Guest post by Alexandra Hsiao
In today’s performance-focused work culture, Leave of absence is a loaded term. “Lack of focus”, poor performance”, and “burnout" are some of the negative associations which swirl around the idea, implying people only take LOAs because they have no choice, or when they are about to quit.
On the contrary, those three little letters have given me an opportunity to pause from the mad climb up the ladder, take a breath, and reflect. We are concerned with our growth and in our professional roles, but to grow holistically as a person, and in more than one direction, is equally important.
The LOA recognizes a shift towards a new era of work, or “reworking”. We are not one-dimensional robots who want to excel in one role for the rest of our life. This is an age where having one professional role your entire life is unlikely, and (I would argue) stifling. My generation, adept at having hands in many pots, wearing multiple hats, sometimes simultaneously. The model – photographer– entrepreneur is an example that often pops up in Vogue, but my friends - Danz, consultant – blogger – performer, and Paul, consultant – entrepreneur – student, are two real life examples of how we want to live today. Stephen Hawking said: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change,” and he is more right today than ever before. This desire for flexibility, agility and balance is not a silly, Gen Y whim that undermines productivity and progress – it is good for business, and for society. I am a prime example.
After four years of management consulting, I needed to take stock. I was questioning the work I was doing and my place in the world. Luckily for me, my boss was forward-thinking enough to recognise this and I left Sydney for New York to intern with a social mission startup called Catchafire.
The tech startup industry, which has become popular and newsworthy via the success of companies like Facebook, Twitter and Groupon, seemed a perfect opportunity to put my consulting skills to use in a different context. More than anything, I wanted to use my skills to build something meaningful that would help people.
What I found in the startup world did not disappoint me. Startups are everything that corporations are not. Inherently small - Catchafire had 10 employees when I joined - everyone wears many hats to drive the company forward and operates in perpetual bootstrapping mode. Startups also require true end-to-end thinking, as you are coming up with the strategy, building it, executing it and then evaluating it, iterating continually and often. You have to build it all yourself, and this is difficult but wonderfully satisfying. True startup junkies are visionary but also practical, people-people but obsessed with metrics; technical but commercial.
In consulting, the learning curve for new clients is steep, but in startup, especially with a disruptive product, you are not learning the industry rules but creating them. There were moments when the team, stumped at a moment of impasse, would look at each other and realise that what we were trying to do had never been done before.
On my LOA, I learned more about what I am naturally good at and what I want to do with my life than I have in the past 2 years. Never did I think I would be making sales, or building partnerships, but by the end of my time at Catchafire I was leading the company’s expansion into a new market.
Any company that wants to win the talent war for the next generation should recognise the value in giving their staff time to explore and develop themselves. Australia is ahead of the curve here, with many of the big banks and firms granting this time to their staff. In America, however, the term “career break” draws looks of blank incomprehension from most people. Companies need to give their teams the mental and emotional permission to take this time. Many people are afraid that if they take a LOA, they will be seen as ‘weak’, or lose their place in the succession line.
The rules of work are being rewritten. The popularity of coworking is exploding, the Google 20% rule is being applied in more and more workplaces and entrepreneurship is the new ‘investment banking’. Career breaks are part of this movement, and employers should embrace them as a tool to sharpen their talent pool.
Alexandra Hsiao is an ex-management consultant, design student and author of the blog Startup Summer in the City.