I have few regrets about my career, but there’s one that stands out. Back in 1998, my 2-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, and my life was dramatically altered. This happened before there were widely accepted protocols or insurance coverage for autism treatment. It was a very difficult time. I should have taken family medical leave, but instead I toughed it out—my turn to be foolish.
In 1998, I was learning to be a dev manager in Office. It was exciting—a real time of professional growth for me. I didn’t want to seem weak to my team or less than fully committed to my boss. So, I spent days split between work and medical appointments, and at night I’d be reading the latest autism research and consoling my wife and myself. My work performance suffered, and my family suffered. I should have taken leave.
I’m not alone. Microsoft is in a fast-paced industry, and many employees work far beyond the 40-hour week. Stepping away for a few months can seem unimaginable (even for a sabbatical). Wouldn’t you lose your career momentum? Wouldn’t people stop taking you seriously? Wouldn’t your performance reviews suffer? Not if you do it right. Let’s review when to take a leave, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to ensure things go well while you’re away and when you return.
Should I stay or should I go?
When you or a close family member is gravely ill (or dies), taking a leave is a given. When you’ve had a new baby, adopted a child, or earned a sabbatical, taking a leave is obvious (though some folks even skip these chances to take time off). But how do you decide to take a leave when you’re dealing with a long-term illness or a problem that’s difficult, but not overwhelming? The key is your level of distraction.
During a leave (including paid leaves like sabbaticals and one-month parental leave), you are not considered to be working. You keep your benefits and your job (typically up to 12 weeks), but your results aren’t evaluated. In contrast, if you choose to continue working, your results are evaluated in comparison to your peers. There’s no “yeah but…” when you’ve chosen to work.
Thus, generally speaking, if you are distracted enough by your situation to jeopardize your work performance significantly, you should take a leave. The leave lets you keep your job and health benefits without being penalized for a drop in your results. Every situation is different, so please engage your HR representative about your circumstances, and check out the HR website for further information.
Sometimes work can provide a sanctuary from difficulties in your personal life. If you can continue to work productively while handling the demands of the crisis situation, taking a leave may not be necessary.
You shouldn’t be penalized for being on leave, but you also shouldn’t be penalized for switching teams or working part time. We all know bad managers who ignore those rules. If you have one of those bad managers in your management chain, you need protection and an advocate while you’re away. Fortunately, your HR representative has that specific role and responsibility.
Your HR representative meets regularly with your management chain, attends People Discussions, and screens reward distributions. When you meet with your HR representative about your leave (and you certainly should no matter what), bring up your concerns about rewards. HR folks are your advocates—use them.
Every team has some turnover, and HR is no different. Stay in touch with your HR representative during your leave, and engage your new HR representative quickly should there be a change.
Since HR representatives work for Microsoft, you might think that they’d advocate for your manager more than you. However, HR representatives act on your behalf, not only out of the goodness of their hearts, but also to ensure that Microsoft acts as a responsible employer.
Pick up the pieces
You’ve arranged your leave; now you must ensure things go well while you’re gone. Ideally, you want people to barely notice you are away. That may seem counterintuitive—after all, don’t you want people to be desperate for your return because you’re so critical to everyone’s success? No, you don’t.
You don’t want to feel pressured to return. The whole point of a leave is to focus on things beyond work. Also, how well your area of responsibility performs is a reflection on you, even when you’re not around. Consider how you’d react if a peer went on vacation and her area of responsibility imploded. You’d think she was irresponsible, and you’d be right.
Before you go on leave, make a list of everything you’re responsible for at work. (I like using OneNote for this, since it’s easy to edit and share). The list should include recurring meetings, SharePoint sites, distribution and security lists, social media, committees, performance reviews (Connects), and triage, as well as your primary work areas. Then work with your manager to delegate or mitigate every item on that list for the time you are gone. Finally, share your list with everyone on your team so that they are reassured and well-aligned.
You might feel worried that giving away all your work will leave you with nothing when you return, but it actually provides you with an unbelievable opportunity to rejuvenate your career (as I’ll discuss shortly in the “I’m back” section). You might feel guilty delegating every item of your work to others, but it’s the right thing to do, it takes work off your mind, and it provides a great opportunity for others to shine while you’re gone.
If you manage someone going on leave, talk to their coworkers about their chance to shine, and express great confidence in their ability to cover. These situations often result in teams coming together and spurring each other to grow and do their best work. It’s a wonderful opportunity to gain capability and confidence, while supporting each other and a teammate on leave.
If a member of your team is on leave, you may be able to hire a temp (a contingent staff person) to help fill gaps. Contact your manager or HR representative to see if that possibility exists and is appropriate for your situation.
