What does the new chief financial officer of HSBC have in common with one of the world’s top crime writers and a billionaire Silicon Valley tech titan?
The answer is not obvious, because each is a member of an unusual club. They all took sabbatical leave from an enviable corporate job and returned to find themselves on a path to bigger, bolder success.
Georges Elhedery’s story is the most surprising. He was in his late forties and co-head of investment banking at HSBC in January when he announced he was taking six months off for “personal development”. This was a rare move for anyone in the remorseless world of investment banking, especially a senior banker. So was what happened next.
When Elhedery returned, having learnt some Mandarin, he was promoted to chief financial officer in a move that made him a contender for the top job of chief executive.
Here lie two important lessons, starting with the idea that a sabbatical is career suicide because anyone who takes one is visibly less committed to their career.
Elhedery shows otherwise, which leads to a second lesson: beware of mouthing off about a colleague heading to apparent career oblivion via extended leave. You might find them firmly back in the office — and your boss.
Different conclusions can be drawn from other members of the supercharged sabbatical club. Before he became a bestselling Norwegian crime writer, Jo Nesbø studied to be a financial analyst and was headhunted by a top brokerage firm, DNB Markets, to build up its options division.
He was also playing guitar in a band at night and, after a year, was so burnt out he told both his boss and the band he needed six months off. “I hopped on a plane to Australia, to get as far away from Norway as I could,” he once wrote.
On the long flight from Oslo to Sydney, he came up with a plot for a novel about a flawed but likeable detective named Harry Hole. By the time he got back home, Nesbø had almost finished the first of what would become the hugely popular Harry Hole thrillers and was on his way to becoming a publishing phenomenon worth millions of dollars.
Nesbø’s story offers a different lesson about sabbaticals: they do not always deliver a tanned, rested worker fired up to do years more loyal work. They sometimes produce a competitor, such as Marc Benioff, co-founder of the Salesforce software company.
Benioff was earning a multimillion-dollar salary in what he described in a memoir as “the greatest job I could ever have imagined”, at the software powerhouse Oracle, when he sank into a profound malaise. When he told his boss, Larry Ellison, Oracle’s co-founder, the older man told him to take a three-month sabbatical. Benioff went to India, found guidance from a “hugging saint” and began to think about forming his own software business. Two years later, he left Oracle and set up Salesforce, sparking a sometimes tetchy rivalry with Ellison.
What does all this show? For one thing, easy assumptions are often wrong in corporate life, as they are in much of life generally. The urge to have a rest from years of relentless work burns brightly in many people, including those with no desire to quit or slack off.
Equally, sabbaticals do not automatically guarantee company loyalty. Their popularity will inspire commitment in many workers, even if research shows the cheering effects of even six months off can fade soon after returning to work. But people such as Benioff and Nesbø are unlikely to be held in place by the lure of a long break, no matter how much they might want it at the time.
Ultimately though, if you work for a company that offers a sabbatical, you are exceedingly fortunate, especially in the US. Just 5 per cent of employers offered paid sabbatical leave in 2019, according to a Society for Human Resource Management survey of its US-based members. A barely much better 11 per cent had an unpaid sabbatical programme.
For most of us, this type of leave is precious, so grab it if you can, even if it fails to deliver everything that you, or your colleagues or bosses, are expecting.