By Michael Gunther

This is the final article of a four part series on my seven week sabbatical. I wrote the first article in September before I left, with two of my team members (Kaitlin King and Paden Hughes) each contributing an article while I was away sharing their perspectives. Well, now I am back and will share mine…

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I returned to my business after being abroad for almost seven weeks. I left knowing I had a team committed to jumping in and creating what they needed to make it work while I was gone. They were dedicated to one another and to our clients. What actually transpired during this period was interesting, and unexpectedly challenged them like never before. This has forced me to see the holes within my leadership and the organization. At the same time, it has provided a huge growth curve for three of my key people (not sure they quite see it that way yet), and this experience will also have some short and long term impacts on our business.

My entry back into the office reminded me of the Robert Burns poem, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” As much as I prepped the management team, laid out the plan with roles and responsibilities, and outlined some basic emergency fall backs, we could never have anticipated some of the challenges they would face. I understand that in the first three weeks after my departure they were faced with unanticipated personnel issues, client challenges, and cash flow management issues—that normally I would be handling—and now they had to manage and resolve it on their own. On top of this, their desire to do a good job, and do what was right, added more stress to each of them. The stresses of these situations were so palpable that it began impacting people’s health, attitudes, and communication.

There is a confidence model we often share with our clients to illustrate that when a new employee starts a job they are confident, but often lose it quickly and go down to “the valley of death” when they realize what they don’t know, and feel unprepared to deal with the situations they are faced with. Typically with time, training, and experience, the employee’s confidence level goes back up and exceeds where they began when they started the job. Well, all three of my key people felt that they had gone to the “valley of death” during the first three weeks of my sabbatical. On top of this, they were dealing with some employee issues that were impacting their ability to take on additional tasks. Needless to say, I had unknowingly put them on a hot bed of coals that they had to walk over.

During our debrief when I returned, they shared what situations had been the most challenging, and what they had learned. We identified numerous areas that could have made the situations less stressful and manageable:

  1. Recognize one clear leader instead of spreading the responsibility amongst three individuals;
  2. Cross train—especially in the areas of financials—so that people with related responsibilities have the full picture and understanding of what to do and how to do it;
  3. Clarify goals and strategies as to where all team members need to focus their energy and time, and specify who is responsible to manage those tasks;
  4. Address critical needs of the organization, like outsourcing some of our bookkeeping functions to gain consistency in this area;
  5. Set clear client expectations and communicate what it will look like, and should look like, when I am gone;
  6. Identify someone to be the motivator and encourager—a role I typically play;
  7. Communicate with each other on where the true ‘stress level’ is, and enlist each other’s help where needed.

With that plan in place, prior to implementation, we could have spent a short amount of time punching holes in it to see what could go wrong, or throwing “what if” scenarios into the mix.

Bottom Line

Although I have come back refreshed and motivated with some new ideas and directions for my company and my team, it has also cost me a team that carried more pressure and burden than they or I expected. They all felt that the operation had become better over the past three weeks prior to my return, and recognized that they had to change and push themselves to grow to the next level. And yet, I look at the toll it may have taken on their confidence and attitudes, which may take longer to rebuild.

This is the final article in a IV Part Series from Michael Gunther about his perspective as a leader before and after his seven week sabbatical. While he was away, two of his team members (Kaitlin King and Paden Hughes) shared their perspectives, and you can read their perspectives in previous articles here.

Michael Gunther is Founder and President of Collaboration LLC, a team of highly skilled business professionals who are dedicated to assisting proactive business owners to build profitable, sustainable businesses through results-oriented education and consulting services.

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