Paid Time Off or Earned Time On

Blair needs a vacation. And David is blown away by how little time principals take off.



DAVID C. BAKER: Blair, we are going to talk today about work life balance. You know what I mean by that phrase? I was thinking though, there's got to be a better way to think about this.

BLAIR ENNS: Well, I'm a Libra.

DAVID: You're a what?

BLAIR: I'm a Libra.

DAVID: I don't even know what I am, so what does that have to do with this?

BLAIR: What do you mean you don't know what you are?

DAVID: I have no idea.

BLAIR: When were you born? Of course, I'm not going to, I don't know enough, but I'm a Libra. Balance is very important to me. For years, I used to say, what did I used to say? I used to say the secret to life is balance. No. I said something else.

DAVID: Well, apparently balance is more important to you than memory. I have no idea.

BLAIR: Yeah. I got my 23andMe results back a little while ago, and one of the things it shows is I have very poor memory. It shows up genetically.

DAVID: Oh. I tried to do one of those 23andMe kits, but I couldn't spit enough, so I admire your spitting ability. Here we are talking about work life balance. Is that the right phrase? Let's start with that. Is that the best thing to call that? It just feels ... Maybe it's just overused and it's fine, but is there-

BLAIR: Yeah, when we were batting this around, I was thinking time. I have time on the brain, and I am telling myself, "Okay, Blair, what you're not going to do is you're not going to talk about the physics of time," but I think I've gone down the rabbit hole of time. We're recording on a Friday. I go on vacation at five o'clock today for two and a half weeks, and I think that was the impetus for this is just thinking ahead to the vacation and the value of time off, how much a principal of a firm should work, what are the expectations around the amount of time employees should put in? There so much to cover here. You can call it work life balance, or you can call it time.

DAVID: Okay, so let me start by just getting some basic numbers down. How much time do you typically take off a year, defining that as not necessarily away from your town, but you're disconnected from the business. How many days would that include in a year?

BLAIR: As you're answering, beginning to ask the question, I'm feeling, "Ugh," nowhere near enough. I used to be so proud of when I started tracking time off, the first year I started tracking time off. I think I took nine weeks off.

DAVID: It's less than that now?

BLAIR: Oh, it's so much less than that now. In strategic coach, which is the entrepreneurial coaching program that I attend, I've attended for a few years now, they define a free day as a 24 hour period from midnight to midnight where you do not work or think deeply about work. That includes checking email or any communications, so that's a free day. By that definition, how many free days do I take in a year? Probably maybe 14. How many do your employees get? About 135, right?

DAVID: Something, maybe you should be an employee I guess. We can just fast forward there. How long are you typically gone when you take whatever this trip is? Is it usually a week or two weeks? I've noticed one of the things that's really different in different parts of the world is how much time, consecutive, contiguous time people take off in the US versus-

BLAIR: Germany.

DAVID: Canada, Europe, Australia, where they're typically taking, they save it up and take a month off at a time, it seems like.

BLAIR: Yeah. We live in a little tourist town. It's quite touristy in the summer, so I've met some German relatives of friends, two different sets so far this summer who are over here, and they're over here for five weeks at a time. I don't know how many of them are entrepreneurs, but we culturally, and I'm including Canada and the United States, so in North America, I don't think we place a value on rejuvenation the way that some other cultures do. Some people might respond that well, that's part of our economic success of our cultures that we work so hard. I don't think that's the case at all. I think the economic success of North America lies in our freedom to fail, our propensity for risk, which is a cultural thing that is actually quite rare in other parts of the world. I don't think it's because we work harder, but I think there's this illusion where it's this fantasy. I think we're, a lot of us, especially owners of businesses, we're kind of guided by this idea that we need to work harder.

