For some bosses, getting away from the office isn’t a problem, but the anxiety of what might go wrong in their absence leads them to check their smartphones constantly. Some managers will set a window of a few hours a day where they will check their e-mail, though that isn’t always practical, says Jeff Chorlton, president and CEO of Flexserv, which provides human resources, IT and other consulting services to small and medium-sized businesses.“I do a lot of travelling to developing nations, where ubiquitous access to the Internet is not the same as in developed nations,” he says.

The best way for a boss to manage her time off is to appoint a second-in-command, says Kathuria. Or better yet, put two or three people in charge. “Don’t always have a single person as your backup. Have a person for this thing, a person for that thing.” And if you think there’s something that might actually blow up while you’re away, offer some contingency plans.

And try to relax. Ultimately, good things tend to happen when the boss goes away. David Yermack, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, recently published a study of CEO vacation patterns at 66 large companies, and found that firms often experience abnormally high stock returns before and after a CEO took time off, presumably because they preferred to leave and return on high notes. And as for the fear that your staff might ground the ship like the Costa Concordia, it’s a long shot. Yermack’s study also found that share-price volatility declined sharply during a top executive’s absence.

“If you control everything, you tend to lose out on the breadth of knowledge at work in your team,” says Kathuria. And besides, even if something should go wrong, it could provide valuable information. Kathuria describes a situation where a co-worker had been grooming a manager to be her second-in-command. When a volunteer mission in Central America took her out of the office for several weeks, she left the would-be replacement in charge. The manager couldn’t cope with the workload. “As a result, she knew the person wasn’t her second-in command and she had to think of someone else.”

For those still nervous about leaving the office, there is another option, courtesy of Amar Varma, co-founder of Toronto mobile app firm Xtreme Labs. He likes his staff—all 150 of them—to take time off when he does.

“We shut down the office between Christmas and New Year’s,” he says. “It gives everyone downtime at the same time.” Just think: You could avoid the whole problem of leaving your staff behind by bringing them with you.