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Welcome to The JoyPowered® Workspace Podcast, where we talk about embracing joy in the workplace. I’m JoDee Curtis, owner of Purple Ink, a large HR consulting firm, and with me is my dear friend and co-host Susan White, owner of Susan Tinder White Consulting, an HR consulting practice.
Our topic today is sabbaticals. So Susan, I’ve been a bit fascinated by this topic, and we’ve invited a couple of guests to join us today, but I also attended a luncheon a while back for the Best Places to Work in Indiana, and I was so surprised to hear that sabbaticals and paid sabbaticals was a benefit of many of the companies who were winning in the Best Places to Work program. So I think it’s a real up and coming, I…as I’ve been talking and preparing for this, I keep hearing more and more about companies offering sabbaticals. So let’s talk about what a sabbatical is. It’s traditionally a period of paid or unpaid leave that is granted to an employee so that they may study or travel. People who are taking advantage of sabbaticals today, though, aren’t taking time off just from work for the sake of relaxation. They’re engaged in other types of personal or professional pursuits. The most common usage of the program was and perhaps still may be at the university level. So today, our first guest is a university professor and she’s joining us to tell us about her experiences and sabbaticals. Our guest is Dr. Carlotta Berry. She is an engineering and robotics professor who is an advocate for diversifying STEM. She brings robotics and STEM to people and people to robotics and STEM in order to diversify the profession. She works with everyone for ages 9 to 99 to get them excited about the potential of STEM. At the time of this recording, Carlotta is on a sabbatical.
Yay, good for her.
So Professor Berry, what is the purpose or goal for your sabbatical that you’re on right now?
Professor Berry 02:39
So, that’s an interesting story. This is my second sabbatical. My first sabbatical six years ago, I just wanted to go to a research school, because my university is a teaching undergraduate focus school. And I discovered when I returned from that sabbatical that I was burnt to a crisp, because when you take a sabbatical and you teach and you come back and you teach…
Professor Berry 03:04
You don’t have a break. So the main thing for this sabbatical… Originally, I wanted to apply for a Fulbright to Africa. Not sure why, but my husband was just, like, not really feeling it, “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” and then the pandemic came, and I realized that whatever little spirit he had on his shoulder was a good one. So I applied to go work for industry, because once again, I wanted to get some knowledge that I could take back into my classroom and research at my university. So I applied to work for an automation engineering company called DCS. And as a contract employee for them, I do contract work in the automation area for Eli Lilly, which is in Indianapolis. So I used to work as an engineer for Ford Motor Company and Detroit Edison in Michigan, so I’m getting updated skill sets on some of the things that I did 25 years ago.
Wow. And you can bring that great information back into the classroom.
Professor Berry 03:48
Absolutely. Because a big thing with students is, you know, they say, you know, those who do can, those who can’t teach. You know, that’s a…
We don’t like that, but it’s been said.
Professor Berry 04:15
Yes, yeah. So… So when you’re teaching them everything is, “Is this real world?” “Is this relevant?” “Am I ever gonna see this?” “Does anybody do this?” Yes, yes, yes, and yes. If I’m telling you it, it’s got to be true. Well, that’s not enough for them. So now I can go into the classroom and say, “Today, you’re learning about X, and last month, I did X on my job on my sabbatical,” because the professor saying it is not really good enough for them, right? They want to know that the real people are doing these things. And we’ve actually had some students go and work in industry and come back and say, “Why haven’t you taught us more about Y?” Because that’s what they’re doing. And some of their concerns I felt were valid, because some of the things they asked for were things I had to learn at my first job. I like to tell them the story of my first job at Ford Motor Company. As soon as I got there, they were like, “You’re an electrical engineer, but you don’t know enough about mechanical stuff, so we’re gonna send you to this six week training.” I’m like, “Seriously? I just finished five years of college.” We talk about that multi-disciplinary aspects of your engineering career are extremely important. There are no engineers who sit in silos with all the electrical engineers over here, all the mechanical engineers over here. So everything that I’m doing on sabbatical is key to how I connect it back to them, no matter what their major is, right? That lifelong learning is part of ABET criteria, that’s the accreditation agency for engineering. So there’s a reason lifelong learning is assessed, because you never stop. Even as a professor, I can learn from them as students, as well.
To tell us a little bit about how the sabbatical works at your organization. Like, how long does it last? Is it paid, unpaid? Do they help you get these assignments or are you all on your own to go out there and say, “here’s how I want to spend it,”? And you’ve you obviously did some really great stuff, but tell us a little bit about the…the infrastructure around it.
