This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
This summer, one of my companies, 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, had a major milestone: its first million-dollar revenue day. It's something we had been building toward for more than 20 years. In the office, there were high-fives and a huge team pat on the back. But I didn't hear about it until weeks later.
That's because I was on vacation with my family at the time. Sure, I could have logged on to my e-mail to stay in the loop or asked my staff to Skype me in. But that would be breaking my number one rule.
As the owner of four large companies that make up O2E Brands, I work hard. But when I take time off, I'm adamant about disconnecting: no phone, no laptop and no time online. I don't see this as an indulgence, and I definitely don't think this should be a privilege reserved for the select few. For personal and business reasons alike, unplugging is an absolute necessity.
But finding the time, and resolve, to go dark isn't easy. In fact, it can be almost impossible.
The vacations we never take
Believe it or not, nearly half of all Americans don't take their paid time off. It's estimated that employees forfeit more than $52 billion in vacation benefits every year – giving up nearly five paid vacation days they're entitled to take. I've seen this first hand: Annually, my employees get five weeks of vacation – few are able to find the time to take it all.
What could possibly keep us from a hotel pool and an ice-cold Margarita? For starters, many of us feel concerned about work piling up while we're away. On top of that, we're afraid to delegate our responsibilities to others. In some cases, company cultures simply don't support time off and staff fear they will be viewed negatively if they take it.
There's another wrinkle here, of course. Even when we do manage to take a vacation these days, we're not really "on vacation" any more. We live in a time when we are always connected – to e-mail, social media, online news and more. We've become so obsessed with checking in, that we've stopped "checking out" altogether. It's easier than ever to work any time, anywhere – even from a beach halfway across the world.
Finding creative ways to unplug
Breaking this cycle means finding ways to leave your job in the office, where it belongs. Because technology has become so ubiquitous, it helps to have a solid plan in place – in advance – to protect vacations and free time from workplace intrusions.
Richard Branson, for instance, is known for taking inspiration vacations. Armed with only a pad of paper and a pen, he sets off for his destination – untethering himself from his digital devices. eBay CEO John Donahoe disconnects for two whole weeks every year at his Cape Cod beach house so he can calm his mind and encourage transformational thoughts about his business.
As for me, I take some extreme measures. When I go dark, I have my staff change my passwords so I can't get into my e-mail under any circumstances. They even lock me out of my social media accounts so I can't access Twitter or LinkedIn. I've learned the hard way that, without these safeguards, I'll just get sucked back in.
This might sound like overkill. But, when done right, unplugging can bring real benefits. In fact, it turns out getting away from your business can be the best thing for your business.
Making your company stronger … by not being there
One big perk of taking time off is the chance to step out of your daily routine. It's easy to develop a case of tunnel vision when you're grinding away on the same problems day after day. Seeing the bigger picture – and summoning the energy and creativity to really push a business forward – requires time and space to dream.
Instagram was famously conceived while its co-founder Kevin Systrom was strolling on a beach in Baja California, Mexico. Dropbox was born when programmer Drew Houston was on the road. One in five startup ideas, in fact, comes to entrepreneurs while on vacation.
I've seen this personally. A few years back, my business had been struggling for months to design a new logo for WOW 1 DAY PAINTING. Then, on vacation in Italy, I randomly seized on something I saw in a gelateria, of all places – a wedge of lemon stuck in the gelato. To me, it looked like a joyful smile, and we ended up basing our new logo on a similar image. And that logo – no exaggeration – changed the course of the business.
Inspiration aside, there's another huge (and often overlooked) benefit to going dark. It forces you to put a rock-solid team in place and to learn to trust it implicitly when you're gone. When I go on holiday, I'm incommunicado for up to a month at a time. Getting to that point made me made me hire more effectively and it made me a better delegator.
Whether you're a senior vice-president or a front-line manager, taking vacations – and truly going dark – forces you to build stronger and more reliable teams. Getting away from it all isn't just good for you. It's good for business.
What's stopping you from going dark? How do you find ways to unplug?
Brian Scudamore (@brianscudamore) is the founder and CEO of O2E (Ordinary to Exceptional) Brands, which includes companies like 1-800-GOT-JUNK?, WOW 1 DAY PAINTING and You Move Me. He's an expert in franchise development, growing small businesses and corporate culture.