Pruning the Oak Tree: How My Sabbatical Benefitted Everyone

Carl Smith, one of the most insightful and caring business owners I've ever known, recently shared the following analogy with me. A business owner is like an oak tree: She stands steady and firm, a permanent and reliable part of the landscape. She records the history of an organization deep within her rings, adapting to the seasons, floods and droughts. But she also casts a long shadow that stunts surrounding growth. If you want the rest of the forest to grow, that oak tree needs to be pruned -- or cut down completely.

Early last fall, I took a five-week sabbatical. By making a deliberate effort to take a step back and delegate all of my responsibilities -- by eliminating the long shadow I cast as a business owner -- I let the sunshine in. New growth emerged in the form of new leadership, confidence, and possibilities for our amazing team.

Without having me around to lean on, answer questions, or generally "handle it," our whole team had room for growth. By getting out of the way and cutting off all forms of communication (except, of course, for a true emergency), the whole team took on more responsibility and stepped further into their own leadership role.

Were there hiccups while I was gone? Yes. Did everything go smoothly? Of course not. (They never do, even when I am around.) In my absence, the company survived, our team adapted and anyone who doubted their ability to succeed without my daily involvement were proven wrong.

For some managers, handing off their day-to-day responsibilities for a few days can make them a nervous wreck, which in turn makes their colleagues anxious about stepping into that role. By letting our team know I have complete faith in them -- and making sure they know that I believe it's important to learn from mistakes -- I wasn't interrupted even once during my sabbatical.

The forest was drenched in sun. But what about the oak tree itself? What happens to a business owner when they are no longer a critical to the team's success?

Before my sabbatical, I was burnt out. I had spent eight years building a company. I had taken my work home with me every night and every weekend, for almost a decade. I needed to remember who I was outside of Four Kitchens.

Instead of planning a big trip or project, I spent those five weeks focusing on myself and my family. I stayed at home. I started a new hobby -- woodworking, which is ironically appropriate in light of Carl's oak tree metaphor -- and spent my days learning how to build real, tangible things like cabinets and furniture. After spending all of my professional life working with code and pixels, physical construction is profoundly satisfying.

I didn't come back from my sabbatical with a tan or tales from a European adventure. I also didn't return with any sage wisdom or epiphanies about the future of our business. Instead, I came back with a newfound energy -- a growth spurt for the old oak tree -- which was magnified by the proud-parent-like satisfaction of seeing my team members thrive without me.

Since returning a few months ago, I'm much more energized and excited to be in the office every day. To me, there's a bit of a different vibe around here. The team is more confident. Or at least they seem that way. After all, I knew they could do it all along. They always had the skills; they just needed a little push to realize it.

For those of you considering a sabbatical -- and I hope you all are -- here are some tips to make the most of the experience:

● Sabbaticals require a significant period of time -- at least a month. (Those in academia usually take one or two year sabbaticals!) It will take at least two weeks just to learn how to relax again.

● Fully delegate everything you do. Because you can't predict every situation, put someone in charge of the "I don't know" category: If no one is sure who's responsible for something, the "I don't know" person is.

● Delete your work accounts from all devices (laptop, phone, etc.). You do not want to accidentally tap on our work account and see 1,000+ emails awaiting your return.

● Do not make any plans or set any expectations. Just exist. Let yourself gravitate towards things you want to do.

● Projects are great, but don't make them work-related. And don't use your sabbatical as an excuse to catch up on that pile of business books you never get around to. Read for pleasure, not education.

● Don't set any expectations -- and definitely do not expect a transformative experience. You will be disappointed, and you will return to work thinking you've wasted your time and inconvenienced others.

● Don't expect immediate results. After returning to work, it may take a couple of weeks for you to realize the benefits of your sabbatical. At the very least, you will come back rested, which will make everyone at your organization much, much happier.