Linda In The News - Executive Female Magazine

Disappearing Acts

Let's face it-sometimes a to-week vacation just doesn't cut it. But how to take the break you yearn for without sacrificing the career you've worked so hard to build? These three women did just that-and so can you.

by Jennifer Pellet, Executive Female Magazine, June/July 2002.

After 14 years climbing the corporate ladder, Linda Manassee Buell had landed the kind of position many aspire to-overseeing more than 150 employees as director of the Midwest retail travel division of American Express Corp. What's more, she and her husband, Chuck, a radio broadcasting executive, made the quintessential power couple. "People looked at our to-story penthouse in Chicago and our lifestyle and said, 'wow, you have it all,' "she says. "But that's not how we felt."

At 38, Buell, who had lived in seven cities and held nine titles during her trek to the top, needed some time away from her job to reflect on what she really wanted. She also knew that while her company offered sabbatical leave, asking for it could put a hiccup in her career track. "It's not like our boss really wants you to be gone for three to six months," she points out, adding that, in the end, she decided it was worth the risk and applied for -and received- a three month sabbatical.

If that sounds like a fantasy come true to you, you're not alone. According to a recent national poll, nearly seven in 10 people who make more than $40,000 a year fantasize about taking a few months off from work. And one out of very five 35- to 49-years olds fantasizes about it daily. Some are simply burnt out and yearn to check out of the pressure cooker and recoup. Others long to fulfill a long-held dream-say, a three-month sojourn traveling through Asia or assisting on an archeological dig in Costa Rica. While the vast majority do nothing to procure these coveted respites, more and more people are exploring ways to bring their dreams to fruition-and many are finding that it's not as hard as you might think.

In fact, a whopping 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies have some sort of leave policy on their books. A great many smaller firms, while not necessarily offering an official sabbatical program, will consider requests on a case-by-case basis. And, finally, if a leave of absence is not an option, there are other measures you can consider to get the time away you need. When Amelie Tseng was ready to take a break from her lofty, but extremely demanding, post as head of the press department at Nickelodeon International, she wasn't about to take no for an answer. So she didn't ask; she left-albeit gently. "I had just staffed up my departments," she recounts. "So I talked to my boss and to human resources and said, 'This is a good time for me to leave.'"

The mother of two small children-one and three years old at the time-Tseng had long been a hard charging, Type A executive, traveling once a month for a full week at a time and working long hours. "Because I was dong international work, the clock didn't stop when I left the office," She explains. "If I was dealing with Asia, I was on the phone at home until late into the night, or, when I was dealing with Europe, early in the morning."

Just as she reached the pinnacle of her career, Tseng realized that she needed a break. While fatigue from the long hours and frequent travel would have been understandable, that's not what got to Tseng. In fact, she thrived on the pressure. "Less than 24 hours after I gave birth to my second child, I was on the phone at 2 a.m. hiring an agency in Japan from my hospital bed," she recounts. "That's just my personality."

"But even though I'd had this incredible career path and felt good about reaching the top, there was a lot of guilt involved because I felt that some of it was at the expense of my kids," she adds. "So I realized that I needed to leave to spend more time with them."

While Tseng originally intended to take a little time off and then start her own business, her break lasted more than a year, and led to are form of her workaholic ways. She now credits the time out for enabling her to reevaluate values and rethink priorities. "Once you're on a path, you tend to just keep going on it," she says, "and it's not until you take a break that you ask yourself, 'Hey, do I really love that?'"

By the time she entered the work force as a freelance public relations consultant, spending three days a week at he office of her client, USA Cable, and two days at home, Tseng was dead set against returning to her fast-paced ways. "When they first offered me a job, I said no, because I really liked the balance," explains the 39-year-old executive. "But I also really loved the job, so when it got down to the wire I put my name back-in but on the condition that there were certain parameters."

Only after her company agreed to a workday that started at 9:30 (so that Tseng could bring her kids to school) and to flexibility about days when she might need to leave early for parent-teacher conferences or to take one of her kids to a doctor, did she take the post. "Taking the time away made me more focused on what I wanted from a job when I came back and more able to be vocal about things," she explains. "In my previous jobs, I was always reluctant to draw attention to the fact that I was a mother. I wanted to be perceived as being focused on the job while being a mom and having responsibilities at home."

For Buell, the escape from day-to-day responsibilities also proved a pivotal first step toward a new perspective-and a new way of life. While Buell returned to her job and stayed on at American Express for three more years after her sabbatical, she spent that period working toward her present career as a life coach.