DAVID: Really, this episode isn't about digging deep into our personal vacation lives, it's really to help principals think about what is the strategy and what's the impact? I am just blown away at how little time principals take off. Let me ask you a question that might have multi part answers about the impact of that. If we have a principal who's not taking a lot of time off, and it actually seems to be more difficult for them if they don't have partners because they feel like, "Oh, it's a little harder for coverage back at the firm," and so on. What happens to them and maybe you could use yourself as an example if that's comfortable, and what happens to the firm if they aren't taking enough time off? Maybe we shouldn't even, maybe it's more about if they're not constantly being rejuvenated. What happens in these areas? What bad things slowly start to happen?

BLAIR: I think I can perceive things happening in my clients' businesses, but I really only know this to be true from my own experience, and I don't think of myself as an all that productive person. I'm a sprinter, so I get up and sprint and then I have to lie down for a while, and if I do not build in times of the year where I'm able to lie down, then I'm unable to sprint, and there's been a period of time probably going on two years where I just, it was this ... Because I wasn't lying down in the form of vacation, it was just a slog. I said 14 free days in the last year. It's actually more than that because we do take, I always take time off in March. I always take time off in the summer, and I try to take time off around November, December, and then an extended Christmas break.

DAVID: We do stuff in January too after our event together.

BLAIR: Yeah, right, and we're doing it again this year. Doing an event and then going on vacation together, so I have this dilemma. I've got two and a half weeks of vacation coming up, and I've got a couple things undone. I know I should actually have full free days where I do not think deeply about work, and part of me's already preparing to cheat. I know if I cheat and I think deep and I do get up early in the morning and do a couple of things and I tell myself, "Well, it's writing, so it's not really work," I know I will pay the price when I come back. I know that if I'm able to free myself up even for half of that, if I could take half of it, the front half or the back half and just absolutely have those as free days, I'm going to be rejuvenated, so if we just, well, would that be your experience too? Because again, I'm a sample of one here.

DAVID: Yeah. I'm really bad at that. I take a lot of time off. Probably, I don't know, 10, 11 weeks a year, but I don't take it off completely. I don't know if I'm just making an excuse for myself because I don't have somebody back at the office, like you have a team, you have a full team and I don't. I don't know if I'm just basically giving myself a pass because I don't have anybody to check my email or answer client inquiries or something like that, but I will tell clients, "Okay, I'm out this month, so let's extend the implementation period for a month so you're not harmed here by my vacation plans."

Then finishing up the last book, I took seven weeks off and I would check email in the afternoon. I'm not really good at this, honestly. I'm a pretty terrible example of it. Is there a distinction between taking time off from the normal every day work stuff to invest intellectually and research wise and just putting your feet up and thinking on behalf of the business? That's different in your mind than totally unplugging from the business, and how do you balance those two things?

BLAIR: Yeah. Is there a difference? There probably is a difference. They're both forms of rejuvenation, but one would be more complete. I'm always struck by the fact that Warren Buffet has 300,000 employees, but he spends five hours a day during the business day reading.

DAVID: Reading, right. Yeah.

BLAIR: You think, "Well, I can't take time off because I have these six employees."

DAVID: Yeah, and he's got-

BLAIR: 300,000.

DAVID: What lame excuses we tell ourselves. Is it because, I haven't figured that out really, but it is amazing. The business suffers if you're not putting your feet up and thinking on behalf of your business, but maybe that thinking shouldn't happen when you're on the beach and trying to unplug.

BLAIR: Yeah, so before the concept was introduced to me by a strategic coach, I never really thought of this. I understood time off to be a reward for good behavior. Right? You got a vacation for working hard, and then the first time, and my wife who's my business partner and such a hard worker, the first time we took a four day vacation in Mexico, there was no work attached to it because you and I both travel a lot for work, we can kind of always attach a vacation to a work trip and essentially doesn't cost us anything or doesn't cost us much. We paid this with real after tax dollars. No connection to business. I didn't think about business at all.