Professor Berry 06:11
So at my university, once you get tenure, you’re eligible for a sabbatical every six years. And you’re eligible, I believe, for a mini-sabbatical or mini-leave every three years. So a mini-leave or mini-sabbatical could be, for example, some special opportunity that comes up that was completely unplanned, like maybe the White House has asked you to come and be an expert on a cabinet or something like that. But a sabbatical is more planned. At my university, we’re on quarters, so every six years, you can take one quarter sabbatical where you’re completely funded, which means you get your full salary.
Wow, that’s great.
Professor Berry 06:50
Two quarters sabbatical, you get two thirds of your salary. For a full year, you get half your salary. And that was another thing I learned from my first one. I was like, oh, I don’t need a whole year. So last time, I did two quarters, and so I just had to find someone – because you do have to find your own funding sources, by the way – I had to find someone who was willing to cover that third of my salary, which was pretty easy, because I told you, I taught and did research. But when I got back, I also felt like I was not totally refreshed. So you have to write an application, and normally the application’s due about a year before you go, and you talk about the goals are I want to be rejuvenated, refreshed, I want to do something that I couldn’t do while working being at a teaching school. It’s a hamster on a wheel every day. There’s not a lot of time for reflection, thinking, doing innovative things, so I had to be on sabbatical to do some of those things. This time, I took the entire year, and I don’t know if it was karma or God or what, the pandemic came in March, shut down and we all went to work from home, so by the time I go back to work in August, I will have actually been away from campus for, like, 18 months. So it has been a blessing. And the other blessing is the fact that it happened in the middle of this pandemic. It also happened in the middle of the George Floyd – not that this was a blessing – but the George Floyd killing, as well as Christian Cooper, the Black birdwatcher in Central Park. And then we had the #BlackInTheIvory trend on Twitter. I got with several colleagues and we started two organizations during sabbatical, Black in Engineering and Black in Robotics.
Professor Berry 08:32
Black in Engineering just got an award.
Professor Berry 08:36
Thank you. I just became a ASW fellow, and I got about three awards for my work with Black in Engineering. So on top of the sabbatical that was just supposed to be me working for industry, all these awards I just… and these accolades I just got, I wouldn’t have been able to get any of those if I was working full time.
Yeah, that’s fantastic. And what would you tell anyone else, in university setting or elsewhere, about if they were considering going on a sabbatical?
Professor Berry 09:08
Another big one at my school – you can do whatever you want – so some people go on sabbatical, literally, to write a book. I’m also writing a book, by the way, I didn’t mention that, but…
Of course you are.
In your spare time.
Professor Berry 09:19
Not really. So when you pitch your sabbatical to be rejuvenated and refreshed, my list has grown exponentially. So all of a sudden, I’m gonna go back to work with zero rejuvenation, refreshment, but with a whole lot of doing stuff I couldn’t have done otherwise. Right? Literally, right before I connected with you guys, I connected with an undergraduate student who I’m gonna hire as my executive assistant. I’ve never needed an assistant before, and I’m now on sabbatical and I need an assistant!
Hey, wwhenI hear everything you’re doing, I think you need two assistants.
Professor Berry 09:54
Right! I just…the challenge I have is that, because I had interviewed somebody else to be the assistant before and, you know, they were great at the word processing and all that. I need somebody who can code, who can…who can program a robot, who can do HTML programming and that kind of thing. And the young lady I talked to today knew all of that. So it’s like, what do you call a personal assistant who… I don’t really, I don’t need anybody to type of things for me. I need somebody who can make a website, can edit a video, can program my robot and do videos… you know, but anyway, that’s crazy. That’s beside the point. But anyway, so I think people need a sabbatical from their regular job, whether they’re in academia or industry, because there is something very powerful that happens when you have time to reflect, right? I talk about that all the time, that if I’m in class all the time or I’m in office hours or I’m running from this meeting to that meeting, there’s stuff that’s being done that only I can do. I am unique. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. So there’s something about me that I could be providing to engineering and the world, but I can’t do it if I don’t get that time. And so that’s what the sabbatical has really been about, is doing all these exciting things that would have stayed on my bucket list until I retired otherwise.
I love it. Well done. Well done.
You’ve inspired me today, that I think I need one.
Professor Berry 11:19
Everyone does. And all universities do not have sabbaticals. I have a colleague at a university that shall not be named who does not get a sabbatical, and you know, she’s… she’s sad about that. And I would be as well. And you know, even though I have many friends who are not in academia who like to say faculty, you guys get every summer off, what do you need to sabbatical for? That is not true. Summers are spent doing research, mentoring students, going to conferences, printing papers. Just because we are not in the classroom in the summertime does not mean we’re off work.
