CASE STUDY: Navigating a CEO Sabbatical

March 3, 2020

CASE STUDY: Navigating a CEO Sabbatical

Whether planned or unexpected, absences at the top of your organization can lead to confusion, internal strife and even organizational paralysis. At Lumina Foundation, where we support quality, equitable education and training beyond high school, I had the opportunity to add the “interim CEO” tag to my role as chief operating officer and general counsel. I did this while our CEO, Jamie Merisotis, took a six-month sabbatical in London.

We successfully navigated his time away. Key to the experience was a determination to make this about more than just being a caretaker and keeping the status quo. It was about maintaining the momentum that we had and using this opportunity to try some new things and expand our bandwidth on new approaches. We learned quite a bit along the way, things that helped keep me and the organization on track. What we learned can help others make this an enriching experience.

Find the Right Person

In my case, years of comfortable working relationships with my executive team colleagues, the CEO and the board members made it fairly easy to step into the interim CEO role. For other organizations, an external candidate might be the right interim fit. I was fortunate to have had a strong understanding of our goals, people and organization. I had been in enough meetings to know how work gets done. Regardless of where you find your short-term leader, the key is to ensure there is a high level of trust in the leader and confidence that the team can work through any issues and succeed.

Rules of Engagement

Before a sabbatical—or immediately, in case of a sudden absence—make sure you, the staff and board understand how things will work. Expectations should be clear; roles should be defined. In most cases, I found that overcommunicating, particularly in the beginning of my tenure, was essential. I learned that that staff too is going through a transition, with varying levels of understanding and discomfort. Recognize that and address it upfront. 

Imitation Is Not Flattery

Our CEO’s leadership style and personality are very different from mine. I quickly learned to be my authentic self. Trying to adopt a different leadership style while juggling additional responsibilities and pressures would have been a huge mistake. In the end, as long as your approach is authentic and honest, it should work. 

It Actually IS About You

This part surprised me. A longtime Lumina partner was seeking someone to speak at a webinar on a specific topic. I thought this was a great opportunity. I found that outside organizations sometimes want the CEO—expert or not. It was just the temporary title they wanted. You are now that person, and you need to understand that many organizations want the CEO merely because she or he is the CEO. 

Work Smarter

While it was difficult to execute, I quickly learned to keep the more unpleasant parts of my usual job—and delegate the rest. I held on to the hard decisions or hard transitions that needed to be made. At the same time, your team will likely be picking up additional responsibilities, and being present for them is very important. Our team was able to bend and flex with many added responsibilities.

Stay Calm

I never had moments where I thought, ‘Oh, this day was just awful.’ I was much calmer, and because of that, so were members of our team. This was a lesson for me that how you behave and what you project has a ripple effect on others. Even if you’re tied up in knots inside, stay calm, and that steadies the ship.

Call in Reinforcements

I was fortunate that our board encouraged me to find resources to help improve my leadership skills and boost efficiencies. I used an executive coach and sought out board members for one-on-one conversations and deep dives. Recognize that as important as external supports are, so too is self-care. For me, swimming was my daily “me time.” I swam at least four mornings a week, and it really helped me think things through. For you, it might be running, reading or your favorite TV show. Give yourself that time to recharge.

Plan for Re-entry

Re-entry can’t be taken for granted; it’s not a switch to be flipped. When I began the interim role, I was advised that the most difficult part of the short-term role is when the CEO returns. The theory is that all internal relationships have changed; we can’t just go back to the way it was before the sabbatical. At Lumina, the re-entry was slow and methodical, with time for the CEO to tread lightly and listen. We have to consider that the organization, interim CEO and returning CEO have all grown and changed, so it is not as simple as reinserting yourself in the business. We’re still assessing what makes sense based on the work that people picked up, what they’re good at and what’s the highest use of our returning CEO.

In the end, I grew, Lumina grew, and our CEO grew with the outside experiences that he brought back to enrich Lumina and the millions of Americans that we serve. Taking time away for a sabbatical—to learn, think, and grow—transformed us all.

The Authors: 

Holiday Hart McKiernan, J.D., is executive vice president, chief operating officer and general counsel for Lumina Foundation.