I don’t want to hear it
While you can delegate all your work, you can’t really delegate email. However, you can aggressively filter it. Set up an Exchange inbox rule to delete every email you receive automatically, except email from a particular list of addresses or email that has “SAVE:” in the subject line.
The list of address to exclude from deletion should include your family and friends (in case they miss your personal email account), your management chain, and distribution lists you still wish to follow. If you are working on a special project while you’re away (like on a sabbatical), you should also include the people on the project.
Prior to activating your filter, change your out-of-office reply to say something like this:
<Your name> is on an extended leave until <date>.
All email without “SAVE:” in the subject line, including the colon, will be deleted.
For <responsibility 1> contact mailto:<owner 1>.
For <responsibility 2> contact mailto:<owner 2>.
For <responsibility 3> contact mailto:<owner 3>.
With the filter in place, you should receive only a handful of messages a day. (During my sabbatical, I went from hundreds of emails a day to around 10.) If you’re nervous about missing something important, you can scan the subject lines in your deleted items folder once a week. I only found one important email filtered out during my 12-week sabbatical.
It’s natural to feel out of touch when you return to work. The good news is that everyone is still doing your job for you. That allows you to start slow and even redefine your role.
Start out in a passive listening mode, just as if you were The new guy (a great read for this situation). As you ascertain what happened while you were gone, listen for opportunities to make a difference in the near term and long term. Your fresh perspective will allow to you catch things others may have missed, and your initial “honeymoon” period (typically, a couple of weeks) will give you time to plan and act.
You can extend your honeymoon period with quick wins—solutions to near-term problems that you discovered while listening. Often these near-term issues are missed by folks caught up in day-to-day work, or they don’t seem important enough resolve. But with your fresh eyes and unencumbered schedule, you can make a big difference right away. (For example, one of my leads returned from parental leave and noticed a drop in system performance. We hadn’t addressed the gradual drop, but he was able to fix much of it quickly.)
Your quick wins make you seem productive and give you time to decide on your new long-term responsibilities. You could simply choose to take back your old role, but you could also take back only a few old responsibilities and fill the rest of your time with long-term opportunities you discovered while in listening mode. Coming back from a leave may be just what you need to rejuvenate your career.
If you are given a project immediately upon your return, that’s fine. You get immediate purpose and will quickly acclimate. Ideally, you should still take the opportunity to notice things others might miss and consider where you want to focus your work long term.
Where do you want to go today?
There is a special kind of leave that’s worth calling out: sabbatical (aka the Microsoft Achievement Award). If you maintain level 66 for six months, work full time, have been at Microsoft full time for 10 consecutive years, haven’t been on sabbatical before, and have your vice president’s approval, you can earn a Microsoft Achievement Award (eight weeks of paid vacation, to which you can add four weeks of available regular vacation).
Getting 12 weeks off is sweet if you’re fortunate enough to receive it. However, many people wait years to take their sabbatical even after they’ve earned it. That’s crazy. For me, I couldn’t think of how to spend 12 weeks. It’s too long for a regular vacation trip. The kids have summer activities and school. I mean, what do you do with that much time?
Here’s what you do: take three trips and work on a project.
- Take one trip to somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. I went to Egypt in 2007, prior to the current regional turmoil.
- Take one trip with your significant other to someplace romantic. We went to Cabo San Lucas.
- Take one trip with your family. We toured New Mexico.
- Work on a project you’ve never had time to finish. I published my columns in a book.
Otherwise, treat your sabbatical like any other leave. You’ll definitely want to return to your current team. That’s because you’ll come up with all kinds of ideas for your current group while you’re away. When you return, you’ll be reinvigorated and anxious to implement all those innovations.
Many thanks to Bob Clough, who advised me on how to use my sabbatical.
Thanks, I needed that
Not every situation calls for a leave of absence, but it’s good to have that option when needed. If there’s something going on in your life that significantly compromises your ability to focus on work, you owe it to yourself and your team to take some time away.
Reach out to your HR representative and discuss your options. Ensure that he’ll be an advocate for you while you’re away. Delegate everything you do at work, even the small things, to your co-workers. Filter your email so it won’t be a worry or distraction. And when you return, take the opportunity to start fresh and expand your horizons.
One of the most surprising things about being on leave is how quickly time passes for your co-workers while you’re away. A few months to you might feel like a couple of weeks to them. Don’t be shocked to hear, “Wow, you’re back already?” If you prepare properly and delegate well, your peers will hardly realize you’re gone. That’s why you won’t lose career momentum. Instead, a leave may be just the break you need to get your life in order and your career renewed.
Excellent article. Especially the part about "coming back".