How to Plan a Productive Yet Renewing Business Succession Sabbatical

Business Owner Sabbatical Planning Template is a guide for Business Owners to plan an extended leave

By Steve Coleman, Partner

Looking to try something new to break old patterns and gain new motivation for change?

As business owners and managers finalize their annual plans, they may be ready to test their capacity to step out of the driver’s seat by taking a sabbatical. Traditionally an academic and church concept, the trend in business sabbaticals is becoming more relevant to leaders who want to seriously evaluate succession options for retirement or their next business venture before making an irreversible move. All leave with the intention of returning — yet not coming back to the same routine.

Rather than a vacation, a succession sabbatical is a structured, facilitated experience for the leader and managers continuing in the business to achieve expected performance. Here are five basic steps — and a handy sabbatical template illustration — for planning a productive, yet refreshing, succession sabbatical:

Set sabbatical goals

Leaders need to break free from their routines. Physical, mental and spiritual renewal must happen before other changes are feasible. Possible sabbatical goals include planning for the next business, learning a long-desired skill, writing a book, and giving current managers an opportunity to exercise new leadership responsibilities to test succession readiness.

Regular exercise, travel, reading, writing books, guided tours, and other activities will fill leaders’ minds with ideas and fresh insights. These insights spark ideas for their current business or suggest a new business venture. The resulting return of energy signals the time to bring this new learning back to the organization and its customers. Leaders should take a minimum of 30 days, with a range of up to six months, and be held accountable for pre-set sabbatical goals.

Assess risks and set up “safety net”

A risk-taking spirit is an important succession sabbatical ingredient. This process is not for businesses in crisis. It is too difficult for a high-control, hands-on owner that can’t bear the thought of no involvement with his or her “baby” for months. And, it’s not a good risk without strong, willing managers who are eager and ready to step up to new responsibilities.

An objective, third-party facilitator who is a trusted advisor and coach can monitor the risks. This person helps establish the sabbatical plan and acts as a sounding board for both the leader and those left behind. The facilitator should establish regular meetings to coach, guide and encourage the management team as well as be a communications link with the leader. Essentially, this person is a catalyst for monitoring goals and solving problems, especially if major, unplanned events happen while the leader is away.

Focus managers on performance

A succession sabbatical is a real opportunity for managers to learn if they can lead by thinking and acting as key decision makers. Those left behind must have a high level of commitment to making this strategy work, matched by a high level of trust by the leader. A focused, goal-setting process on performance is needed to help managers learn their new roles.

Two keys for keeping the business operating successfully are black-and-white business objectives and an explicit agreement on who has the authority to make decisions, such as hiring and firing. The facilitator will help managers and leaders on sabbatical to gain a clearer focus on their roles. This includes defining a “dashboard” for objective business measurements and determining “red light” indicators that something isn’t working.

Learn from others

An Eden Prairie-based strategic planning and team-building firm experienced a four-month sabbatical. The overall goal was in itself challenging: to increase business significantly over last year and maintain the existing client base. Changing the company’s name and banker were the only decisions off-limits. Led by the CEO, decisions were made to modify the firm’s staffing model, hire a business development leader and double the office space.

Those continuing in the business wanted to thrive, not merely survive, during the leader’s time away. These managers met with all clients, which resulted in new business — and, just as important, a renewed confidence that they could lead and grow. The firm got busier as the months flew by. As a result of changes and a new esprit de corps, two major new accounts were landed, and the business process became more collaborative.

Determine re-entry options

The sabbatical-experienced leader does not step back into the same routine. By gaining clarity from the learning experience, he or she should agree to return to broader, less operational responsibilities. Managers keep some or all of the higher responsibilities that they’ve earned. The net-net result will be new energy injected into the business to take it to the next level.

The professional services firm founder has been re-charged by his time away. New workspace, a modified weekly schedule, more focused client activity, and working as an owner — not a manager — are highlights. Ideas germinated on his succession sabbatical have been captured in a journal that is a source for biweekly reflections applied to current business activities. And, a list of 38 business ideas is receiving attention as the founder plans for next year with the leadership team and other venture partners.

The founder’s decision, not unlike others, was a long, gradual process. Expectations for change are high. Both sides want creative changes. Yet sustainability of the benefits of a succession sabbatical, when properly managed, can be lasting for individuals and organizations alike.

Steve Coleman can be reached for more information at or 952-829-5700.