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Vacationing Bosses Should Take a Break and Let Staffers Step up

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By Carol Hymowitz, The Wall Street Journal Online

RISMEDIA, August 24, 2007-(WSJOnline.com)-The president of a small manufacturing company in Cleveland told his top marketing manager that he wasn’t going to be reachable during a recent weeklong safari in Africa. But midway through the week, the manager received a voice-mail message from his boss inquiring whether he had completed a particular assignment — and telling him which task to tackle next.

“I felt he didn’t trust that I knew how to do my job,” the marketing manager says. “When he got back from vacation and I asked how he’d managed to get a cell phone signal in the jungle, he confessed he’d programmed the voice-mail message to me before he left.”

Fed up with being micromanaged, the manager quit shortly afterward, taking a new job.

It’s vacation season-but many executives not only limit themselves to breaks of just a few days, they also continue to check in with employees and issue directives from yachts, beaches and mountain resorts. Their refusal to turn off their cell phones and BlackBerrys means they are never relieved of work pressures no matter how remote or luxurious their vacation destinations. In addition, those executives who can’t disengage from the office and delegate authority undermine employees’ confidence to make decisions and be creative.

“The most successful executives presume that employees will act in the best interests of their company and to their full potentials — and don’t need to check in with them all the time,” says Michael Mankins, a partner at consultant Bain & Co. “Those who can’t step away and trust that decisions can be made without them never get the best work out of subordinates.”

Lee Macenczak, executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service at Delta Air Lines, realized this when he traveled to Israel last month with his wife and two daughters for his first weeklong vacation in several years. During his absence, he expected his six direct reports and thousands of employees to handle the daily crush of meetings and decisions.

“It’s important for me to spend time with my family and recharge, especially now that Delta has emerged from Chapter 11,” he says, “and I have a great team of high performers who know perfectly well how to take care of our customers and operations.”

He admits, however, that he had to restrain himself from sending and answering e-mails.

“I checked my BlackBerry, but tried not to work on everything — and came home to a lot of unanswered e-mails,” he says.

Michael Bonsignore, retired chief executive of Honeywell, thinks executives should fear being indispensable a lot more than fear not being needed.

“Executives go to all this trouble to recruit and train people, so they should be able to really get away sometimes and nurture the management structure they’ve created by leaving decisions to others,” he says.

He sought to do this when he was CEO at Honeywell — by taking off three days at a time several times a year to pursue his hobbies of saltwater fly fishing and boating.

“My view of vacation was leaving work behind — and trying to preserve the essence of my inner self,” says Bonsignore. And because he maintained his interests outside of business throughout his career, he believes he can now enjoy his retirement more than other former CEOs who focused only on work.

He acknowledges that technology is making it increasingly difficult for executives to separate themselves from work and from their staffs even for a day. On fishing trips to remote areas in British Columbia, Bonsignore has observed executives. They “step off the float plane onto the dock, and the first thing they do is make sure their cell phone and BlackBerry are working,” he says.

The fact that they can connect so easily to their offices and staffs from anyplace in the world makes it harder to choose not to engage.

Dan Amos, CEO of Aflac, the Georgia-based insurance company, says he was coached not to micromanage in a seminar he took more than a decade ago. But he has learned along the way that some compromise is necessary for top executives, who can hardly afford to completely disengage from work.

“You may say you don’t want to be reached — but you’re expected by employees, colleagues and superiors to be able to be reached,” he says.

When he took a vacation to the Arctic Circle with his son a few years ago, he took along a satellite phone on which he could be contacted. No one called, “but if there had been an earthquake in Japan” — where Aflac is the No. 1 insurer — “or some other cataclysmic event, I’d need to know,” he says.

He believes there is a plus side to always carrying a BlackBerry, although he refrains from calling the office the minute he lands somewhere. Having the connection, he says, means he doesn’t feel anxious or guilty for taking a long weekend, because he can blend work and leisure.

Still, he says he keeps himself in check: “I stick to a rule that says, ‘You can call me, and I may call to do business about an issue on my mind, but I won’t call in just to find out what is going on all the time.’ ”

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