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Some of Bruce MacMillan's most eye-opening business ideas came not from long hours spent at the office but from chatting with fellow vacationers while skiing in Ontario's Beaver Valley.

While riding the chairlift, the president and CEO of Tourism Toronto got to spend a few minutes talking with other tourists from around the province and the country. His conversations gave him new insights into why people visit the places they do -- the kind of information that can be put to good use by an executive in the tourism industry.

"Just spending five or 10 minutes talking to someone in different settings," he said, "that can give you perspectives you've never seen before."

Mr. MacMillan's experience on Ontario's ski hills exemplifies one of the rewards of CEO vacations. Just how much time corner-office executives should spend away from the office rejuvenating, however, is a subject of debate among shareholders, employees and workplace experts.

The issue of how much of a break senior executives deserve was brought back under the spotlight last week after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CEO Lee Scott announced that he intends to take a month-long vacation in May.

It's the first time Mr. Scott has taken that much time off since he took over the top job at the world's largest retailer in 2000. While away, Mr. Scott will delegate responsibility to a number of deputies, according to Wal-Mart. Mr. Scott will also remain in touch with the company while on vacation.

Mr. Scott's decision spurred some activists to complain that he's putting his own interests ahead of the multibillion-dollar corporation's shareholders. Other speculated that a month-long vacation is a sign Mr. Scott will soon leave -- or be forced out.

However, some workplace experts say time off is of great importance to executives, who often become burned out from working excruciating hours.

"Some expect CEOs to be chained to the desk. Most put in 12 or more hours a day, often working seven days a week. Vacation time is typically measured in days, not weeks or months," said John Challenger, CEO of consultancy Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc.

"But we should want leaders in high-pressure situations to have time to decompress."

However some CEO consultants were taken aback by the length of Mr. Scott's vacation.

"I have talked to hundreds of CEOs, and I have never heard of a CEO taking a month off in the U.S.," said Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice-chairman of executive search firm Christian & Timbers. "Even a three-week vacation is rare."

In North America, where vacation times tend to be shorter than in other parts of the world, there can be varying reactions to a prolonged CEO absence, Mr. Ramakrishnan said. Some employees may view the boss's vacation time as an opportunity to spread their wings and work with less micromanagement while others may begin to wonder if health issues are involved, or if a long vacation is a trial balloon for an imminent CEO replacement.

The average CEO vacation lasts two to three weeks, depending on how well established the corporation's chain of command is, Mr. Ramakrishnan said. CEOs new to the job likely won't take long vacations until it's clear just who's responsible for what tasks during their absence. As well, "you're certainly not going to see a CEO [go on a prolonged vacation]when they're closing the books, either annually or during the quarter," Mr. Ramakrishnan said. "They're also not going to leave during a key acquisition."

Mr. MacMillan said there are important benefits for executives who truly break away from the office environment while on vacation. "You have to have time away from the day-to-day aspects of the job," he said. "Your mind and your perspectives get re-energized."

During the year, Mr. MacMillan tries to take a week-long break with his wife and two young children during spring and two weeks during summer, as well as the occasional long-weekend getaway. The time off gives him a chance not only to wind down, but to look at his job from an outsider's perspective, he said.

But while there may be several benefits to taking time off from the top job, Mr. MacMillan said it's important not to let vacation time infringe on the responsibilities placed on those who occupy the corner office.

"As a CEO, there are certain public and organizational expectations," he said. "[Planning the right amount of vacation time]is a great challenge for anyone in a leadership position."

Indeed, even when they do take vacation time, CEOs rarely totally check out. In a survey of 270 CEOs last year, Robert Half Management Resources found that 58 per cent check in with the office at least once or twice a week during vacation time. Almost a quarter said they check in every day.

Still, with the increasing popularity of global recruitment, CEO vacation times are likely going to trend upward, Mr. Ramakrishnan speculated. As more CEOs from around the world are brought in to head up North American companies, they also bring with them international attitudes favourable to more extended vacation time.

As well, the prevalence of communication tools such as BlackBerrys and laptops may prompt more executives to opt out of constant 12-hour days at the office, Mr. Challenger added.

"With today's portable technology, it is surprising that we do not see more CEOs taking long vacations or telecommuting," he said. "That may change with the next generation of leaders, who have come up in a more family-friendly workplace."

Vacation tips

Tips for the vacation-planning executive from consultants and the corner office:

Pick the right time to leave: Taking off for a vacation before an important investor's meeting is a no-no, as is leaving around the time of a quarterly or year-end book closing. Find a time when there are no important, one-time events taking place, such as acquisitions or legal battles.

Leave behind a solid management team: Make sure everyone knows what responsibilities they'll have to take on while you're gone. CEOs rarely leave for long vacations during their first year on the job, and executives at corporations struggling to overhaul their management structure rarely leave for vacation at all.

Keep an eye on optics: North American CEOs rarely take more than three weeks off the job. Take a longer break and some investors and employees may begin to wonder if the vacation is a trial balloon before a resignation, retirement or firing. A prolonged absence may also undermine your authority with some employees upon your return.

Keep in touch: While checking in with the office every other hour might be a great way to ruin a vacation, it's usually a good idea to leave your cellphone number or other contact information with a few key staff before you take off. That way, it's easier to maintain your distance from the day-to-day operations but be available to make decisions quickly in case of an emergency.

Look for learning opportunities: Sometimes vacations can provide a valuable learning experience. Take advantage of your time off to look at things from a different perspective. The change of scenery can help spark ideas and solutions for your business that you might not come up with in the office.

Omar El Akkad

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