In an academic context, a sabbatical is a one year break from a faculty member’s usual work taken once every seven years. Common benefits of a sabbatical include focused professional development in one’s field, broadening perspectives, access to special opportunities not readily available in the usual work environment, intellectual growth, renewal, and reflective reassessment of one’s career. A faculty member on sabbatical often travels: some to a year-long commitment, others to multiple locations as their needs and available opportunities allow.
I am currently on a break from my usual paid work that bears considerable similarity to a sabbatical. Since I am not a faculty member, I get some side eye when I use that term to describe my situation and path. If you’re not university faculty, you’re supposed to work without a break longer or different than a vacation from the time you enter the work force until the time you retire or die.
I chose to terminate my employment at the university rather than take a year’s leave of absence. It would have been unfair to my home department to leave them in a situation where they would need to find a year-long secondment when I believed it was likely I would not return to the position at the end of that year. Not only had I grown beyond the job description of the Faculty-level IT Director role, I knew I would be at my best living in a city from which commuting to my previous job would not be feasible. I’d achieved all my initial goals in the position and a few new ones beside. The people, processes, and relationships I left in place are all sustainably stronger and more effective than when I’d arrived.
So I leapt into the seeming void, armed with flexible plans and goals.
I would build my skills and update my knowledge to facilitate satisfying, relevant work in a job and career that I find fulfilling. My best work draws from the domains of leadership, strategic management, business analysis, systems analysis, project/program management, change management, and technology. Engaging positions that exercise several of these areas are relatively rare. My desire to work for the betterment of community and society rather than as part of a for-profit business further narrows my field, so I’ve siphoned some of my time and energy to scanning for and applying to available positions that meet my goals.
I wrote technology in the above paragraph: that field where one is supposed to always be moving forward to keep from falling behind. So much of my time and energy over the previous five years had been devoted to creating conditions in which my teams could implement new and updated technology that I spent little time doing the nuts and bolts work of a systems, software, network developer and security engineer. I’d kept up to date with advances in IT largely by the haphazard method of staying on top of the work I needed to do for my direct and indirect customers.
By taking a sabbatical period, I have made more of my time and energy available to practice software development with current languages, frameworks, and IDEs, to get and stay up to date on developments in cloud computing and IT security, and to deepen my understanding of the ITIL framework for service design, delivery, and operation. I’m probably going to move ahead with certification in the relatively new VeriSM designation, which takes a holistic approach to service management. Though I can’t justify the expense of the exam right now, the knowledge base fills a gap given I’m now aiming more toward a COO (coordinating all business operational matters) than a CIO, CISO or CTO role (purely technology focused). Practically speaking, I don’t need to be Chief Anything as long as I’m building bridges and working broadly on the ecosystem of a meaningful mission with good leaders.
Having minimal commitments to my prior paid work (I completed the most recent one less than two weeks ago — I think it’s the last item I was uniquely qualified to handle) allowed me to devote more time and energy to a huge transformation for the Community CarShare cooperative. As a Director, Chair of Governance, and Secretary, I collaborated with my fellow Board members and our excellent staff team on many strategic, organizational, financial, and legal challenges as we moved from a barely viable operating position to a partnership with and eventual sale of the business to a privately held organization that shares our vision for shared transportation. There were weeks when I was putting in 15 to 20 hours of work not including travel time and meetings. I’m content with the process and the results. I learned more about mergers, acquisitions, and change management along the journey.
I’ve applied my existing skills and developed new ones in volunteer work in my new home. It’s been especially rewarding to step into groups where we have a few hours or a weekend at most together and use my facilitation skills to improve the process and results of anything from a service design to a community engagement plan. I’ve taken a back seat to people who come from marginalized and racialized communities as they share their experience while leading new initiatives and ongoing work towards change. My experiences are enriched when I check my assumptions at the door: every person has valuable experiences, skills, and wisdom to contribute. I’ve gained a touch of humility in fitting my efforts to whatever the organization’s need happens to be instead of ramming my goals into a situation where that doesn’t align with them. I’m not too proud to do the physical labour of logistics or the emotional work of a docent when circumstances dictate.
I’m improving my leadership skills and making remarkable strides with my presentation and interpersonal skills through Toastmasters. I’ve taken on every formal role in our club but two: I’m scheduled to perform one of those roles in a week and a half. I’m standing for election to the executive as VP Education with the strong recommendation of our current VP Education. Every week I get involved and commit to doing something that’s a challenge for me, whether it’s greeting guests or giving an impromptu two minute talk on a topic I may know little about. My commitment to learning, steady improvement, and helping my fellow members has not gone unnoticed.
Non-work-related stressors include two household moves (one coming this spring as we move from rented accommodation to new-to-us digs in a neighbourhood that feels like home to the whole family) and a couple of family health issues that have come to a head over the year. Having few fixed commitments has given me the flexibility to attend to needs effectively as they arise without drawing down my personal reserves to dangerous levels. A few friends are aware of the toll a family member’s severe depression and anxiety took on my own wellbeing some years ago when the burden of managing care fell heavily on my shoulders. Relatively recent events have been less traumatic for all involved and manageable in large part due to my ability to make time on short notice.
I am making a difference in the lives of people I interact with, from setting an example for my fellow choristers who had never before sung with a woman Tenor to screening scholarship applications for women in tech to finding ways to engage the public to shift Toronto to a ranked ballot system for the 2020 election. Caring for people as individuals and as teams with common goals comes easily not because the work is trivial (it’s not!) but because it’s intrinsically rewarding.
Taking a sabbatical year, which may end up running long or short of my schedule, is an adventure. My dance card is often full: community and volunteer work, self-directed and formalized learning, and a low key search for the right opportunity to resume my career in a new direction. I am happier, healthier, and more ready to take on new challenges than I had been one or two years ago.
For who I am and the person I’m continuing to become, the adventure is worth the costs and risks.