The Community Engagement Team on retreat

Over the summer, our President & CEO Lori O’Keefe took an 11-week sabbatical. It was a new policy that our board approved for 10+ year employees of the Foundation, and Lori would be our guinea pig. You can read all about her lessons learned this summer here. After 13 years of service at the Foundation, our staff was excited for her — she deserved it!

But wait! What happens when your leader is gone for three months? If you’re a fan of the TV show “Stranger Things” like I am, you might have imagined the Foundation office taking on some characteristics of The Upside Down (Not familiar with the show? The Upside Down is an alternate dimension existing in parallel to the human world. Imagine a world very similar to what we know but distorted by time and space). Don’t worry — it was not that dramatic or ominous of an experience, but it did take on a distinct “same, but different” vibe!

We often focus on the benefits tied to the person that actually goes on a sabbatical, but I’m here to share the flipside of why a sabbatical is great for the rest of us and the organization left behind. Here’s what I learned this summer:

1. Trust yourself and stretch. The staff was trusted enough to approve the sabbatical in the first place. We used this as an active learning experience — to have faith in that trust and stretch a little deeper and try on a few new things this summer, which was rewarding and had lasting effects.

2. Respect the sabbatical bubble, but…. Unless something really bad or really good happens, it’s important to let that person unplug completely. There were a handful of times we really needed Lori this summer, like when Dr. Phail Wynn, Jr. passed away, or to weigh in on a vital decision or two but other than that we were very hands off. It taught us to lean into our leadership and showed her that we were capable of doing the work even when she was away.

3. Test the ground rules. It was important before Lori left for us to make clear which decisions were ok to move forward without her, and which ones were not. We made sure we had her approval on things we needed it on before she left so she didn’t come back to a whole new world.

4. Focus on the main things. Sabbaticals are not necessarily the time to take on new projects, more work, and new partners. It’s a great way to recommit to activities that fall into the “main things” of an organization. I can’t really say we followed our own advice here though — our staff is pretty energetic and passionate, and we definitely bit off a bit more this summer than usual.

5. Lean into the village. We are a team, and without Lori we were forced to really lean into that team — determine each other’s strengths, and work together to make things happen. Things don’t need to bottle neck at the president, and we’re excited to be more cohesive now that Lori’s back and can plug back in at a different level.

6. Focus on re-entry. It was strange not to hear Lori’s voice in our meetings, so we started trying to channel her at the beginning of the summer. It was a good exercise in bringing different perspectives into decisions, as well as being empathetic to what other people may be thinking. My advice? Take note of where you really miss their voice and where it may have felt refreshing to not have it and revisit/explore that feeling.

7. When the cat’s away…Don’t forget to have a LITTLE fun, right?

Was it a successful sabbatical pilot for us? I might be biased (because I am next in line having worked at the Foundation for 11 years), but the sabbatical has more than proven to our staff and board that we have a strong, healthy organization. Nothing broke over the summer. Major projects pushed forward. Grants went out every week. Donors and nonprofits connected with our staff daily. We built stronger, direct relationships across our staff and board. We started some new, exciting work — as a team.

Did we miss Lori? Yes, absolutely. Did it feel like The Upside Down with her not here in the office? Yes, sometimes. But the experience was worth it, and I hope other organizations in our community consider investing in this type of professional development for your leaders and for the health of your sustainable operations as well (and, spoiler alert — we’ll explore how funding capacity building to ensure this sort of organizational work is important in a future post).

This post was written for the Foundation by Jessica Aylor, Vice President of Community Engagement