Worried about going on leave? Do a Stress Test (or two) first!

Written by: Karl Sakas

As business owners, we rarely take enough time away from work—especially an extended planned absence.

“Extended leave” might translate to taking an extra-long vacation—or a month or more for a sabbatical or parental leave. Other times, our extra time away isn’t so “optional”—like needing to recover from a planned medical procedure.

Here’s the thing—your being away will always have a significant impact on your agency. But fortunately, there are steps you can take today to make things easier in the future. A key step is doing a management Stress Test (or two, or three) to help you find problems before it’s too late.

Not planning on an extended absence? Today’s article will help you prepare for the unexpected, too. And if you plan to sell your agency in the future, the steps may help you negotiate a better deal in the future—since you’ll have made yourself increasingly Optional.

When you take the time to prepare in advance, you’ll be able to actually enjoy your extended leave with zero (or minimal) interruptions. And your team will get better, too! Let’s look at the steps I recommend to help you get better results… with less stress.

In a hurry? See my advice on running a “simulated” stress test. It’s not as powerful as doing 1-2 full-scale stress tests, but it’ll help you work with what you have.

6 steps to prepare for an extended absence from your agency

Follow these six steps to improve your odds of having an uninterrupted (or at least minimally-interrupted) leave.

  1. Reflect: What worries you about taking the time off? What are your biggest fears about what’ll break? How will it feel to let go? I recommend a conversation or two with your therapist or business coach. In addition to getting their feedback, they’ll likely have some suggestions on places to look that you might not expect.
  2. Define: What is your ideal extended leave? Consider your “conditions of satisfaction” across three categories: must-haves (what would make your time away a success), negotiables (what might or might not be OK), and dealbreakers (what would make your time away a failure). For instance, some agency owners are fine doing a weekly check-in call with their second-in-command; for others, they want everything deferred (and no texts or phone calls at all) ’til they get back. It’s your leave—and your agency—so you get to choose.
  3. Inventory: Create a list of what you think will “break” when you’re away for the upcoming leave. Ask your team to contribute to the list. Be sure to include both ongoing decisions and responsibilities, as well as things that tend to hit once a month, once a quarter, or once a year. The goal is to find things that need new (or clarified) Swim Lanes, so that people can handle things without you… and so they know where they shouldn’t be making decisions.
  4. Test: Do at least one Stress Test—that is, where you plan on zero contact with the agency—to see what “breaks.” The idea is to do the Stress Test in a semi-controlled environment—where you come back in a few days instead of a few weeks or a few months. I recommend turning on your Out of Office autoresponder, leaving town (to enjoy being physically “away”), and doing something to enjoy yourself.
  5. Adjust: Fix the problems you found, with your team’s help. Some of these may require immediate solutions, with longer-term solutions over time. Pre-schedule time to make adjustments, and pre-schedule time before and after your leave to handle the inevitable “expected unexpected.”
  6. Iterate: Weigh doing a second Stress Test, based on what you learned from the earlier one. Depending on the length and nature of the leave (compared to what you “normally” do), you may want to add a third Stress Test. If you find your list is getting longer and longer, read my article on the Day-to-Day Involvement Meter for a deeper dive on the underlying issue.

Following these six steps won’t guarantee it’ll go smoothly, but it’ll help you boost the odds of a good experience for you, your family, and your team! Let’s take a closer look at defining your ideal agency Stress Test.

Creating your agency management Stress Test

Last year, a client shared that he and his partner were expecting their second child. Her corporate job provided 4+ months of paid maternity leave… but as an independent agency owner, he’d be on his own for paternity leave. He wanted to take more time off than when they had their first child—and he could afford to pay his salary while he was on paternity leave—but he realized he couldn’t unplug entirely without disrupting the agency.

Based on that, I recommended doing two Stress Tests—the first for 2-3 days, and the second for at least a week. The idea is that he—and his team—could see what “broke” while he was away, when they had time to adjust before his longer absence.

My core recommendation was that he should plan to have zero contact with the agency during the Stress Tests. That’s not to say he should ignore employee inquiries—those are a sign that they’d need to fix the underlying issues—but the goal was to see what would break.

When I checked-in after the first Stress Test, he’d already made some adjustments. And the same was true for the second Stress Test. When his child arrived, he was ready. (Well, as ready as you can be.)

You might opt to have scheduled check-ins with your team—perhaps once a week, and then switching to every other week. If you go this route, be sure the check-in frequency works for your team… versus fulfilling your emotional needs. (That is—once you define the Swim Lanes to make decisions without you, they probably don’t need you as much as you want them to need you.)

Don’t try to do the Stress Test in a vacuum—get your team’s help making the list of gaps, and in fixing them. This will help them upgrade their skills.

Don’t have enough time? Do a “simulated” stress test!

Is your leave coming up in the next few weeks? You probably don’t have enough time to run a full-length stress test, much less two of them. In that case, I recommend doing a “simulated” stress test. That is, you aren’t away from work—but you keep track of anything that comes up that “needs” you if you weren’t there. Then, regroup with your team to get their help.

Question: How will you prepare for your next extended leave as an agency owner?

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