Yeah, very, very true. So is there any downside to sabbaticals you think that we should mention for any of our listeners are thinking about maybe starting it in their companies?
Professor Berry 12:00
I think a big one for me is finding those funding sources. When I first took mine, I didn’t think to get a lot of advice. It ended up not being as bad as I thought, because there’s actually some resources online that I did not discover until my second sabbatical. A lot of government agencies offer faculty internships, I have identified there’s some at Amazon Science, there are some at, like, Oak Ridge National Labs, JPL, a lot of the NASA organizations. So now that I know those exist, fine. But before that I was really overwhelmed about can I live on half my salary, I gotta go figure out how I’m going to get paid. But I now know that there are several government organizations that do offer faculty, or just offer sabbaticals to academics or, you know, people. And so having those resources in place, that’s why I highly recommend starting a year early, so that you have time to have those things lined up. The worst stressor for me was… was finding the resources. There is no other downside in my opinion. Other than that, I think it’s awesome.
That’s great. That is wonderful.
Well, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your experiences. And then you’ll go back to the classroom in August?
Professor Berry 13:16
Yes, I will, at the end of August, actually. So.
Well, I wish you the very best on your book. I wish you the very best on the foundations that you started, much continued success. And I have a feeling there’s a lot of more awards headed your way. I would not be surprised.
Professor Berry 13:31
Thank you. That’s very kind.
All right. Well, thanks a lot and make it a great day.
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We’ve also invited another guest who has taken sabbaticals, and we’d like to welcome Joe Meyer. Joe is a retired partner from a national CPA firm where he worked for 36 years. He is currently a board member for family owned and private equity businesses. A Purdue University graduate, Joe is a father of three and grandpa to two and he was also the best boss I ever had.
Oh my gosh, you’ve managed JoDee. Oh, I want to hear… I want to hear details.
He tried, Susan.
Okay. All right.
She… she managed me. She made me look good. So she… my… my life was easier when she was around.
I love that. My life is easier when she’s around me, too.
So Joe, tell us about your first experience with a sabbatical and how it all came about.
I had been with another large CPA firm for about 20 years, and when we merged in with a larger CPA firm, they had a sabbatical program already in place, so I became a part of it without any involvement in the foundation of the program or formation of the program. So I was a newbie into it, and it did take me a while to appreciate it or understand it.
Yeah, I remember those days, when there was some panic around the partners thinking, like… How will I ever take time off?
Absolutely. I think that was the initial reaction for many folks. And I think some of that just has to do with the egos involved in large professional service firms. And I think managing… helping to manage that ego is one of the most important pieces of the sabbatical program.
Can you tell us a little bit about the ones that you’ve experienced, those sabbaticals? How were they structured? How did it work? Was there pay, no pay? How long was the maximum amount of time? And then I’d love to know, how did you use that time?
In our setting, it was fully compensated, so the partner did not lose any income. The maximum and minimum was one month, so it was a full 30 days. You could go a full month, or you could go half of one month and half of another month. And they were structured very formally in terms of the protocols and the processes that the firm put in place. So about a year in advance, you selected your month, and obviously you needed to make that selection in consideration of your staff, in consideration of your clients’ needs, so you couldn’t have all of the partners, obviously, leaving in March.
Right before tax day, yeah.
And you also had to balance it with other offices in a national firm, you had to look at what… whether industry partners were leaving, which months they were leaving. So there was a lot of scheduling that went into place. And then a tremendous amount of partner involvement in the planning process of actually leaving for a month with no connectivity whatsoever. No email, no systems. 100%. And they monitored.
100% off the radar. Yes.
I… you know, I really admire that, because you truly disengaged. But on the other hand, I think I’d get twitchy. I don’t know. A month not being able to touch base with my… my staff, my clients, nothing.
I think that’s a great initial reaction, and I believe many people felt that. But as I’ve spoken to JoDee before, I think that’s one of the most powerful pieces about it, because it forces you to truly institutionalize relationships with clients, make absolutely certain that they have multiple touch points with your firm. And in the long run, that is incredibly beneficial to the firm, to young people growing up in the firm, and to clients who are also going to be going through succession and dealing with different folks in their company. So for me, it was just a powerful lesson. And to the last part of your question, in terms of what I did, everybody’s different about that. We were very domestic, so we traveled mostly to the Carolinas, New York City. We’d pick a spot, go for a period of time, but then we would also have some of that time where we were just at home hanging out with one another. So I think for us, it was that balance. But I think every individual comes up with their own unique… maybe it’s something that was on their bucket list, and they wanted to go play golf in Ireland, or they wanted to tour World War II sites in Europe. So you can do anything you want.
