One of the great things about running your own company is the ability to make your own rules. And one of those rules at Altitude, which I set when founding the company in 2004, is that partners in the company must take a sabbatical every five years.
It seems like a luxury — but in reality, it’s a necessity.
The purpose of this is two-fold. There is the obvious recharging of the batteries. Equally important, however, is gaining a very clear understanding of how to best serve clients, scale the business, improve profitability and ensure the business can thrive without you.
When you’re removed from the business for a full month, you see where you’re really needed, where you are not, what is needed to fill the gaps, what has to happen to realize the longer-term goals and much more.
Success is about the people with whom you surround yourself and who are doing the day-to-day work that bring results.
So, in mid-2015, the leadership team began examining what was holding us back and what didn’t go so well the last time I took sabbatical. We then moved on to a holistic, company-wide exercise looking at roles and responsibilities. Out of this, we started to see who could best wear which of my many hats – and what structurally and personnel-wise we would need to add, change or enhance in order to make my absence a non-issue.
And, on July 28, I left the office with complete confidence. I knew that the train would keep chugging along because we started planning my month away nearly 18 months beforehand.
My adventure began in the Canadian Rockies where I cycled 300+ miles from Banff to Jasper and took some amazing hikes. All that time in the saddle and fresh air got me thinking about the future – and I came back to Altitude with a number of lessons to share.
1. Plan to get hit by the bus.
Or an RV. Day one of my ride, we climbed Mount Norquay Road to the reward of an amazing view of Banff below. About 20 minutes into the climb, an RV came close. Too close. As a company leader, the best thing you can do for your business is recognize and accept that no one lasts forever – and no one is irreplaceable. Even you.
If you haven’t already done so, look around your organization and see if you can envision the one, two or three people that can take on all your different responsibilities – and do them well. If not, start to craft a job description for those responsibilities that can’t be filled with existing internal personnel and start looking.
Think you can skip this exercise? Ask yourself the question: “What would happen if I actually got hit by the bus?” Would the company shrivel? Would customers abandon?
Next, look at your leadership team and, if you can, move quickly to get a plan in place to scale that person, her role, her team and have redundancies in place in the event that she gets hit by that bus. Or leaves.
2. Check your ego at the door.
I spoke to a variety of people leading up to and during my sabbatical. A pastor, rank-and-file professionals, lawyers, financial professionals, even a nuclear physicist. And when I told them I was taking five weeks off, invariably, they asked if I was worried. My answer was an unequivocal “No.” In large part because of #1 above.
I’ve learned a lot since starting this company in 2004 and while in the early days we were selling “me,” as a company, we have long moved past that. It took a while.
As a leader in the company, you need to move away from that thinking, too. It’s not about you. Success is about the people with whom you surround yourself and who are doing the day-to-day work that bring results. I’d rather be the third smartest person in a room of three and have great results than be the smartest person in the room. Any day. That’s removing ego from the equation.
Learn from past hiring mistakes, trust your gut and get the right people in the door – and work to keep them. Then make sure you and everyone in your organization checks their egos at that door. Bad decisions are made when ego is allowed to drive decision-making and dominate conversation. If it’s not best for the client, the company or the team, it’s not the right decision.
This is a lesson I’ve been reminded of time and time again.
3. Cover blind spots without resentment.
On the first day of cycling, I rode alongside an investment manager from Colorado who was in my tour group. I was a stronger climber and more fearless on the descents, but he was much better on the long, rolling flats. I’d get right on his back wheel drafting for kilometers at a time, going faster while using less energy. But every time we saw the support van, he’d need to stop to refuel because he’d always forget to load up before pushing off for the day.
By day two, this got a bit annoying.
Day three, I loaded a few extra energy bars in my saddle bag and two extra bottles of Gatorade in my jersey that I gave to him so we didn’t have to stop. It was our best day on the road and set the tone for the rest of the trip. He’d pull me along; I’d keep him fueled.
When I think back on the key moments in Altitude’s evolution that enabled our growth and afforded me the confidence to go away for five weeks, one of those moments was when we started practicing – and believing – that it’s okay to be imperfect. In fact, that belief is what makes a group of coworkers a high performing team.
A lot of companies run like a roller coaster ride: get a new customer or hit a growth spurt, hire some people. Lose a client, fire some people. That doesn’t cut it.
First, recognize your own weaknesses. Then, surround yourself with trusted people that willingly, skillfully and happily cover those blind spots. Formalize it. This may mean some shuffling some roles and responsibilities.
One of my traits is that I am a long-range planner and big picture thinker. Details elude me. They annoy me. That’s why I love my leadership team – they are all about the details. Rather than resenting the fact I don’t flesh everything out, they embrace the role and remove the expectation that I will excel at something I know I’m not good at.
Play out this exercise with your leadership team.
Then, do the next level of the organization until everyone in the company recognizes it and is set up in work groups and with processes that enable those blind spots to be covered – without resentment.
This was vital for me going away with high confidence. Because I knew people were looking out for each other and if something happened, someone would be there to help. It’s not fail-proof or perfect, but it sure beats people being pissed at each other and the downward spiral that creates. (A shout out to Shawn Kent Hayashi from the Professional Development Group for opening our eyes to this way of thinking and building a strong team.)
4. Slow and steady wins. Every time.
Day 5 of the ride presented a spectacular 15k climb up the Sunwapta Pass – from the Saskatchewan River to the foot of the Athabasca Glacier. There was a small group of much younger, stronger riders.
As the climb started, they zoomed by me and got to the first pit stop about 15 minutes before I did. I nodded as I rode past without stopping. A while later they zoom passed me, getting to the next pit stop about 10 minutes before me. I nodded and kept going. By the time I passed the fourth pit stop where they were resting, it was over. I crested the pass and cruised down to the base of the glacier, beating them there by a good 10 minutes.
The same lesson applies to your business. Investors be damned, I’ll take slow, steady growth any day over boom and bust. Don’t be so focus on the short-term financials. A week, month or a quarter shouldn’t determine the path you take. Stay focused on the long-term goals and path by making sure someone else – someone you trust – is focusing on all the various elements of the day-to-day. And then compare notes, at a high level, often, on a month-to-month basis. Keep your eye on finish line, not the stops, bumps and climbs in between. It will cause you to pull over too often and your competitors just might beat you to the ultimate prize.
5. Eyes wide open.
The beginning of each cycling day, everyone on the tour received a route briefing from our guide. I always went right to the end – to see where we’d wind up if I made every climb, conquered every pass, slayed each downhill. Whether it was the spectacular view of Lake Moraine or amazing accommodations of the Jasper Lodge that awaited, that prize drove me to keep pushing myself when I thought I couldn’t make it the final 20K.
Never lose sight of why you are doing what you are doing.
For me, it is about my family – my immediate family and my Altitude family. And while that may sound cliché, it’s the truth. I push myself, my leadership team and the entire organization to exceed our clients’ needs and expectations for one simple reason: To make us all successful and to enable us to share in that success. I sign the paychecks. I feel a personal responsibility to all the families that count on that cash every month.
A lot of companies run like a roller coaster ride: get a new customer or hit a growth spurt, hire some people. Lose a client, fire some people. That doesn’t cut it. I spent a lot of time on my break thinking about my long-term goals and they all revolved around Altitude as a means to a very happy ending. For everyone involved.