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Leaning Out

How being away from work can provide a life lesson or two....

Not counting my early (and highly successful) babysitting career, I have been working now for more than 30 years. This has been pretty much without a break, other than vacations, two short leaves when my children arrived, and a few weeks here and there between jobs. I’ve been lucky to work with some great companies and lead teams around the world – which has meant full days at the office as well as work outside “normal business hours” – dinners, conference calls and emails, business trips and offsite meetings. Nothing heroic, but busy and fulfilling and rewarding. I love it.

This summer, however, I was faced with a situation I had not encountered before – out of nowhere came a health condition that meant I would need surgery, then several months of treatment. And it was impossible at the onset to predict whether I would be able to work intermittently, on a reduced schedule, or at all. Faced with this uncertainty, my inner Carrie Bradshaw asked: How do I find the best way to “Lean Out?”

First, I have to acknowledge my good fortune in several ways. I have never faced serious illness before now. I work for a company that demonstrates its commitment to the well being of employees with great leave policies and both short and long-term disability plans. This is a safety net I will never take for granted again – I met many people who had no choice but to continue to work throughout even the most grueling treatments, or risk a drastic loss of income. I also work for a boss whose immediate reaction was “Take all the time you need – we’ll figure the rest out.” And finally, I was fortunate to have a great team in place, ready to rise to the occasion.

It’s been over three months now since I went out on leave – and I’ve learned a lot, both about work and about myself. Here are a few things I can share:

· Who’s on First? Thankfully, I had time to communicate with and prepare my team a couple of weeks prior to going out on leave. One of my team members was given interim responsibility for almost all aspects of my role. He and I were able to talk about a short list of decisions I would still have the opportunity to influence before they were final. On everything else, he would be the decision maker. He and I would talk every week, and any other time he thought I should know about something that was happening, or wanted some context or counsel. Other team members could call me to check in on a personal level, but not to triangulate decisions.

· Be Absent or Be Present, but don’t be both. Initially I thought I would still want to be on weekly team calls and major project updates when I felt up to it. The more we talked about it, however, the less practical and desirable this seemed. Intermittent participation would be tough on me and confusing for everyone else. In the end, I stepped further back than I ever would have imagined and the team has done what they should – rallied around the interim CHRO and made it work.

· Giving someone else the keys shows there is more than one way to drive. One of the unexpected benefits of watching from a distance is having the chance to see how someone with a different style, skills and ways of working does the job and what they focus on. Having determined early on not to second-guess decisions that were being made while I was out, I was able to observe ways in which things were being handled differently than I might have, and from which I can learn.

· Leaning Out is an opportunity to reflect on where to Lean Back In. I am happy to report that I am now counting down to my return to work in weeks, not months. And there is no doubt that distance lends perspective. Taking a step back has given me the chance to think about how I spend my time and what my priorities have been. When I first went on leave, all of the recurring meetings on my calendar disappeared, replaced with big blocks of white space. How many of those back-to-back commitments, week after week, did I show up for out of habit? How many of them had clear purpose and were really a good use of time? Furthermore, what did they keep me from doing? I can see now how many lost opportunities there were to have more meaningful conversations or focus on longer-term goals. When I go back to work I am going to make some changes to how I spend my time and who with and what we talk about.

· Recovery is hard work. When I first found out that I was going to be away from work for several months, I had visions of everything I was going to accomplish at home. Once I had written the Great American Novel, I would switch my attention to reading the pile of books on my desk and organizing the multiple shoe boxes of family photographs into adorable albums with witty captions. But physically and emotionally, this has been a longer and harder journey than I had ever imagined and those projects are still outstanding. I have had to learn to cut myself some slack, which has not been easy – and has made me think about how I treat the people I work with and who work on my team. We ask a lot of our people and I have not always been as aware of the symptoms and impact of fatigue and burnout as I should have been. When I get back and I ask my colleagues “How are you?” I’m going to listen harder to the reply.

· I’ve never been as healthy as when I was sick. We all know the few big things that impact our overall wellness and being home for a while made it easy for me to focus on getting daily exercise, planning out healthy meals for the week, practicing good sleep hygiene – but these shouldn’t be habits we wait until we are sick to practice. . I am fortunate to work for a company that has made a genuine commitment to wellness programs and initiatives globally. But as well as giving people the tools, as leaders we need to model the behaviors and build them into the ways in which we organize work. When I go back, I want to embed some different ways of working with my team and for us to create some new wellness habits together.

· Running a household is a real job. Blessed with a partner who stayed home with our kids when they were growing up, I had no idea. I hope that I was never insensitive enough to ask “what do you actually do all day?” but I have been guilty of thinking he had a lot more spare time! Having been home for a while, I now know that every day there is something to fix with the car, the kids, the dog, the house, the bank, the insurance company, the cable company. And most of it is thankless and frustrating work that involves being on hold for hours until someone comes on the line to ask you to validate where your mother in law was born, so that they can look up your account. If you are lucky enough to have someone in your life who manages most or all of your household tasks, stop reading this now and go and thank them.

· What’s Next? Given my age and stage, being at home for a few months – with both my kids in college – felt a little bit like a future-forward vision. I am certainly not using the “r” word, yet, (because: college tuition bills) but I have had the chance to think about it more and to open up the conversation within our family about what that would look like one day. And I’m hoping that ramping up now– making connections with volunteer organizations, fostering new friendships outside of work, dedicating more time to things I love to do over the next few years – will help the transition out of full time work, when I am ready to make it, more seamless. (But I’m coming back. Don’t get any ideas).

It’s true that in times like these you learn who your friends are – and some of that will surprise you. There are about three things a week worth watching on TV. Your dog knows when you are feeling sorry for yourself and will choose that time to need a long walk which will instantly make you feel better. If you still have a landline, the only calls you ever get are for free holidays and cruises. But mostly this: If you need to “Lean Out,” lean out far enough to let other talented people lean in. Watch and Learn.

(This piece was first published on LinkedIn in October 2017. Happy to report that I am now healthy and back at work, trying to put some of what I learned into practice!)

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