In the airport on the way home, I finally was able to turn my phone on. I crossed the line, I said, "Okay, I'm going to work." We're sitting in the lounge waiting for the plane, and my wife looks at me and she said, "I cannot remember the last time I have seen you so energized." In that moment, she said, "I get it. I finally get it. Time off is not reward for having put in hard time at work, it's what's required to rejuvenate you." Time off is the priority that's required for creativity, innovation, and the energy that you need to bring to the business.

DAVID: Maybe we should flip that around, right? With a certain amount of rejuvenation, you are allowed to contribute at work, and when that contribution level starts to wane, then you are forced to go rejuvenate, and until that happens, you do not earn the right to contribute at the business again.

BLAIR: That's a really interesting idea. We played with the idea of forced time off. When I started building a team and transitioning from a consulting practice, first we went, "Okay, we're not going to track paid time off. Take whatever you want," and then I thought, "No, we're going to force people to take time off." That didn't really work either. It was kind of an interesting experiment, but that's what you're suggesting. It's a really interesting idea is you need to earn the right to come here and contribute by taking time off and rejuvenating.

DAVID: Yeah, exactly.

BLAIR: That's an interesting concept.

DAVID: Because the way, and we calculate. We call it PTO, paid time off, and years ago, it was like, Okay, you had to work, this was a really crazy idea, but you had to work at a firm for a year, and then you got two weeks of vacation, and then as people started switching jobs more frequently, it didn't make any sense for somebody in their mid forties to go back to zero and have to work somewhere for a year before they got to take time off, so the whole industry, not just the creative industry that we serve, but the whole industry said, "Okay, it's paid time off, so every month you earn this many days," when we maybe ought to flip that around, like every few days you take off, you earn this amount of time to work.

Picking up on an idea you mentioned a minute ago about this unlimited time off, there are a lot of studies that show that doesn't work very well, especially in the US because people, what keeps people from taking time off is not the limit that HR puts on it, but this expectation that everybody around them has that you shouldn't do that. I think that has to start at the top. Changing that and forcing time off does make a lot of sense, and also too, you wouldn't want to say, "Okay, if for some reason you can't take time off, then we'll pay you for those days." That really is counterproductive, right? If you don't take the time off, you're not getting the money because it's really critical.

DAVID: The four of us were somewhere overseas, just not plugged into work at all. I remember you accidentally checked your email one time, and I remember the crestfallen look on your face. It's like, "Oh." It wasn't any big business problem or anything. It was just one of those normal things that comes us, that shows up in your email, in basket, and I had still, this is an area that I am still so bad about. I'm not ... Well, I am. I'm addicted to email. I am addicted to email.

BLAIR: [crosstalk 00:14:15] you said it.

DAVID: Partly because I don't like phone calls, right? That's a worthy substitute to me that I can manage socially, but it's still very difficult. When I don't have enough time off, I start to get grumpy and I start to not think. I don't think beyond just my to-do list. I'm not really thinking deeper on behalf of my clients. I'm not thinking about what I need to do to develop IP, to write some insightful piece or whatever. What do you do when you don't have enough, like what does Friday afternoon look like with Blair today right before you leave the office? Are you unbearable? More unbearable than normal?

BLAIR: I'm not unbearable, but you know we've had some exchanges over the last few weeks where I've had to come back and apologize for my terseness. Either the way I've treated you, but more often when we're talking about something else, and it's like, okay, I'm ... A few times I've said to you in our conversations, "You know what? I just need a vacation." I wrote those words, but when you're reading them, you should probably read, "I just need a vacation."

DAVID: A whiny little two year old boy.

BLAIR: Everything. I just need a little time off. That's ... I tend, I can get a little terse, but more normal for me is my productivity level. My output just drops, it just drops. It kind of just goes down, down, down, down, down. Then if I go away and unplug for just a few days, I will come back rejuvenated, but the longer I've been stumbling around or fumbling around, then the more time off it's going to take. You know what's interesting, I wanted to talk about this idea too. You used the phrase work life balance, and some point about maybe 15 years ago, somebody, I don't remember who said, "We need to quit," especially entrepreneurs or solopreneurs or free lancers, we're free agents, so maybe it was Dan Pink said, "We need to quit talking about this idea of work life balance and we need to talk about work life management because the nature of work these days increasingly looks like entrepreneurship."