In fact, one of the first things she was urge her employees, many of whom were having difficulty coping with on-the-job stress, to consider a sabbatical-and advise them on how to sell the idea to the company (click here, Sabbatical 101). While reflecting on her own experience and advising her colleagues, Buell came to the realization that sabbaticals are often misused, in part because by the time most people resort to taking one they're too burned out from their work lives to use the time effectively.

"Ideally, a sabbatical should be an opportunity to stretch yourself, to learn something new," she asserts. Even more important, it's a time to assess the way you work and learn how to approach it more effectively. "The deadlines aren't going to change," says Buell. "The inbox isn't going to change. But you do have control over yourself and you can walk into that environment from a different place and not get attached to the craziness there."

When Buell left American Express three years later it was to found her own company, Simplify Life (www.simplifylife.com). She now works with clients on developing leadership skills, defining career desires, starting new businesses, and lifestyles changes –all things she experienced firsthand in her career progression.

Buell still advocates sabbaticals, and points to warning signs such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, frequently illness, and shortness of temper, as signals that a break is overdue. But when a leave of absence isn't feasible-whether because an employer is unwilling or the employee can't afford to take unpaid leave-she counsels her clients on finding ways to take an "on-the-job sabbatical."

When Becky Henderson contacted Buell in October 2001, she was desperate. She couldn't afford to leave her job as a supervisor at a plant that manufactures silicon wafers, but it was making her miserable. "I was really stuck," says the 36-year-old. "I've never worked anywhere else so I couldn't fathom what else I would do. But the day-to-day chaos was overwhelming."

Each day, Henderson would leave work exhausted, with barely enough energy to go home, heat up some soup, and lounge on the couch. Despite her fatigue, she also had difficulty sleeping and would find herself lying in bed and thinking about the litany of tasks that faced her in the morning. Henderson was sure the only solution would be a drastic change, such as a new job. But the prescribed cure turned out to be much simpler. Working with Buell, Henderson took a hard look at virtually every aspect of her daily routine and made a series of small changes.

Breathing breaks were the first minor triumph. In times of stress, Buell counseled Henderson to take the first opportunity she could to sit down, "just stare at a spot on the wall and focus on breathing deeply for five minutes, and not let your mind drift back into thinking over problems." Henderson's initial skepticism dissolved when breathing breaks proved a cure to her insomnia.

"That was the thing that changed the fastest," she says. "And once I was able to sleep at night, I was able to get up earlier so I didn't have to start the day running and go, go, go all day." In fact, much of what Henderson learned revolved around altering the pace of her day in small but ultimately significant ways. In the morning, instead of tuning the radio to a news station, she popped a CD of soothing music into her stereo. She made sure to eat regularly, and to have a good book on hand at all times. "A good book is my time out," she says. "Linda taught me that you should have ‘distractions' that help you escape. It was a novel idea for me. I didn't think you were supposed to escape; I thought you were supposed to deal."

She also made changes at work, some of which initially sparked concern among her employees, peers, and supervisors. When Henderson cleared way a decade of accumulated clutter-mementos, of trips, gifts from co-workers, company tokens-from her desk and replaced it all with a vase of fresh flowers, staffers came in to ask if she'd been laid off. And when she began shutting her door for half an hour a day to plow through paperwork without interruption, it took a while for her coworkers to accept the practice.
"The culture here is that you never shut the door, and it was strange to see how people reacted to something that small," she recounts. "But blocking out that time really helped me to get things done."

While Henderson embarked on her "on-the-job sabbatical" as a stopgap-a way to reduce stress in the short term until she was able to make a real change-she now feels it was as effective, if not more so, than a real break. "Originally, I was thinking, ‘How can I take a leave of absence?'" she says. "But even if I had taken a six-month break-which I couldn't have afforded-I would have come back to work and it would have been the same thing all over again.

"The interesting thing is I still have all the same responsibilities, but I feel differently now," she adds. "I'm calmer and much happier, and because of that I'm able to stay focused and not get overwhelmed. And, as a result, I'm beating deadlines on stuff, which is nice."

Contact Linda Manassee Buell at www.simplifylife.com or (858) 513-0180.

Copyright 2002, Disappearing Acts used with permission of Executive Female Magazine. This article orginally appeared in Executive Female Magazine, the publication of the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE).

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