After 15 years of hard work, Carolyn would quit her job in two months and leave on a sabbatical year with her partner, Roger. After that she’ll return to a career – maybe in the same industry, maybe not. She didn’t know.
Carolyn leaves a critical void in her fast-growing company as the head of the marketing department with a team of eight. Her boss is as supportive “as he can be” considering the situation, but his boss, the CFO, and the CEO aren’t happy.
In fact, the CFO told her she was “crazy” to leave.
As Carolyn positions her sabbatical year to her colleagues, team and bosses, what they think – or end up thinking – about her choice of time out of her career determines how they might describe her in letters of recommendation or references. Upon return, potential employers will want to know more about that blank year on her resume. (See Resources at end of this post: How A Sabbatical on Your Resume Can Make You More Desirable – Plus Tips for Negotiating One.)
And let’s be honest. Beneath the bravado, most of us will have moments of second-guessing our choice.
In Carolyn’s case her career break has the potential to burn important bridges for her future. What did Carolyn tell others about her sabbatical choice? How can she now gain more support? Can she ever receive accolades and praise for the sabbatical as a well-chosen path?
Everyone’s Wants to Know: What’s the Story?
The idea of taking time out of a successful career may not be what the majority of high-achieving working executives do, but it’s not that uncommon. Still, tell people you are leaving the high-powered job where you’ve worked your way up, competed hard and seemed to love has a possible downside.
Yes, individuals may idle up to you to quietly to say, “You’re doing what I’d like to do.” “I’m so envious.” “You’re courageous.”
But the initial reaction is often dismay, disbelief and a thought or two that midlife angst, hormones or the last re-org got the best of you.
Some may even take it personally. “I don’t get it. I thought you liked us.”
Asked what she had told her team and bosses, Carolyn said, “I told them I was going to take a year off to travel and, I wouldn’t be coming back.”
Who wouldn’t scratch their head to try to make sense of this one-liner?
People want answers to these questions:
Why are you doing this? Where did this idea come from? Did something happen? Are you fired? Did you have a fight with your boss? What’s really behind this? What about all you’ve accomplished? What about your career? What about me? You are a high-achieving, ambitious executive so how does this fit?
Carolyn’s description of a “year off to travel” is vague and doesn’t fit with the hardworking, high achieving, reasonable executive people know her to be. Unfortunately, a long standing positive reputation can be soured with an abrupt, curious departure.
If Carolyn returns and pivots with a good sabbatical story now she has a chance to gain support and good will.
Your audience – co-workers, colleagues, bosses, friends and family – wants to understand your motives and your dreams for this endeavor. Right now I can imagine that Carolyn’s audience is thinking:
Help us continue to be keen on you and not think this is a silly, bizarre notion.
(In other words, we don’t want to agree with the CFO who is rumored to have told you you’re crazy.)
Does this mean Carolyn needs to share that she is burnt out and feels she has no career path in the organization? No.
A sabbatical story is honest and authentic, while at the same time top-line. It’s a short story of 3-4 sentences. The back story, if there is one and there usually is, can be for your coach, therapist or best friend.
Make Yours a Coherent Sabbatical Story
Individuals working for an organization with a formal sabbatical program often are required to submit a sabbatical proposal. This is a concise well-thought out document that answers:
- What are your plans for your sabbatical?
- Why is this important to you?
- What are your anticipated benefits?
- What will the organization gain?
The sabbatical story is a shortened version of explanation delivered orally. It’s a springboard story – -an elevator-pitch narrative – that may provide further conversation or not.
A good sabbatical story:
- provides a convincing internal pitch
- creates confidence with self and others
- is condensed
- informs a next step
- has honest coherency
- creates a new level of understanding for the listener
Your positive departure from an organization to a time away depends on how well you tell your story. The sabbatical story generates support and sureness.
Does it inform?
Does it just communicate information?
Does it convey a future step?
Just as important as conveying information to others for understanding and support, the sabbatical story reassures us.
As a sabbatical story bolsters us as we face people whom we want on our side – or at least to support or understand – we gain confidence and courage. The story – and the positive reaction it elicits from others – keeps us motivated and brave to meet the challenges as we gain clarity for our new future.
Burn the bridges your hard work has built with a glib or vague explanation – and you won’t be feeling good about it.
The sabbatical story connects us to ways we can better understand your choice of why you taking time out and what you will do. In Carolyn’s case, the narrative could have included her desire for more space to return to her creative writing, a pause to assess how she wanted life to unfold into her late forties and fifties, visions of different landscapes to experience or a yearning to learn about the people in Eastern Europe.
In talking with Carolyn, I determined she was very well-thought out in her decision. But it didn’t come through in her first one-liner description.
She was proud of her work in the organization, felt valued as a contributor and loved being a part of critical challenges that shaped their standing within the industry. But at 43, she needed to change professionally and personally. The sabbatical was her vehicle of choice for the transition.
She and her partner were spending 6-months in a RV to tour national parks in the US then taking off for several countries in Eastern Europe.
If you are thinking about taking a career break, craft a sabbatical story of 3-4 sentences. Do a draft then another. Make it an honest, concise reflection of who you are and what you are trying to do.
Here are 7 ideas help you begin to create your best sabbatical story:
Idea 1. Begin with a turning point or event that triggered insight.
- On my last birthday, I thought…
- At my college reunion, I realized…
- When my son left for college, I knew…
- Last year on the Amazon, I saw…
- When my company was restructured, I felt..
Idea 2. Define your challenge.
- I want three things for my future.
- This will mean learning something entirely new!
- I will need to find a new tribe.
- I’ll want work I can do from anywhere.
Idea 3. Find the coherence.
- I’ve always been interested in…
- Lately, I understand ‘x’ about myself.
- My skills lend themselves to…
- As a kid, I loved ….
- My old debate skills will …
- There’s cross-over from my present experience to …
- My father was the one who …
Idea 4. Keep reasons for change grounded in who you are.
- I’ve always been good at …
- I’ve always made people laugh, so this …
- I like that it’s similar to …
- I’m southern to my core and …
- It gives me real pleasure…
Idea 5. Cite multiple reasons for what you want. Mention personal and professional reasons. You can tap into geographical, financial, growth, development opportunities, or the revival of old passions.
Idea 6. A goal rooted in the past serves well to introduce your transition story. Do you have a dream deferred? Did life get in the way of something?
Idea 7. Use the season you are now living in. Make your reinvention story a coming-of-age event.
- At this time in my life, I’d love to be able to …
- My experience has allowed me to …
- My curiosity has never faltered about …
- I’m more confident than ever before about …
Carolyn’s sabbatical story is uniquely her own – just as yours will be. Her efforts may or may not turn the CFO into a raving fan for her choice.
But by allowing individuals to glimpse and understand her decision to transition with a year-long sabbatical, shell gain the support of many who will be valuable to her future.
Furthermore, she’s made a courageous choice to explore and plow into extended time away then return to work. A sabbatical is one of the most important and exciting times in one’s life. People can get that.
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