Vacations very often are tied to work. You get invited to speak in some location. Okay, we're going to bring the spouse and kids, et cetera. I think that's a really helpful idea that we can let go of maybe some older notions of the need for work life balance, especially as an entrepreneur, but at the same time, and here I go with two opposable ideas, at the same time, I really do think you need to carve out those times in your calendar when you are completely unplugged from work. Completely unplugged, where you are not, and again, that includes not thinking deeply about work. That means not reading business books. I always have multiple books on the go, and most of them are business books. Then you've got to read fiction. I used to love that but I feel like now when I'm reading fiction, I feel like I'm forced to read it because I'm not allowed to read business stuff.

DAVID: Yeah, you're wasting time because you're not knocking books off your business pile. What, so as you work with principals and you talk with, you get pretty, you get to see deep inside their lives and it's not just on the surface. What are the patterns there? How do you give them more permission? As you talk with them about how their business will be better if they aren't as involved without breaks, do they buy that argument? What other things do you do to help give them permission to take more time off and start enjoying? Because nobody does that and doesn't enjoy it. They're always grateful for it, but how do you give them permission for it?

BLAIR: I find a lot of the principals that I deal with are trying to fill multiple, well, two roles simultaneously that they shouldn't. They need to give one up. Obviously, the smaller the firm, the more roles one person is going to be filling, but I think there's a great book out there if you're familiar with the Entrepreneurial Operation System, so it's EOS Worldwide. Their first book is Geno Wickman is the name, and his first book is called Traction, but I think it's his fourth book. It's called Rocket Fuel, and in that book, he defines the two key roles in an entrepreneurial organization. One he calls the visionary, and the other he calls the integrator.

The visionary is kind of a creative big thinker, focusing on future value. Gets people inspired. We're going in this direction, et cetera. Takes risks, et cetera. The integrator is really the operations person who makes everything happen, who holds people accountable, who puts systems in place. The thing that I found myself talking to agency principals about a lot these days is this idea because most of them are the classic visionary, and they don't have this number two, this COO integrator, and they're horrible integrators. They're horrible-

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: Yeah, it's a generalization, but the more of a visionary you are, the more difficult it is for you take care of operations. They can't step aside because of the operational issues, right? It's not because, and if you want to be a visionary, man, you need time off. You need to be rejuvenated. If you're in the business of coming up with ideas and inspiring your team to say, "We're going this way, follow me." You can't. If I tried to do that now, I would be like, "Okay, people."

DAVID: Yeah. What's next?

BLAIR: Yeah. "We're going this way, but first I'm going to have a nap." Right? Part of the reason I'm so tired is I am determined. I have crafted next year. I've let go of everything. There's only a couple of big things left on my to do list, but I have effectively let go of everything, so in 2018, I am traveling the world and speaking, and I'm doing one other thing that I'm not going to talk about here, but I'm essentially traveling and speaking, so I'm busy putting all the things in place and letting go of things, and I'm expecting that next year because I find travel when it's done properly, rejuvenating.

When you try to pack too much in, it's the opposite, but it can be rejuvenating. It can be luxurious when you do it right, and I get a lot of great ideas, so I expect to be coming back to the office between trips and inspiring people with new ideas and new things that we might develop, new places we might go, et cetera. I'm really trying to let go of the last of the integrator stuff that I have. The truth is I don't have much anymore. There's other projects that I'm just finishing up that I'm letting go of to free myself up to be that visionary.

Back to your question, I always bring it back to me because it's my favorite topic, right? There, I said it. Back to your question, but do I say to principals? I usually use this framework of the visionary integrator and suggest, strongly suggest that they read that book and they think about going out and getting a number two. What I'm surprised by is how difficult it is for people to do that.

