Career Advice

When To Take a Sabbatical to Recalibrate & Recharge

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Charisse Hughes, CMO of Pandora Jewelry’s Americas region, has always been focused on an “aggressive career trajectory.” She obtained her MBA and went straight into vaulting the corporate ladder at Sara Lee, then Avon, then finally Estée Lauder.

At Lauder, Hughes had ascended to SVP of global marketing: a role with great responsibility, but one that was also emotionally and mentally taxing. And eventually, she realized something big.

“I had never really stopped to think about my personal life or plan for it,” Hughes says.

Hughes had worked hard for her success, yet, like many people, she also felt somehow that she had been “passive” about where life had taken her. She enjoyed her job yet increasingly felt she was able to make less of an impact, as projects stalled out and went nowhere. She was on-again, off-again with her boyfriend, and in her mid-40s, she wasn’t sure her dream of becoming a mother would ever come to pass.

And yet it took the recovery from a surgery to remove uterine fibroids in 2013, when she was 43 years old, for Hughes to begin thinking about recalibrating her life.

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“I was having these conversations with my OB-GYN saying you won’t be able to have kids if you don’t get these removed, and I also had a recovery of several weeks afterward,” Hughes says. “That was the critical time period [to get me on the path to a sabbatical]. I actually took the time off and did not engage in work.”

It still took Hughes more than a year to leave her job at Lauder to take what ended up being a six-month sabbatical to assess all aspects of her life—professional, personal, spiritual.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, only 15% of American companies offered paid or unpaid sabbaticals in 2018. Yet the benefits of a break are significant: In a survey by management consulting firm TSNE, 87% of respondents who took a sabbatical reported greater confidence. They also said they developed better relationships at work and the ability to think outside the box or crystallize big-vision ideas.

Here’s her advice about how to step back and take charge.

How you’ll know it’s time for a break

If you’re feeling like time away from the workplace might be the reset you need, Hughes recommends asking yourself a few key questions. She personally reviews these questions at the end of the year: What were the highs and lows this year? Where did I grow? What skills do I still need to develop? What do I love about where I’m at, and what don’t I love?

“I’m constantly trying to take stock of what I’ve gained and where I want to go,” Hughes says.

Be honest with yourself in your answers, and—this is the crucial part—think about how the reality aligns — or doesn’t — with your values.

In Hughes’ case, “at the back of my mind I thought I’d have a family get married and have kids and all that,” she says. “But I didn’t make the space to do that. So my values were not aligned to what I was really doing every day.” In the professional realm, Hughes felt she had in some ways become stymied and was no longer able to make as much of an impact—which to her is the most important aspect of a job.

Figure out where you’re spending your energy and time on both a personal and professional basis, and determine where the gaps exist. If your answers indicate that you’re in need of a reset, work on building your confidence to make the leap. This could include garnering your support network, but know that not everyone may be in favor of a risky move: Hughes’ mother, for example, is a supportive person but a traditional one, so she wasn’t in favor of a sabbatical.

“You have to get to a place where you’re honest with yourself and ready to make a bet on yourself,” Hughes says. “The waters are scary, but you have to trust yourself, your skills and your network to navigate it all.”

Use your time off wisely

Once you make the leap, it could be tempting to sit around and relax rather than make the time off productive.

“You have to be super purposeful,” Hughes explains. “I had a ritual: Every day I went around the corner, had my coffee, worked out, meditated and did a painting class. [The last two] became an outlet: I didn’t want my default, super analytical right brain to take over as usual. It was an amazing experience to open up my mind.”

Choose an activity that goes your comfort zone, and make sure to schedule important conversations every day. Hughes works with a professional coach who recommends writing down everyone you know; during her sabbatical she had multiple professional meetings and lunches daily with her network, putting herself in “discovery mode” to help find the right next opportunity.

On the personal side, Hughes committed to Deepak Chopra’s 60-day meditation program and took a hard look at her on-again, off-again relationship. She lived in New York City, while her boyfriend lived in Maryland with his two children from a previous marriage. He has full custody of the children and couldn’t move north.

“So I had to make a big bet; I realized, this is a great guy and I want to give this a real shot,” Hughes says. She made the move to Maryland.

Finding the best time and place to jump back in

On the professional front, your networking and time spent thinking about what you want to do next should help guide you to identifying potential new opportunities. When researching companies—and interviewing with them—Hughes recommends a laser focus on culture.

After all, your time away was all about aligning your actions to your values. So, Hughes says, ask about details like how decisions are made: If, say, it’s consensus-based, is that something you enjoy or would it drain your energy? If you ask four or five senior people about their top priorities, would there be any overlap?

“I’ve also been really honest about why [I took a sabbatical]” in interviews, Hughes says. “I craft the story and have no fear about sharing it.”

Both in a new job and in your reset personal life, Hughes says discipline is paramount. It’s easy to slip back into old habits, so be sure to set rituals that ensure you’re “constantly checking in with yourself,” she adds.

“I have a small vision board taped to my bathroom mirror, so every morning when I brush my teeth I look at those words and pictures as a reminder—a guiding star,” Hughes explains. “I also sit down every Sunday night to schedule the week and recommit to my priorities.”

Ultimately, Hughes’ break opened up new paths in every aspect of her life. She’s thriving as chief marketing officer of Pandora Jewelry’s Americas region, a role she took in January 2015 after her sabbatical. Her on-off relationship solidified after her move to Maryland and the couple was married in 2017, and Hughes is stepmother to her husband’s two children.

“All of this would not have happened [if I hadn’t taken a career break],” she says. “In the end, you have to shift your behavior to reflect what you care about.”

Photos Credit: BFA – Joe Schildhorn and David Benthal

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