Two years ago, Chad Oakley realised he had to change the way he took a vacation. Afraid of what might happen if he were out of touch too long, Oakley, president of Charles Aris, a Greensboro, North Carolina, executive search firm, said he would spend most of his vacation time on the phone or at a computer, squeezing in “pockets of relaxation” when he could. The result: “I tried to do both things at once — work and be on vacation — and ended up doing both poorly,” he said. He returned home feeling more stress than when he left.
To take a real vacation, Oakley knew, would require planning. So he started to rely more on his 30 employees. He prepared those he worked with regularly on recruiting assignments and handed responsibility over to them well before he left. And he began letting his clients know he would be away. Now, according to Oakley, he is able to get a real break when he goes on a vacation with his wife and three children.
“I’ve found a way to make it work for everyone,” he said.
Of all the challenges small-business owners face, one of the toughest is taking a vacation. Like Oakley, many worry that they will lose potential business or alienate clients, or that the business will not be able to handle a crisis. And these days, with fast response to emails expected and the economy still rocky, many small-company owners are particularly unwilling to take a real break.
Such an attitude, however, can be bad for the health of both the owner and the business.
“If you don’t get a break, you’re going to burn out, and you’ll never achieve the level of success you’re aiming for,” said Debra Condren, who has a PhD in psychology and is the founder of Manhattan Business Coaching, an executive coaching firm based in New York. On the other hand, she said, if you take a breather, you are likely to return refreshed and better able to run your business. This guide offers tips from company owners who have managed to get away.
PREPARE YOUR STAFF
For the business to function while you are away, your employees have to be able to make the right decisions. This requires making sure they have the information they need to do their jobs — and maybe parts of yours, as well. For example, while Oakley works regularly with an employee on each search assignment, he has that person take the lead about a week before he departs. They discuss what the individual may need to do while Oakley is away, important information about each assignment and situations that may arise. Most important, he hands off responsibility to employees for running weekly half-hour to one-hour client updates, crucial meetings during which Oakley generally provides a detailed review of each project’s status — a task he used to conduct even while on vacation.
Similarly, Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, who heads Admission Possible, a college admissions consulting firm based in La Jolla, California, starts preparing her five employees one to two months before she leaves. This preparation includes detailed instructions about how to handle phone calls and emails from current and prospective clients. She also goes over the types of problems that may arise, with step-by-step guidance for how to handle them - things like what to say to a distraught parent and whom to contact at the College Board. “If your staff is very prepared and organised, you can prevent big problems from happening, and you can enjoy your vacation,” Shaevitz said.
For Simon Philip Wolf, president of Wolf Designs, a business based in Los Angeles that designs and sells products like jewelry boxes and watch winders, it is all about making sure his 41 employees feel in control.
“Otherwise, while you’re away, they panic,” he said. To that end, about a week before he leaves, he meets with every department head separately to review in minute detail everything each is working on. “I get more into things than I usually would,” he said.
For example, before leaving for a two-week honeymoon in Greece in September, he met with the company’s two designers and discussed a jewelry box they were creating for a big retail client that had to be shipped for approval during his vacation. Wolf, noting the client’s proclivities, advised his designers to develop versions of the box that were slightly darker and lighter in color and to keep them in reserve, just in case. And in fact, while he was away, the client asked for a darker shade, and his designers were able to provide it without contacting Wolf.
MANAGE CLIENT EXPECTATIONS
Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of vacation planning is letting clients know you will be away. Of course, you also have to make sure they understand that the same level of work will be done during your absence. “Let them know who will be handling what tasks and that your staff can contact you in an emergency,” Condren said.
For Jeff Kear, co-owner of Planning Pod, a Denver company that runs a website with online business management tools, managing expectations also requires having a methodical communication plan. He contacts clients a month ahead of time, then a week in advance and, finally, the day before he leaves. He also provides the name of the person to contact in his absence — either one of his four employees or his business partner, depending on the situation. Occasionally, according to Kear, a client may be displeased, worrying that a project will not be completed according to schedule. In that case, he said, “I reassure them that we originally built my vacation into our work plan — and everything will get done on time."
PLAN AROUND SLOW PERIODS
If your business is seasonal or there are predictable weeks when demand slows, that is often the best time to go away. Shaevitz, for example, schedules her trips during months that are less critical for her college-bound clients. That means never planning a vacation for any of the months from July to January or during the anxiety-filled month of April, when many colleges inform applicants whether they have been accepted.
Adam Jones, managing partner of the AFJ Consulting Group, also plans his vacations around slow periods. But because his nine-employee firm in Los Angeles does accounting and bookkeeping for nonprofit organisations, he generally goes away around Thanksgiving, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and the last week of May — times when he figures clients will have a less urgent need for his services.
SET A SCHEDULE
Some small-business owners are able to cut the cord and eliminate communication with the office completely. More often, they set aside times during the day when they check email or make calls. Shaevitz, for example, reads her email once in the morning and once in the evening.
Oakley carves out two hours in the morning, before his children wake up, to attend to business. He lets employees know his plan in advance. They often schedule a time to talk if they have questions or other matters that cannot wait until he returns. Most important, according to Oakley, is sticking to your plan. “It’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, let’s just schedule a call for the afternoon’,” he said. “But you can’t let the business creep in and take over your vacation.”
New York Times News service