But you have… you have to be gone, and you have to be completely disconnected. No ifs, ands, or buts.
So Joe, I was going to say that it sounds like a great partner perk, but you mentioned that some others benefit, as well. Tell us a little bit more about that.
I think initially… and it’s a great point that it’s viewed initially as, Wow, what a perk for partners. And there’s some benefit in that, because young people, I think, when they’re going through that slog of trying to make partner, it’s nice for them to see that there are some benefits at the end of the rainbow. And I do think it’s helpful to partners, as well. It is… it is a long time away. But the other benefits, and I think by far the most important benefits, are institutionalizing those relationships with clients, because if one person has dominated the relationship with a large client, and for that client, the only person they knew to call was JoDee or Joe or Susan, then when that partner retires and is gone for good, the client relationship’s at risk, because suddenly the client doesn’t know who to call. So making certain that you’re planning for that ultimate succession along the way, every five years, is very valuable. But just as valuable from a client perspective… clients like to see people succeed. They like to see people they work with succeed. So when they can see a young person, when a partner calls them or goes and visits and says, “Hey, I’m gonna be away for a month and JoDee is going to be here for you. She’s been here for you for the last seven years, and you can call her and talk to her about anything.” Clients, oftentimes, look upon that situation as, you know what, I must have somebody really good in JoDee working for me, and it’s great that the firm has the confidence in her to allow this to happen. So it’s also good for the JoDees of the world, for the young people who are given the opportunity to take the lead in managing that relationship. It allows them to really have a different perspective on client service. And then lastly, managing that partner ego. And I don’t think you know it when you’re in it. But when you’ve been gone for about three weeks and you recognize that the world hasn’t stopped turning, the firm is still operating, people are answering the phone, clients’ needs are being taken care of, it is a very humbling moment. And you come back knowing that there’s work to do, there’s hard work to do, but you need to do it. So that, to me, is incredibly… an incredibly valuable part of the program.
Terrific insights. Your experience was in a professional services firm. Would you recommend sabbaticals for other types of organizations, other types of industry?
You know, I… I wouldn’t want to speak for another industry, because I think it probably would be unique, and I don’t know the exact needs of it, but I think it probably could work in a lot of different settings. I think for it to work, whether it’s a professional services firm or not, you really have to pay attention to the process, building the process that you intend to follow and sticking with it. So it cannot be a flavor of the month type of a program. It needs to be very, very constant. The second piece of it, it needs to be communicated exceptionally well within the firm and to clients or whatever industry you’re in. And the third thing, I think no matter what industry, you have to really do some self-analysis of your company and understand and appreciate, do you have the bench strength to pull it off? Because if you’re if you’re just too small, I don’t know that you can make it work, because who is actually going to be there to take care of the particular needs, whether it’s a manufacturing environment, or a service environment.
Yeah. Susan, I think we’ve heard that now both from Professor Berry and Joe about the ability of their organizations to plan way ahead and… and have that structure in place to make that happen.
Yeah, I think scale… scale matters when you look at this particular type of an option. Obviously, a sole proprietor with a single consultant would have difficulty doing it, because there’s no one to step in the void.
Right. Well, Joe, anything else we haven’t asked you about sabbaticals that you’d like to share?
I think they’re very powerful. I… in any situation I think you should at least explore it, because I do think there are some really great benefits all across the board. It’s worth exploration, whether or not you come to the conclusion that you can pull it off or want to pull it off. It should be considered.
Well, I’m thinking about planning one now. How about you, Susan?
Well… well JoDee, from looking at your website, you know, you not only have all those wonderful employees now, but you have the two dogs to handle security, so…
You’re getting… you’re getting to that critical mass where you could do it, but you know, I’ll tell you what, JoDee, in your situation or any situation like that. There comes a time… I know you’ve told me before that you intend to work forever, and… and I believe that, but you may not always feel that way. So the other piece of it is it allows the individual to say, How does this look and feel and how do I feel in that space? And you know, at some point if you want to exit a business, you have to sell it to someone, so it could be an opportunity to say, Is there somebody else who really wants to step into the president, CEO job for a month and see how it really feels?
Right. Like it.
They may like it or they may not.
Yeah. Well, thank you for joining us, Joe. Great information.
Very fun. I really appreciate it, Joe. learned a lot.
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