The partner sabbatical: Affirming core values and re-energizing the individual

For the partners and principals in accounting firms with sabbatical policies for senior personnel, professionals who have long demonstrated their dedication to client service, the sabbatical means an opportunity to recharge their batteries and reconnect with their families in special ways. Firms benefit externally when clients can see the strength of their teams, and internally because the staff who step up to the plate in the partner's absence are empowered to grow in their new roles and responsibilities. These programs are also viewed as strong statements of the culture and core values of each firm.

The duration of the sabbatical and the timing vary, but regardless of similarities in the programs, what the partner experiences during his or her time away is unique.

Three firms that have had sabbatical programs for partners for more than five years, BKD in Springfield, MO; HLB Tautges Redpath, Ltd. in Bear Lake, MN; and Plante & Moran in Southfield, MI set up their programs, which have similar goals, independently of one another.

David Hayob, partner in charge of BKD's Houston office, says that at BKD they wanted to prevent partner burnout and engage in team building to prepare for succession, and he thinks the program is accomplishing its goals. Randy Hultz, director of human resources at BKD says that the sabbatical policy gives BKD a chance to prove to both partners and clients that "we have solid bench strength, and their needs will be met."

The Partner Sabbatical:
Affirming Core Values
And Re-energizing The Individual

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"There was some skepticism about the idea at first among the partners," Hultz says, "but that quickly evaporated, and clients have been extremely supportive from the beginning." Even though most firms give partners generous vacation time, they rarely get away for even two weeks at a time. The sabbatical requirement of at least 30 contiguous days away from work changes their focus, encouraging them to consider their own needs.

Chris McCoy, partner-in charge of human resources at Plante & Moran, says that their sabbatical program is designed to expand and promote the colleague-partner relationship, to bring additional partners into the client relationship, and also to give individual partners a chance to "walk the walk" - to live the firm's commitment to work/life balance.

"Clients are all very encouraging and understanding," says Rob Tautges CEO of Tautges Redpath, "although we may get a little teasing from some. The sabbatical program is a statement of our values, our commitment to the balance between work and personal life."

At BKD a 30-day sabbatical every five years is mandatory for partners and principals. At Plante & Moran the 30-day sabbaticals are not mandatory and partners are eligible for a sabbatical every seven years. Both BKD and Plante & Moran disable voice mail and e-mail for partners while they are away, making it impossible to sneak into the office and do even a little work. Partners may take up to 90 days at HLB Tautges Redpath, where sabbaticals are not mandatory and the only rule is "no rule," Rob Tautges says.

Tautges suggests that partners begin by asking themselves, "What would you do if you had complete confidence in those around you?" For some, the answer is a trip they might otherwise defer until retirement; others with young children will make plans that appeal to everyone in the family. For all, the uninterrupted time with family and away from thinking about work is a huge bonus.

Tautges himself will be leaving for a 90-day sabbatical on October 22, and will travel in the southern hemisphere accompanied by his two daughters, Kelly and Emily, and granddaughter, Kaia. Tautges's wife and three sons will join them at various points along the journey as their work and school schedules permit.

The family will begin by flying to Viet Nam where Tautges will attend a four-day meeting of HLB International, the only work-related stop on the trip. Kaia will celebrate her sixth birthday in Ho Chi Minh City. From there, they will journey to Cambodia, India, and the Seychelles Islands. They plan to do some volunteer work in Tanzania, travel to Cairo and down the Nile, and then fly on to various locations in South America. This will be the third sabbatical for Tautges and his family. He says that he cannot overstate the value of the sabbaticals to family members. "These trips have been life-changing experiences, and you are giving them a powerful message that they count."

David Hayob returned July 1st from a one-month sabbatical of rigorous travel, having spent 12 days sightseeing with his sons on the east coast, attending six baseball games in five parks and several Broadway shows. He then flew to Europe for two weeks with a friend, spending time principally in Italy but traveling also to Munich and Amsterdam. Hayob was grateful for the July 4th break because it gave him an opportunity to recover from jet lag and get caught up at work. He came back "tired out" but completely refreshed because "you just can't think about work."

Partners at BKD plan for their absences in great detail, Hayob says. As the date approaches, if he finds himself in the middle of something, he says that he will make an effort to finish before he leaves. He assigns his administrative responsibilities to several partners, because each will already have a full plate with their own jobs.

Hayob scheduled an August "road trip" meeting for staff, showing slides of his trips, because the staff really enjoys sharing his experience. "Sometimes they think partners do nothing but work."

Two weeks traveling in a minivan last year with his wife and three children, aged 12, 10, and 5, through Nevada, Arizona, and in California, where he grew up, was an incredibly rewarding experience, "but also a challenge," says Plante & Moran partner McCoy, who found himself thinking about Chevy Chase in the movie "Vacation" from time to time. "It was very different from any previous vacation we had taken as a family. They had never seen me without my phone or my Blackberry, for example." McCoy came back "energized, with a better perspective." He says he has changed some work habits and the way he manages his time.

Three collages of pictures from the trip that McCoy's children assembled when they came home are right in view as he speaks. He says that when partners return they are engaged and energized and it becomes contagious, but "this is not just a business experience. The sabbatical gives you the luxury of time to do things you may have dreamed about. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Bill Kirkman of BKD in Springfield, Missouri, the firm's operations partner, says that the "Share the fun" emphasis of BKD's program enables clients to see their firm as an institution rather than a person.

Each partner makes his own plans for the 30 days, Kirkman says. And for those with young children, the sabbatical is the best kind of quality time. "Some partners use it to take self-improvement courses, like a computer course or to pursue some special interest. One partner from BKD worked with a client so that he could see the business from a different perspective."

Kirkman has traveled in the past, but during his most recent sabbatical, he took long weekends with his wife, did some home repairs and other things that he enjoys, all without access to e-mail or voice mail.

Partners must submit a sabbatical plan for review at least 12 months in advance at all three firms. Client teams are set up and clients are notified six months before the partner leaves. Partners must confirm that they have followed protocol for preparation as part of their performance evaluation at Plante & Moran. BKD has a clean desk policy. "The desk is clean before you go and when you return," Hayob says. "Some e-mails may be printed out for you to read at your leisure when you return, but all client needs have been addressed."

Sabbatical programs can accelerate careers, allowing individuals to take on greater responsibility, and this benefit filters down to all levels, Tautges says. He agrees with Hayob that it also becomes a dry run at succession, something that will become a major issue at many accounting firms in the near future.

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