Why I take a month-long break every year, while the rest of the company works

Taking a break to contemplate life and your place in it, along with your work can greatly benefit you and your company (photocredit: http://marketingdeviant.com/)

The more recent pause in posts has been because I took a four-week break from work and headed home to the US where I am from. I hadn’t seen my family in a year and missed them horribly. This “long break” was a clause that I had negotiated with the owners when they brought me on board (they offered me a low salary, so I needed other perks to make up for it): I needed a month off every year (unpaid), even while the company worked. Some people would say that it is both selfish and stupid, but for the company and myself (both as a leader and as a person), it has been invaluable.

Here’s how both I and the company have benefitted on the personal side:

  • It rewards and refreshes the mind, body and soul in a VERY necessary way: Good leadership is ultimately backbreaking servitude. My hours are long and, often, thankless, and leadership is extraordinarily lonely. This is not by choice. It just comes with the job (not asking for pity…I signed up knowingly). As you go up the chain-of-command in a company, you have fewer and fewer peers whom you can talk to and confide in. Many things are confidential, and you deal with much more “heavy” material – cases that no one else wants to touch, things that no one wants to (or can) take responsibility for, and in many cases, jobs that require a skillset that only you might have. This eats into your energy and time in a way I can’t express. Without a family or support system at home (or in the office) to balance things out, it slowly eats away at your system. This is why most CEOs are compensated so highly (sometimes I think its a bit much and unnecessary). I think its so that they can have the other perks to balance out the heat of the job. In my case, I get none of those perks, including pay. And I have no family and few friends (partially because the hours are so long and partially because I don’t really fit in here). My burnout rate is consequently, very high. These breaks keep me healthy, and consequently the company healthy and on the right path.
  • Mental and Emotional Rejuvenation Fuel Necessary Depth of Thought: The reason I need such a long break is because I need to be charged up physically, mentally, and emotionally. It usually takes a week for me to get physically recharged (mostly with good food and sleep); but it takes longer to get mentally and emotionally recharged. When the brain tires, creativity declines, and my greatest asset in my current position is to be creative when everyone else is not; and in a capacity that other people cannot be. As CEO, I am responsible for strategic planning and execution, overall problem analysis, goal orientation and direction. I have to both think out the goals at a company, department and individual level, and then figure out a way to get there, and then motivate my team to move in that direction. If they don’t see it, its my fault. If the company or department or individual is stuck, its ultimately my job to find a solution (either through or outside my team) and then move towards executing it. This is not physical strength, but mental and emotional strength, and this is what fuels creativity and depth of thought.

The break, for example, is what fueled the space to collect and write down my thoughts, and start blogging again. Similar to a cow chewing the cud, the break allowed for a lot of things that I had mentally filed away when I was triaging a specific case to come back and sift through. I am able to see things much clearer as a result…things that were done right or wrong, things that needed to be fixed or done better, holes that are still left and leaking within the company. It all comes back in moments of quiet, and it allows tremendous depth of thought and much more efficient action. I grow a lot in those moments, as does my skillset, and this makes the whole company grow as a result. My brain floods with ideas; problems I have long been contemplating suddenly have solutions. Its really exciting, and counterintuitive, but I often find I do my greatest work when I am on “holiday.” And its because I’m allowed the space to think deeply.

Here’s why on the company side:

  • It builds resilience in the firm: As the ultimate servant, people can get a little too dependent on you to do things that they can probably do themselves. So when I’m gone and my contact with them is curbed, it forces them to grow and step up in ways they haven’t before. I often come back to see depth of thought on the part of many members of my team, lots more questions and answers, eagerness to learn and grow, and greater levels of confidence. Its a beautiful thing to see.
  • Performance is glaringly obvious: Conversely, I’m also able to see the “holes” in my team, company strategy or structure, communication, etc. Based on this, I know how well we have been performing, how much more I can push my team and the company. At an individual level, I can see who all have grown as individuals or team players, and who haven’t…who fit in the company and who don’t. Everything becomes much more obvious.

This time, for example, I knew that we were doing good as a team, and company when I got back, and it was incredibly affirming.

