by C.G. Lynch

Five Tips for Getting the Vacation You Need

Jul 17, 20077 mins
CareersIT LeadershipPersonal Software

IT departments may be "always on," but IT leaders need to know how to take some time off

It’s summertime and the office probably seems a little more vacant than normal. But IT, that perennial 24/7 environment, doesn’t shut down, so why should you, right? If that’s the way you think, it’s time for a vacation. The health of your mind and body—and the rest of your department—depends on you getting some much-needed rest. Here are five tips to help you get out of your “always-on” rut and find time to decompress.

1) Plan for your departure and pick a time

While it sounds fairly obvious, you can alleviate a good portion of your anxiety by having a good plan that highlights issues that could crop up while you’re away, says Deborah Brown-Volkman, president of Surpass Your Dreams, a career coaching company. She says this planning needs to extend beyond just saying what dates you’ll be gone. “Take a look at your projects, and let your staff know what they need to do,” she says. “It’s so important to be as specific as possible with people.”

In addition, IT leaders say that, despite the 24/7 nature of IT, you can still usually pick a time of year when your business cycles experience a swoon. For Bob Weir, vice president of IS for Northeastern University in Boston, he doesn’t enjoy the posh academic calendar that people might assume. Northeastern, a school that prides itself on its co-op program (where students work at companies related to their major), never really shuts down. Students have unique schedules, and the university accommodates them by having two summer sessions in addition to the two semesters during the school year. Even so, there are fewer students on campus during the summer, and Weir’s team uses the opportunity to refresh the campus infrastructure. When this happens, Weir finds it a perfect time to let his CTO take the wheel as he ducks out for some time at his house on Bungay Lake in North Attleborough, Mass. “To go out and do all that infrastructure work, they don’t need me for that,” he says. “If, during the [traditional] academic year, we’re talking about bringing out a new service and negotiating that with the Dean, that’s something I handle. So the business cycles help me out.”

2) To connect or not to connect

According to career coach Brown-Volkman, once you’re away, the decision to connect or disconnect largely depends on two things—where you go and what type of person you are. “If you’re an obsessive person, you should go to a deserted island where it won’t work and you’ll be forced to disconnect,” she says. “If you can do things in moderation, you could check e-mail in the morning or the evening.”

Dale Mills, VP of IS for Retirement Residences Real Estate Investment Trust in Cambridge, Ontario, says the decision ultimately depends on where he goes. “Some of the vacations I do are fairly exotic,” he says. “I often go where there aren’t people or any cell phone structures.” Mills, who has traveled to the North Pole, is currently planning a trip to Devon Island, an island north of the Arctic Circle. When he talks with his second-in-command before such a trip, he knows “on these vacations, I’m not accessible,” he says. “I totally shut it down.”

If, on the other hand, he is staying at a resort where there are communications, he modifies his stance on his office contacting him—though only slightly. “When I am in a location with e-mail or phone, it’s under the express order that I’m reachable on emergencies only,” he says.

Northeastern’s Weir agrees, noting that while he’s vacationing at home he probably checks his BlackBerry every half day. But when he’s going somewhere new or unique, he shuts it down. “If I took my wife, Denise, to Europe and I stayed connected to the university, she’d probably box my ears and for good reason,” he says.

In the end, one thing is clear: When in doubt, disconnect. If something does go wrong while you’re away, checking and responding to e-mails might not do all that much to solve it. When this happens, you’re left with the anxiety of the problem lingering over you head for the rest of the vacation, and you’re powerless to solve it. “Can you really fix it via BlackBerry?” asks Brown-Volkman. “Probably not. Once you know, it kills the vacation. So you’re generally better not checking it at all.”

3) Stand by your second-in-command

One of the real benefits of taking a vacation is that it helps you build an even stronger relationship with your direct reports by empowering them to make decisions they’d normally not get to make. Once you do this, however, it’s important that you stand behind the decisions. In addition, this helps you with your company’s overall business continuity and succession planning.

“I also like to empower my staff to be able to make decisions,” Mills says. “My key objective is to make myself redundant.”

Northeastern’s Weir agrees, noting that if your staff can handle your absence seamlessly, you know that you’ve become a good leader. “Every CIO should have an organization that can run without you,” says Weir, who adds that he always trusts his second-in-command to make decisions while he’s away. “I’ll stand by anything Rick [his CTO] does,” Weir says. Career coach Brown-Volkman agrees, noting that having high-quality lieutenants doesn’t marginalize an IT leader’s value. In fact, it accentuates how good a manager that person is. “When you’re a senior executive, you’re judged by how well you manage your people,” she says. “For you to go away and to have everything taken care of really shows what a great leader you are.”

4) Re-Entry

Depending on how long you were away, you’ll have a lot to catch up on when you get back—or maybe you won’t. While e-mail is its own animal (you’ll have thousands), don’t bother trying to catch up with what happened by scrolling through your inbox, says Brown-Volkman. You’ll have so many messages you’ll be overwhelmed. Instead, she says, a debriefing session with your second-in-command usually proves to be a much more effective method.

When Northeastern’s Weir goes on vacation at home, he brings his BlackBerry and “sort of flush[es] things” as he goes, he says. But when he takes a special vacation with his wife and they’re really “getting away,” he does something pretty extraordinary: “I’ve left instructions that nothing is to be saved for me,” he says. “I had a mentor at IBM who always took three-week vacations or more. And his theory was, they can save anything a week, important things two weeks and nothing three weeks.”

Instead of e-mail after a nice hiatus from work, he relies on a debriefing session with his CTO to get the executive summary of what occurred while he was away. Suddenly, irrelevant things that crossed his inbox will not be of concern. “It’s more effective because you focus on what’s important,” he says.

5) Force yourself to take a break (and understand that the ship can sail without you)

Brown-Volkman says you are always going to find more reasons to not take a vacation than to take one. In the end, however, you should understand that time off is essential. “Saying you should take a vacation is also like saying you should eat well or exercise,” she says. “You’ll always find a reason to not get away. But sooner or later, all those reasons catch up with you. You’re tired, burned out and not as productive.”

Indeed, Mills says that if you’ve done your job, your organization should be able to run itself while you’re away. “Everyone feels they’re indispensable or that things can’t survive without them,” he says. “But the reality is, you have a lot of capable people. You need to work with your staff to schedule and make sure that [vacation] happens.”