Take a real vacation
I often returned from my holidays still stressed out. Then I decided to stop checking in with the office so much.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Last summer my family vacationed on a remote part of Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada. We stayed at a nice resort on a beach, with plenty of room for kids to roam and not a chance of cell coverage for miles. Time to panic? You bet. I hadn't been out of routine contact with our family-owned plastic-bag-manufacturing company since I joined it. Now I faced ten days when no one could reach me instantly. Even knowing this didn't stop me from reflexively checking my flip phone and my Treo for messages.
Visions of disaster filled my head as I worried about what might be happening in my absence. How could my company cope without me? Very well, it turned out. The crises got managed, production continued, and customers didn't seem to know I had fallen off the radar. Sure, I picked up a landline and called in once a day, but that was only at the start. As I got used to how normal things sounded back at the office, I quit calling every day. If they needed me, they could leave a message at my room, I figured. By day five or six I began to feel more relaxed than I had in years. My wife, always worried about the toll that stress took on me, couldn't believe the transformation. But the change didn't end there. When I returned to work, I had a vigor that had been missing for months. Years of explosive business growth had worn me out. In the past, I'd not left enough downtime to replenish my reserves. I had found myself increasingly exhausted, which caused me to avoid some important decisions, especially about hiring key personnel.
But during the weeks following my vacation, I found the energy to make those choices, adding key staff to my customer-service department, factory management, and sales group. For years I'd read the tales in management journals and business magazines about the importance of vacations, but I'd obviously failed to apply the lessons. No doubt fear born of hard times kept me too paranoid to ever let go. But there was something more as well. Call it a belief in my own indispensability and an unwillingness to acknowledge the widespread talent that really underpinned our company's recent success.
Today I have new rules for vacations. I won't hesitate to go away and check in less than once a day, provided, of course, that my staff knows where to find me in an emergency. I've made it clear that I don't want to be bothered with the little stuff. On one vacation a few years back, I received a message that a large customer was running out of celery bags, and the customer-service representative wanted to know what to do. Well, the answer was obvious: Break into the schedule and run the bags. They really didn't need me to approve that.
To drive the point home, I ask my colleagues not to bother me "unless the company is on fire." That means I don't want to hear from the office unless the issue could severely alter our bottom line. Four summers back, for example, while I was vacationing in the Sierras, my brother called about a new customer who wanted to dump more than $1 million in business on us. He wanted us to look at the pricing together to determine whether the business made sense for us. We studied the pricing and decided no. That kind of decision I want to be involved in.
My most recent vacation, to a remote resort outside Sedona, Ariz., offered its own revelations. Once again--quite by accident--my wife and I had chosen a place where cell coverage didn't exist. No room phones either. But the lesson came in the gym one afternoon, where I swapped stories with an older entrepreneur. Years ago he'd hired a strong second-in-command so he could spend six months a year traveling around the world with his wife. "You have to get to where the business doesn't run you," he advised. I saw his point, but for now, being out of cell range is about as radical a change as I can handle. Kevin Kelly left full-time journalism eight years ago to run his family's company, Emerald Packaging.
From the July 24, 2006 issue