Last year (eight months after I took over as CEO) when I got back from my break, I had a long line of people (juniors, seniors, and upper management, including the owners) waiting with a list of complaints of things to fix. I could see that while we had made a lot of progress in the first eight months, there were still LOTS of things to do. Had it not been for the break, I probably would have been overwhelmed and unable to sieve through the chaos. But it was soon glaringly obvious to me that there were still LOTS of HR issues. Communication and team-building, as well as the need for mature design leadership emerged as the key problems that I needed to solve. These became my priorities, and I only realized the results when I came back this time.

In contrast to last year, when I got back this year, the line of people to see me were mostly seniors (not the juniors or upper management as last year) and their lists were mostly happy/proud updating, and any key resources or things they needed from me in order to move forward. I could see that they had thought deeper about things, stepped up better, and that the team was MUCH stronger. Confidence levels were higher. Work was moving forward at a rapid pace. Most people were communicating and resolving differences between themselves. It was quite affirming…I knew we had done good over the past year, and it was time to move forward with the next phase of growth…time for me to step up yet again.

For those who ask how things had changed in the first eight months, and how I gauged progress there, here’s something for you. When I first got there at Month #1, only the owners showed up with a long list of complaints of things to fix. No one else wanted to talk to me or have anything to do with me. It took me several months to gain everyone’s trust and get them highlighting their biggest issues. The issues were at a fundamental, extremely critical level…there was a lack of vision, mission, core values, goals, and a complete lack of accountability; which I immediately set about fixing and implementing before I went on break. So the fact that everyone showed up to complain to me with a long list, was in and of itself a big achievement and showcased trust. Their complaints had also shifted from fundamental issues with the company to team-related issues they had with each other –  a HUGE shift (you want complaints to move from being heavily substantive to more trivial issues). Hence I knew we had progressed, but there was still great chaos in other respects.

In conclusion, I think these breaks are invaluable in multiple ways, and hopefully you might take this to heart in terms of your own productivity and that of the company’s.

And this is why I will hopefully continue to take long breaks while my company works.

m4s0n501

Ten Books that Made an Impression

There is a chain going around Facebook (FB) that I’ve been tagged in a few times already. It asks the question about the top books that you dote on. Rather than answer it there, I’m answering it once here and then getting the link out. It just seemed more efficient.

This is a HARD HARD question to answer because I’ve gone through different phases in my life when different books became more important. For example, as a child, I loved anything that Enid Blyton wrote. I grew up on her. As a teenager, I became obsessed with the Scarlet Pimpernel (I still think they’ve not made a good enough movie to reflect the story). And in adulthood, I went through a phase when I read/watched anything I could about Lincoln, and similarly later with stalwarts like Ernest Shackleton, Darwin, and Gandhi, to more recent entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs. I also get obsessed with specific management principles or thinking and read everything I can about them. So perhaps I’ll tweak it to just answer ten books that come to mind that left a big impression on me, in no order:

Tuesdays with Morrie (image courtesy: wikimedia.org)

Tuesdays with Morrie, by Mitch Albom: Honestly, one of the simplest and most important guides on how to live life. This was the first book that made me bawl my eyes out and stayed with me in a deep, deep way. It has become a bible of sorts for me (Similar titles: The Little Prince, The Last Lecture, The Alchemist).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (image courtesy: icollector.com)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl: As a child, I felt this book (along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) spoke to me in a way that no other book could. I had a wild imagination that no one seemed to understand or truly appreciate until I read this book and felt tremendous validation. It felt like someone finally saw into the deepest recesses of my imagination and made it ok. (Similar titles: Charlotte’s Web, and anything Enid Blyton wrote).

The Harry Potter Septology (courtesy: Harleysville Books.com)

The Harry Potter Series (if pushed, I would say Books 3, 6, and 7), by JK Rowling: Like all adults, I lost touch with my imagination until this series came along, and gripped me in its world. It taught me about the loneliness and price of fame, the burden of leadership, and validated the importance of family and true friends. I still read it often because of its deep wisdom in a magical world.

