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Sabbaticals: Growing employer support for pushing pause on your career

Published 27 February 2013 23:40, Updated 27 February 2013 23:45

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Sabbaticals: Growing employer support for pushing pause on your career

Minter Ellison senior partner Anthony Lloyd spent much of his two-month sabbatical in Cuba taking photos which later featured in an exhibition. Photo: Nic Walker

Stephen Coakley spent his year-long sabbatical completing an MBA at Oxford University’s Said Business School. He considers it a seminal time in his life. “It made me a better person and a better professional for the experience,” he says.

Coakley had been a tax partner at professional services firm Deloitte for five years when he took a leave of absence over 2004 and 2005. Long interested in doing an MBA but not relishing the prospect of combining a part-time MBA with a busy practice, Coakley decided to pay his own way and move with his wife and their two-year-old son to Oxford, in central southern England.

“At one level it was a deeply personal desire to take stock of where I’d been and where I was going,” he recalls.

“I’d reflected quite a bit on my career to date, which had progressed well and according to plan but I felt I needed to take stock and reconnect with myself and my family.”

Moving into a townhouse near the university, Coakley looked forward to “a great life experience” with his family, with the added benefit of returning to Deloitte with a prestigious Oxford MBA. While there were plenty of idyllic experiences – riding a bicycle to the university campus, formal dinners in ancient college halls and picnics on the banks of the Thames – the MBA program put the antipodean through his paces.

“I had not really prepared myself for the intensity of the 12-month MBA,” he says. “It proved more challenging than I’d expected but it was a great experience.”

Coakley, who is the partner-in-charge at Deloitte’s Sydney global employer services practice, says taking a sabbatical is a “deeply personal” decision that won’t suit everyone but for him it was not only a memorable experience but a life-changing one.

“I learned to think again and to challenge the status quo. I came back a far more confident person about what I was going to achieve at Deloitte.”

A different picture

A senior partner with law firm Minter Ellison, Anthony Lloyd , had a very different sabbatical. The Sydney-based lawyer spent much of his two-month sabbatical in Cuba to indulge his love of photography.

Hundreds of stunning photos from the country caught in a 1950s time warp will forever provide a vivid memento of his sabbatical.

Last year, Lloyd was able to share his moments in time when the photos were showcased at his first exhibition. The event, an unexpected upshot of the sabbatical, was held four years after his trip to Cuba, on the urging of friends.

“It was great to have my first exhibition,” he says. “A few of my friends had been hassling me to do it for a long time but I’d never had the guts to put myself out there.”

Lloyd, who heads Minter Ellison’s technology, media and telecommunications practice, took up photography in 2001 when he moved to Hong Kong. Over the years the hobby has become a passion, so when he went on his sabbatical in 2008 – his partner contract provides for a 10-week sabbatical every six years – there was never any doubt that he would be accompanied by his photographic equipment. Nor of the destination. “I wanted to get to Cuba before it changed,” he explains.

For Lloyd, his sabbatical was always going to be about the photography. But he also values the benefits of the stay in terms of his career.

“I’d been on holidays before but this was the first time I’d totally switched off,” Lloyd says.

“Previously on holidays I would be taking calls from the office, checking my emails and leaving the kids to take conference calls, but not this time and it was cathartic.”

The fact that it was a sabbatical, Lloyd says, heightened the importance of taking a complete break from work.

“That’s the only way to get the benefit for which it [the sabbatical] was intended,” Lloyd says. “It is supposed to be an opportunity to switch off from the pressures of being a partner and it was. I came back with a clear mind; I was refreshed and ready to get back into it again.”

Growing Australian acceptance

The sabbatical is an extended period of leave from work that is generally taken with the support of the employer, but not always. It can also be a deliberate career break between jobs, often as part of a transition to a new employer or different career, or an attempt at personal renewal. Reasons include family responsibilities, travel, writing, or to take on a community-based role.

The concept is well established in Europe and the United States, but it is becoming more common for Australian companies to have formal sabbatical programs, or at least to be receptive to approaches from key employees who are considering a career break.

Westpac, for example, allows employees to take 12 months’ paid leave in some cases or between three and 12 months’ unpaid leave as part of a deliberate career break.

The chief executive partner of Minter Ellison, John Weber , says the firm encourages its partners to take up their entitlement to sabbaticals.

“Our partners work very hard and private legal practice is a demanding environment,” he says. “They work long hours, they’re on call for clients even when not in the office and they often manage large practice teams. If they don’t have a chance for extended
R&R it is easy to get overworked and burn out. Sabbatical leave is a way to rest and renew and to come back re-energised.”

Talent management strategies

The managing director of Sydney executive search firm Challis & Company , Darren Challis , says he encounters executives who have taken sabbaticals only infrequently but he suspects it will become more common as employers strive to provide more flexible work arrangements as part of their talent management strategies.

Challis says sabbaticals can play an important role in personal and career development but cautions executives not to rush into career breaks.

“My advice to people taking sabbaticals or career breaks is that they really need to plan them and set goals. Whatever those goals might be – doing a course, writing a book or getting fit – it’s important to have them,” he says.

The managing partner of executive search firm Watermark Search International – part of the Ambition group – Nick Waterworth , agrees that executive sabbaticals in Australia are on the rise. He also advises executives to plan their sabbaticals.

“If you’re not careful, the time will fly and suddenly the time is up,” he says. “A sabbatical is not just a long holiday; it’s a planned job pause.”

A structured sabbatical will also ensure that listing “sabbatical” on your resume will not be dismissed as a euphemism for “unemployed”.

“One of the things we have to do when conducting due diligence on a CV is to find out whether someone who claims to have taken a sabbatical simply hasn’t been able to find another job,” Waterworth says.

He is an avid supporter of the sabbatical, having taken one himself when he was the managing director of recruitment firm Michael Page, a company he had been with for 17 years. His 12-month break in 1998 coincided with the birth of his son and he recalls with affection “having the extraordinary experience of spending a long time at home with my child”.

It was at this time that he and colleague Paul Lyons decided to establish the Ambition recruitment group, which listed on the Australian Securities Exchange in 1999 and which Waterworth now chairs.

“I really believe I did a better job starting a new business having cleared my mind rather than going straight into it,” he says.

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