Why CEOs Need to Take an Innovation Sabbatical


I’ve had the unique opportunity to launch two different companies. While seemingly glamorous, it’s more like a series of long, thankless, and sleepless hours of work and worry. As with every entrepreneur, every day feels like you’re changing the wheels on a moving truck. The litany of lessons learned, from making bad hiring decisions to conducting multiple pivots, reads like a story of love and loss.

There’s no shortage of advice doled out along the journey, whether it be from colleagues, experts or even employees. Every entrepreneur has to navigate a barrage of information coming from all directions. This overstimulation can create myopia, where you lose focus on the organization’s direction and spend an overabundance of time IN the business, rather than ON the business.

Related: 7 Ideas for Sabbaticals That Will Recharge You for Success

The best way to avoid this trap is to step away from the daily grind, but most startup leaders will say that’s an impossibility. How can they take time for a “vacation” when they don’t even have enough time in the day as it is? Instead of simply taking some time away, consider using some time to work on the business in a new way by taking an innovation sabbatical.

A traditional sabbatical is a long-term hiatus from work centered on a singular purpose, which typically runs anywhere from two weeks to one year. Originally meant to help overworked employees recharge and explore something new, for CEOs of startups an innovation sabbatical can be a strategic opportunity to catapult growth and organizational change. Innovation sabbaticals involve taking on a temporary role in another organization to learn new ideas, processes and cultures. Here are some examples of what it is, where you should consider taking one and how to get started.

Working with a key customer

Working on-site at one of your customers’ companies provides the opportunity to observe and identify challenges that aren’t uncovered in the typical vendor/partner relationship. Being immersed in the day-to-day gives you exposure to technology, communication and even bureaucracy that can hamper success. Every observation is an opportunity for new innovations, services or offerings your organization can bring to the table.

Working outside your industry

Stepping outside of your industry eliminates the groupthink that occurs across verticals, where companies often copy or follow their competitors’ actions. Taking a role in a separate industry provides you a new perspective on business approaches, customer engagement, partnership strategies and operational methodologies. This fresh view can generate myriad ideas as well as insights on things to avoid.

Working with an innovation leader

An innovation-leading company often embraces risk and conducts extensive experimentation. Immersing yourself into these types of cultures helps foster new ways of thinking about problem-solving. This can also help reduce uncertainty, diminish risk-aversion and build a fail-fast mindset.

How do you introduce the idea of an innovation sabbatical? Begin with your network. Reach out to close contacts and discuss your sabbatical objectives. Identify where you might be the most help to them and their organization. In turn, detail the terms of the arrangement: hours committed, the scope of the role, NDAs and compensation where applicable.

Related: 10 Telltale Signs You Need a Break From Work

Getting the most out of your innovation sabbatical requires a bit of strategy and planning. Defining your goals and objectives at the beginning will help you return to your organization with a clear set of actionable insights. Here are some high-level ideas you can use as a starting point to build your innovation sabbatical plan:

Fostering collaboration

Is this an opportunity to fortify a potential partnership or shape a new collaboration? Identify what companies might be long-term, mutually beneficial relationships, and examine how you can share insights.

Remember, this should be a two-sided arrangement where you provide value to their organization and vice vera. That could mean your two groups share best practices, problem solve together, share resources or maybe even co-develop new products or offerings.

Generating ideas

What organizational challenges are you currently struggling to get a handle on? Determine your company’s biggest obstacles and threats. Outline a list of burning business questions you want to find answers to. The goal is not only to discover different perspectives but also to uncover new ideas to address organizational issues that haven’t yet bubbled to the surface.

Growing intelligence

If you need to gain better insights into customer needs, a sabbatical with a customer might be ideal. Being inside their organization helps you better identify root causes to problems rather than just symptoms. In addition, you can observe how the organization operates, how it communicates with its customers and employees and get a feel for the overall culture.

This intelligence can not only help you identify roadblocks for your own sales and engagement process but also determine new product and service opportunities to improve your customer’s organizational success.

Shaping culture

In fast-paced startups, change can move faster than your team can digest it. Spending time on communication is critical to ensure everyone is moving collectively in a singular direction.

An innovation sabbatical can expose you to new methods, means and styles of communication as well as reveal innovative ways other organizations are keeping their teams aligned. On the flip side, you’ll be exposed to the not-so-great side of culture, which can be used as a litmus test to identify any of the same flaws within your own company.

Exploring approaches

We often jump to the most commonly used methods for streamlining processes, whether it be assigning dedicated project leaders, conducting workflow audits or even implementing automation technologies. By seeing another organization’s processes in action, you can identify new techniques, technologies and systems for optimizing your own approach. In contrast, you can add value to areas where their organization is inefficient by contributing your own fresh perspectives and experiences.

Disrupting complacency

Every organization, no matter their size, can become stagnant. Many companies cite a lack of innovation as one of their biggest obstacles to growth. Combat this idea fatigue through your innovation sabbatical, bringing those raw insights back to your squad.

By sharing observations, inspirations, and experiences, you can spark new life into even the most well-worn team. In addition, open up innovation sabbatical opportunities to other key individuals, helping further drive new ways of thinking and fostering openness to new perspectives.

Although most entrepreneurs are fiercely independent, it’s important to not get caught in your own proverbial bubble. By taking an innovation sabbatical, you can recharge your mental coffers with new ideas, approaches, cultures and most importantly, perspectives.