Management Myth #7: I Am too Valuable to Take a Vacation


There's a common myth among managers—that they are the only drivers and decision makers for their teams and, therefore, can't take time off. In reality, regardless of the team or workgroup you manage, your team makes decisions without you all the time.

I caught up with Fred, a friend of longstanding, just before what I thought would be his normal two- to three-week vacation in August. “Where are you going this year, Fred? Are you bicycling or white water rafting? Or something else exciting? I can’t wait to live vicariously through you again!”

“I’m not going anywhere this year, JR,” Fred said dejectedly. “I’m way too valuable to take a vacation.”

“Who said that?” I stood there with my mouth open in astonishment. “You need your vacations. They energize you. And people like me actually want to see your vacation pictures!”

“Nope. I’ve decided. I’m a manager now. If I take a vacation, who will make all the decisions? How will my team know what to do? I’ll just stay here and make the sacrifice. No more vacations for me.”

“Fred, are you sick? Did you lose all your money in the stock market? Did Jeannie leave you and take the children? Is there something seriously wrong?”

“No,” he said in his best Eeyore voice. “My team members depend on me. I can’t let them down. I must support them. I must. I must.” As Fred ambled down the hall, I stood there dumbfounded.

Fred is laboring under a fairly common myth—that they are the only drivers and decision makers for their teams. That’s a dangerous belief. First, because it means that you can never delegate work to the team and trust them to do the work. Second, because it means you can never work yourself out of this job to another job. Third, because it’s not true, regardless of the team or workgroup you manage, agile or not. Your team makes decisions without you all the time.

So, how did things get this way?

“Please Stay in Touch While You are Gone”
When I first started to work, we didn’t have cell phones or pagers. And, long distance calls were expensive. When we took vacations, we were gone, totally out of touch. That meant that regardless of our position in the organization, we had to explain to someone else the state of our work. It didn’t matter if I was a manager or not—and for my first few vacations I most certainly was not—I had to explain to someone what I was working on and where my colleagues could find the necessary details.

In the same way, when my managers went on vacation, they delegated their management responsibilities to other people. Sometimes they chose an acting manager. Sometimes, they spread their responsibilities around. One year, I was the acting software support manager for two weeks. Another fellow was the acting software development manager for two weeks. A third colleague was the acting project manager. We didn’t realize it, but it was a two-week long test to see if we could organize ourselves and get along with each other while our boss was on vacation. I’m delighted to say we passed!

These days, we have easy and inexpensive electronic access to each other. Most of the time, this is great. “Please stay in touch while you are gone,” sounds like an innocuous request, doesn’t it? But it creates an environment for bad management because it allows us to be lazy about our demarcation between work and vacation.

When you stay in touch on your vacation, several problems occur:

  1. You are not taking a real vacation to decompress and let yourself relax. A vacation is a chance to get away, to be away from emails, from phone calls, from the pager, from all electronic tethers to the office, not just the physical tether. When your boss or your team requests that you stay in touch, you do not ensure that you take the time to explain the state of all your work. So, you don’t. Because, you know that someone can reach you. Then you don’t really decompress on vacation because at least a little part of your brain is still worrying about work.
  2. Because you have not fully delegated specific work to your team members or your boss, you are not building a succession plan. You are not experimenting with anyone who might be able to take work from you, in a relatively safe way. Without a succession plan, you can never move from this role to another in the organization. You are stuck.
  3. When you do not take the time to delegate specific work to your team members, they cannot take the work from you, which implies that you do not trust them. You may not mean to imply that you don’t trust them, but your actions say that you don’t.
  4. I bet your team doesn’t always understand your concerns and issues. When you delegate your issues to team members, they have more empathy for your management problems. You may not be able to delegate all the issues to your team if they are sensitive in some way. You may have to delegate some of the issues to your boss, who might be surprised by some of your problems, too.
  5. You lose the potential perspective you might gain from noodling your problems while you are not under a deadline. I find that when I put problems aside for a while and don’t actively work on them, I return refreshed with a new outlook. After a vacation, you might discover the same thing.
  6. You lose the perspective another person might provide on the problems you currently manage. Aside from gaining perspectives on your problems while you are on vacation, other people see your problems differently than you do. When you don’t share your problems, you lose the opportunity to see how other people perceive them.

Do You Feel Indispensable?
When you believe you are indispensable, you act that way, which is never good for a manager. “Indispensable” managers insert themselves into situations and create messes.

I once worked as a project manager on a difficult machine vision project. The client was in another state and we were pushing the state of the current technology to solve the problem. But we showed the client several interim deliverables, and the client was happy. I went on vacation—my honeymoon—and delegated my work to the senior technical guy on the project.

A senior manager decided he was indispensable to the project as soon as I left. He destroyed the client relationship, tried to write code, and angered the mechanical engineer enough that he threatened to quit when I returned.

I was only gone for eight days of work. When I returned, I had a great new algorithm in mind to solve one of our problems, but needed to solve many people-problems instead. I was unable to fire a senior manager, but I did explain that he was quite dispensable to my project!

“Indispensable” managers remove their team’s independence and insert themselves into situations they have no business being in. You might see development managers writing code or test managers testing. In my case, the senior manager attempted to act as a project manager and account manager.

These managers become more hands on rather than less hands on. But, managers are not paid to be hands on. They are paid to leverage the work of other people. Managers must take the more strategic view, so that their teams can do the hands-on work.

Prepare to Delegate
Before you take a vacation, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Have I clarified the work I have delegated and to whom?
  2. Does everyone know who has what responsibility?
  3. Is the responsibility list posted somewhere, physically and electronically?

If I have explained who has all the responsibility, why would anyone need to know how to stay in touch with me? They don’t. Unless you have not delegated all the work. Or, if you have not clarified who has which roles and responsibilities.

Sometimes you have done everything right. But your managers are not accustomed to managers who have delegated well, and they question your decisions and your team’s decisions.

Second Guessing Your Team’s Decisions
If you suspect that other people will question your team’s decisions and will want to contact you, you may have to prepare an email or memo in advance, not just a list of who is responsible for what.

That email might look something like this:

If you have more responsibilities, your email will be longer. Maybe you don’t need to send your email to everyone; maybe you only need to send it to a few people. Use your judgment, but make sure that you send it to everyone who might question your team’s decisions.

Take a Vacation
No one is too valuable to take a vacation. Everyone needs time off to recharge and gain a new perspective. Don’t think you are sacrificing yourself for the good of your team. Want to really treat your team members well? Discuss what you make decisions about with them. See what they are willing to manage. Experiment and delegate more. You might discover that your team is much more self-managing than you could imagine.

And, all because you had the guts to take a vacation. Imagine that!

Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.