What It's Like To....Take A Real Vacation

Before becoming Vice President of Information Services at Boston's Northeastern University in 1998, Bob Weir worked for 21 years at IBM, where he never got a real vacation.

A mentor once told me, "If you want to come back to an empty inbox, take at least three weeks off. Your staff can hold anything for you for a week, important things for two weeks and nothing for three weeks. They have to handle it." And an old boss used to say that if you're doing the right leadership job, your organization should be able to run itself.

I never had the opportunity to use that advice at IBM. But when I moved to a new job, a new institution and a new industry, it was now or never.

After I settled in as Northeastern's CIO and began to understand the business cycles in higher education, I declared that I'd use my vacation all at once, taking a month off that first summer. Summer at a university is a time when demands from students, faculty and staff are relatively low; executive discussions and decision making are suspended, and my teams in IS spend their time retooling for the fall rush and coming academic year.

My boss raised an eyebrow at my plan, but I convinced him that my staff could handle it. I even sold the fact that it'd be a test of whether my team could operate without me—a live test of the succession planning we're all supposed to do in case the CIO is hit by a bus.

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In five years, Northeastern CIO Bob Weir's staff has never contacted him while he's been on vacation.

As I left that first summer, I set a few key parameters that I've held to every summer since. I told everyone that my number two is in charge. I'm blessed by having a former CIO as my number two. We refer to each other as Mr. Outside (me, working across the university executive team and externally) and Mr. Inside (Rick McCool, working across IS to make sure we deliver on our commitments). This arrangement is good business practice—that it enables me to take a vacation is gravy.

I told Rick and my assistant how to contact me on vacation, but then told them not to unless there's a real emergency. In five years, they've never called. I vowed not to check voice mail or business e-mail. I told them to save nothing for me. I flushed my personal e-mail, to-do lists and such so that when I returned, there wasn't a pile waiting.

My first couple of days back from vacation, I blocked off my calendar so that I could reconnect with people (not tasks), think about my personal challenges for the coming year and get organized.

So what's it been like?

Transforming.

The first week, I always take a fishing trip; this year, my buddy and I spent a week on a houseboat in Minnesota. Every day we were up at dawn to fish. And at midnight, we'd sit on top of the houseboat in deck chairs watching the northern lights. By two days into these trips, I'm relaxed. I'm a fisherman, not a CIO.

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The rest of the month, my family sees me every day, and I'm not rushing off for this or that. By the third week, I'm no longer wearing, never mind looking at, a watch. And my batteries are recharged.

The business did fine without me, which is supposed to be the point of leading rather than managing. On top of that, I'm relaxed and reenergized, which benefits everyone since a frazzled Bob does nobody any favors.

The CIO role, by its nature, isn't one that fosters a healthy lifestyle. Unhooking from the routine—doing something you really want and nothing you don't—is good for the soul and the business.

—As told to Alice Dragoon

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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