Good to Great (image courtesy: Wikimedia)

Good to Great, by Jim Collins: One of my bibles in the field of management, and one that I have referred to constantly when I am doing strategic thinking in the workplace. Exhaustively researched, this book presents five principles gleaned from hard data and factual evidence for turning ordinary organizations into extraordinary organizations. (Similar titles: other Jim Collins books, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Anything by Peter Drucker and Malcolm Gladwell).

A Sense of the World (Image courtesy: Harper Collins)

A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts: Honestly one of the most extraordinary biographies I have read. This is the true story of a blind man who lived an extraordinary life…”known simply as the Blind Traveler — a solitary, sightless adventurer who [came from obscurity and poverty to serve in the Royal Navy and be Knighted], fought the slave trade in Africa, survived frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon, and helped chart the Australian outback.” A minor celebrity in his time, he also possessed an extraordinary sense of humor and was an inspiration to Charles Darwin. I was really inspired by James Holman’s story, and it showed me that you didn’t have to be famous or wealthy to lead an interesting life, and that nothing was beyond your reach if you wanted something. Really left an impact on me because of how unexpected, amazing and inspiring a story it was.

Autobiography of Yogi (courtesy: Amazon.com)

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda: Always interested in the lives of monks, and religious philosophy (regardless of denomination), I was moved and enchanted by the stories and experiences of a young man as he traveled throughout India in his search for The Truth, and becoming a monk. There is deep wisdom in this book. (similar titles: too many to name, anything by Yogananda, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rumi, etc)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (image courtesy: manofthehourmag.com)

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy : As a teenager, this story had a big impact on me. It was my first textbook on strategy, and taught me about the importance of being self-confident and knowing your worth, and the strength that lay in being underestimated. (Similar titles: The Count of Monte Cristo)

McMafia (image courtesy: amazon.com)

McMafia by Misha Glenny: This is a random book to throw in the middle of this pile, but it stayed with me because it opened my eyes to a whole new (under)world that I didn’t even know existed; and educated me on its intricacies…how powerful it was and how it interconnected with so many other things. Its what got me very interested in informal economies, and it all proved to be particularly useful in terms of background information when I started to work in slum and rural areas in emerging markets later. FASCINATING and highly educational.

The Places in Between (image courtesy: thecaptivereader.com)

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart: This travelogue captures Rory Stewart’s walk across Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11 and the American occupation, following in the footsteps of Babur the great Uzbek Prince who would forge a path into India and establish the Mughal Empire. Not only was I impressed by young Rory’s courage and fortitude, I was also intrigued by the juxtapose of ancient and modern history at such a tumultuous time. It further fueled my desire to attempt atleast one long distance hike or trail in my lifetime. Besides being educational and eye-opening, it changed how I saw long-distance travel in its simplicity and accessibility.

This is stupid, but I’d like to keep #10 open and dedicated to several books that should be on the list and didn’t make it….either because I couldn’t remember them, or I haven’t read them yet.

The Winning Nat Geo Picture: Hard Work and Fun

Yesterday, I spent a few hours checking out the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest, something that takes place every year. This photo by Ben Canales which was the 2011 winner caught my attention and I spent several hours staring at it. Later I came across the story behind it. And that made me even happier. What an experience it must’ve been…

credit: nationalgeographic.com, Ben Canales 2011 Photo Contest Winner

Apparently, the picture itself happened at a relaxed moment when Ben was just taking in the scenery and having fun…following up on my last post, and the advice of many “winners” I’ve come across in my life, genius usually happens after you’ve dreamt something up, worked really hard to make it happen, and finally let it all go to have a moment of fun…

My Reading List: August 2014

credit: slate.com

A week ago, I gave my team a talk about the necessity of developing and maintaining a reading habit for a number of reasons, including its ability to keep you up with the latest trends in your line of work or interests in the world, infusing you with ideas, and generally keeping you fresh and thinking. Naturally a few of them asked me about what my reading list was.

A couple of caveats, before I reveal this…this is *my* list and reflects *my* interests; I don’t believe AT ALL that this is the perfect list for anyone including myself. My interests change regularly, and my reading list changes with it. I generally encourage people to come up with their own, as each of us is different. Finally, my focus in that talk was the emphasis of developing the habit of reading. In the beginning, content is moot…the point is to just make the habit of reading; but hopefully over time, it will evolve into something more significant and educational.