DAVID: For the principal, not necessarily the person that they're hiring.

BLAIR: Yeah. Now that you ask the question, I've given you the answer and I'm thinking about, "Well, how often do people take that advice?" I'm thinking not very often.

DAVID: When I think about firms that are really well run, that is a very common characteristic. Usually both of them, both of those partners are filling roles, but it doesn't have to be that way. The integrator doesn't have to be a partner, but there is the strong presence of the one and the other. It's almost like on this work life/vacation discussion we're having here, the inspirational or this person besides the integrator, they almost have to take a vacation from the integration role of work every day or they're being asked, something's being asked of them that it's just not in their wheelhouse. They're just not good at that.

It's interesting, that's also how we probably ought to help our listeners think about this growth thing because the role of integration becomes more and more important as the firm gets larger, and if you don't address that integration role, as the firm grows, it will get worse for you. It will not get better.

BLAIR: Yeah. If you're in the visionary role or the integrator role and you can't take time off, how can you do your job? This is me admonishing me. Marcus is going to title this "Blair Needs a Vacation," isn't he?

DAVID: Yeah, right. If we recorded this the day after you got back from vacation, it might be a little bit different, so we're hitting at your most feverish moment. What about, I guess we would just call it a sabbatical, but something that's not quite as frequent, but longer in nature, and sometimes people give them themselves permission to work on a business project like it could be writing, some extended writing project or something. Have you taken what could be considered a sabbatical in your business life?

BLAIR: I haven't, but when I think forward to next year, it's not really a sabbatical. I'm actually, I'm talking about being a little bit burned out, and it's a bit of an exception for me. This isn't my normal state. I am overstating it a little bit, but I don't actually see in my own business, I can only speak for myself here. I don't actually see the need for a sabbatical, but I am in some ways thinking about next year as I'm lining up these trips now, I'm thinking about the rejuvenation potential of these trips, and I'm very excited about it, about letting go. Just the fact of leaving means that there's certain things that I can't do, therefore I'm just going to focus on the things that I can do. I'm going to show up. I'm going to speak. I'm going to meet with clients. I'm going to run a few sales events, and that's about it. That's all I'm going to have the capacity to do, so the more and the longer I'm out of the office, the less likely I am to get dragged back into this stuff.

DAVID: I don't know ... I've had a lot of conversations with principals about their exit, their desire to exit, and I've shared with them an article that I wrote. It's on my website, It's called a Mission With No Exit, and I say, "Here, have a read of this and then let's talk." Very often, they're inspired about not exiting, not selling after that, but a lot of times when the principal is looking forward, they just need a vacation.

BLAIR: Exactly. When I hear people talk about one of those extended sabbaticals, it's often out of desperation because they haven't been taking enough vacations or sometimes it's a way to get rid of a partner because you're not sure what to do with them, so there's more than one partner and you're hoping that this one partner will leave and figure out what they want to do with their life while they're gone, and when they come back, maybe there'll be less tension around that discussion. I have kind of a weird view of sabbaticals. It seems like a sabbatical's what you do if you haven't taken enough time off during every year.

DAVID: I think that's fair enough, and I think you and I would both agree there are situations where people need to have a sabbatical, but then when you come back, something has to fundamentally change, and if it hasn't fundamentally changed, then what was the point of the sabbatical other than saving yourself? You save yourself temporarily and then you show up and you repeat the cycle again.

BLAIR: Right. Go right back, nothing's changed. Well, this has been very interesting. I'm excited for your vacation coming up here today, as are everybody around you probably. This is interesting. We need to explore some of these areas some more, and we need to talk more about this succession idea and about your article, about never leaving your business but always being excited about it, that's something that I think will be very interesting to our listeners. Thank you, Blair.

DAVID: Yeah, thank you, David.

David Baker