This summer I did something extraordinary. I unplugged. Really unplugged. Over the course of nearly two months, my 11-year-old son Evan and I traveled over 11,000 miles from Charlotte, NC, to the Oregon coast and back hauling a vintage 1971 Airstream camper.
No, I’m not unemployed or transitioning between jobs. I lead a major business unit for Accenture as the global head of Commercial Banking. But thanks to a combination of personal goals, an incredible team and a highly supportive culture at my firm, I was able to make this dream a reality.
I decided to write about it because I believe there are valuable lessons for leaders from my experience. Deciding to take a trip like this takes courage and confidence. Planning the trip was intense, but frankly one of the greatest joys of the whole experience. The trip itself was everything we had hoped it would be—my wife Audrey joined us twice and brought support, joy and comfort food that felt like home, and it was wonderful to watch my son’s eyes pop with wonder nearly every day. I have been back at work for three weeks and I’m still defining the true lessons, but it’s clear that I’m a better leader now than I was before the trip.
I made the decision to do this over two years before we hit the open road. My son was nine at the time and I was traveling across the globe every week. I was tired, and worried I was missing out on my son’s childhood. The trip, which we deemed the “Super Trip,” was a Christmas gift to Evan, and he could not have been more excited. My wife, on the other hand, was convinced this would end in disappointment—a hypothetical gift that was two-and-a-half years away. She had a fair point, and raising it helped ensure that I followed through on my commitment.
What I didn’t anticipate at the time was the kind of positive energy that would come out of such a distant and vague objective. Over the course of the past two-plus years, we spent time talking about the trip, thinking about where we might go, what we might see, and just dreaming. It was wonderful. As leaders in the corporate world, we tend to focus on the short term. We certainly don’t put some half-baked, mildly unrealistic idea of taking a summer off in the back of our minds. But we should. Ambitious, long-term goals can drive innovation and create true change, rather than incremental quarter-by-quarter progress.
The idea for the trip made me think differently and reframed how I looked at my work. It provided a relief valve and a source of energy that we just don’t tend to get in a corporate career. What kinds of work breaks do corporate leaders generally take? Maybe a single three-week vacation if we’re lucky? Months off after a severance, where all you can think about is finding your next job?
We tend to operate from a place of fear—“I can’t stop, or I’ll be replaced.” “I won’t look like I am serious about my career.” The point here is there is a risk worth taking. For me, the decision was about a need to have this life experience from a personal perspective, but it was possible because I know I am valued at work and I do good work. From a position of confidence about my worth, rather than fear, making the choice to take a break from the office wasn’t as hard.
When I shared with my leadership team my intention of taking a long break over the summer to do this trip, frankly, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was confident this was the right thing for me. Long breaks aren’t typical at Accenture, but the reaction from all my leaders was the same: a bit of shock, followed by “wow, this is amazing” and “yes, you should do this.” Not only was I going on the trip of a lifetime, but my employer fully backed me and believed, in the same way I did, I would come back a better leader.
The trip itself was everything I had imagined. It was a wonderful time to refresh, recharge and reassess the way I look at the world. It gave me and my family the memories of a lifetime, and hopefully planted a seed in my son to go, do and be more than he would have without this experience.
The time away was just that—time away from the daily deliverables, the meetings and all the pressures we face every day. Most importantly, being away for nearly two months gave me the distance to assess and evaluate how to contribute and lead in a way that’s impossible to see when in the middle of it all. And this is why perspective matters at work.
I wasn’t sure what to expect after so much time away. Would my team perform? Would I be valued? Would I even want to come back? Would I be energized about my work? The answer to all these questions was yes.
The most impactful moment was in a brief discussion with my boss. It was simple and short, but he said “I’m glad you’re back. We need you. And how do we grow the business by 2×?”
Wow—talk about empowerment and feeling valued. It made me feel like, not only should I do something different, but if we’re going to double the business, I must do something different.
When I went on my trip, I was forced to trust that my team were able to do more in my absence, and they really stepped up. Now that I’m back, the key is to allow those around me to continue to flourish and not get in their way or force them back into their old boxes. I want them to embrace their new and bigger roles in a way that allows me to lead differently.
The team was able to handle much of the day-to-day during my absence, so instead of stepping back into much of that, I can focus on determining how I meet our strategic goals, being a thought leader and ensuring the right culture is in place to grow leaders and talent for a business we plan to double. The tactical execution is like gravity—it will always pull you in. But if we are to be the leaders our companies need us to be, we must find time to think, be thoughtful and push the most important strategic goals.
If the only result of my time away had been making incredible memories with my son, it would have been more than worthwhile. But I ended up with much more. I gained valuable perspective about the time I’d been spending on unnecessary meetings and details that my team was more than capable of handling. And I realized where my value really lies and where I should focus my attention as a leader—solving the big-picture issues that will allow us to grow our business.
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Image credit: Jared Rorrer