I’d also like to make it clear that I am practising what I preach in terms of developing the habit. As a child, I lacked the attention span to read…the only books I read were mandatory for school and the ones I read by choice had lots of  pictures in them. That said, ALL my closest friends and the people I admired most were bookworms…so I got knowledge by proxy. Over time, as I got separated from my friends and the internet, particularly during long waits “in the field” on remote assignments away from my regular life, often in places where I didn’t speak the language, books became my solace, my escape, and my “happy place.” I clung to them and they to me. And so began a new habit…to a point where a book is usually my constant companion. I have an old iPad and an iPhone, but given a choice, I would prefer a good handheld paper book, than the e-reader any day…

What I’m reading now: I primarily read non-fiction, with a focus on travel, history of science/technology, entrepreneurship, business, international development, and auto/biographies. I LOVE memoirs. Of course its constantly evolving and here’s what’s on my current list:

  • A Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson: Narrated like a detective story, this tells the tale of John Snow, a young, driven surgeon in 19th century England who was trying desperately to find the cause of Cholera. His discovery eventually changed the face of modern medicine, led to the establishment of the modern public health sector, and changed the way cities were designed and maintained. This was the birth of the modern water-sanitation-trash collection sectors. I’m at the tail end of this book. Its been marvelous so far!
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: I’m reading this because I’ve come to love and greatly appreciate what Steve accomplished through Apple, something that has blossomed into deep admiration. Its thick and daunting, so its taking me a LONG time to get through it…
  • Walking Home From Mongolia by Rob Lillwall: I love slow travel through foreign countries, and I love long walks. On my bucket list is to do a very long walk somewhere…but until then I will live vicariously through others. Rob and his buddy’s crazy 3000 mile walk from the Gobi Desert to Hong Kong was absolutely riveting. At the tail end of this book too.
  • Daring Greatly by Brene Brown: Like many other people, I was introduced to Brene through her superb TED Talk (which projected her into an insane fame spotlight) and was drawn to read more about her findings.
  • The Hindus by Wendy Doninger: A practicing Hindu myself, this book piqued my interest because of its highly controversial reputation in India where it was ultimately banned. Now that I’ve skimmed through it, I fail to understand the big deal. And I would encourage you to ignore most of the reviews (placed there to “kill” the book), as any non-biased person who has read it will tell you that its a great overview of the religion from an outsider’s perspective.
  • Jewels in the Crown by Ray Hutton: I just started this book, but its the ultimate revenge story in the best possible way. In six short years, Tata Motors of India acquired British automobile icons Jaguar-Land Rover, and turned the company around. This is the ultimate anti-colonial story that would make Gandhi proud.

What I plan to read in the future:

My blogroll/magazines I read regularly (this is NOT comprehensive…I read a lot of blogs…I read in breadth, not so much in depth when it comes to blogs…meaning I browse a LOT and find only a few things that I read thoroughly):

Innovative Accelerator: Startup Bus

Startup Bus

Startup Bus is an innovative accelerator aiming to build a community of young entrepreneurs around the world, and succeeding in doing so. It started as a joke that became serious very quickly.

The concept is simple. You apply to be a part of one of the various organized bus trips (there are six that traversed Europe in Dec 2012; no plans announced yet for 2013). If you meet whatever they are looking for, you are accepted and assigned to a specific bus. Expect your peers to be from a variety of backgrounds, and hungry to dive into the startup culture.

The bus trip costs ~USD200, and lasts 72 hours. During this time you are encouraged to network and brainstorm and a number of tools are given to you; including talks and workshops. You stop enroute on a “startup tour” of sorts, meeting venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and incubators. By the time you get off, the hope is that you would have the beginnings of a company, with hopefully a couple of cofounders.

In the worst case scenario, you’ve seen Europe (or some other part of the world where the bus is). Not bad, eh??

Interested?? Apply here.

Here’s a peek into what its like:

And for a parody, check this out: