Our Co-Founder and Senior Partner, Jenni Shen, took a three-month Sabbatical this fall to rest, reflect, and re-imagine. In December, I sat down with her to reflect on her experience. Her gratitude was evident throughout our call, and I hope her contagious enthusiasm rubs off on you!
Sofia: Tell me a little bit about how you structured and approached your Sabbatical.
I think some people think a Sabbatical is a last resort, for when leaders are burned out or crumbling. But having set an annual goal of “caring for the whole person,” I brought up the idea of a Sabbatical during a management team meeting. While I was doing well, I knew that this would be restorative! So I approached it proactively, taking a rest before a burnout. And we were very intentional in teeing this up with clients and transitioning my work to other leads at BG. It wasn’t a surprise to anybody.
My twelve weeks away gave me time to focus on my family and other responsibilities beyond BG. My husband reminded me that it was not a Sabbatical from the rest of my life! I was not on vacation from homeschooling and other duties as a wife and mother— which are also work!
Sofia: What are some of the main highlights from your time away from Blue Garnet?
First off, I got physically stronger, and that meant facing some of my fears. I signed up for a local strength and conditioning gym. I also joined a mixed-martial arts dojo, which was a long-time dream. I was so intimidated! I started off as a total beginner and white belt in martial arts. But over the course of the 12 weeks, I managed to complete 59 workouts and ultimately earned my yellow belt by year-end! I feel so much healthier and stronger. My back pain is gone. I’m mentally stimulated by learning completely new things, including learning to spar. And I’m most proud of myself for taking baby steps to conquer my fears.
Secondly, I focused time and energy on my family, including my aging parents. It started with going on a two-week trip to Taiwan with my parents and daughters to visit family, which was fun! During the Sabbatical, we got lots of quality time, and I could support family members through heartbreak, grief, and challenges. And I could help my parents more with their health issues and support my dad in his dream to share his Chinese calligraphy (we are planning for a Fall 2024 art exhibit for those interested).
As my mom has been dealing with dementia for the past two years, I’ve been wanting to write an illustrated children’s book about our family’s experience. So, I spent lots of time at the library reading up on dementia, including children’s illustrated books. It was a therapeutic, yet difficult experience to start writing this story! I had never done this before but was glad to start on a new creative project. It really tapped the “Learner” in me.
Thirdly, I spent time connecting with good friends. I made a list of twenty friends I really wanted to connect with and met with one or two people a week. It felt like a real luxury to have that buffer in my schedule, to be flexible and drive all over SoCal to meet up with old friends. Quality time is one of my love languages, so that was really special.
I was thankful to have this time to grow stronger, support my family well, travel, start a new creative project, and connect deeply with good friends.
Sofia: If another social sector leader were considering taking a Sabbatical, what tips would you give them?
I have benefited greatly from the body of work that is already out there on Sabbaticals— how to do Sabbaticals, DIY kits, policies, etc. Much of it has been written, funded, and researched by the Durfee Foundation, with 20+ years of experience supporting leaders in the nonprofit sector. I read lots on their site and watched helpful videos of tips from leaders who have taken Sabbaticals. Thank you, Durfee!
I also met with a few people like Anita Landecker and Malka Borrego, who are leaders in the education space and have also taken Sabbaticals. Their tips were so helpful. Anita, for instance, said, “Jenni, you’re a planner, but keep it unstructured. You need unstructured, quiet time and space to think new thoughts.” Though I did have checklists and lists of friends to see, I also needed to block off that unstructured time. I scheduled a “coffee with myself” each week, so I would just go to a coffee shop and sit. And think. The silence of just sitting alone is a beautiful thing. That was good for me, figuring out the dynamic tension between planning and being unstructured in rest.
But in the end, rest looks different for everyone. You need to find what works best for you. Working out 59 times was “restful” and energizing for me (especially for how I felt after each workout or class), but that might be a nightmare for someone else. That’s okay. Do what rejuvenates you!
I was also told to take a vacation— far away and right away!— at the start of the Sabbatical. On day one, you should be on a plane somewhere. That really helped me to unplug and get some physical and mental distance from work.
Malka Borrego also pointed out that things change in our absence. Don’t be surprised when you come back and some minute change “irks” you in some way. It could be that your colleagues move the coffee maker, or it could be bigger things. Life goes on when you are away…and that is a good thing!
Most importantly, it is wise to build respite into work. Don’t be afraid to proactively plan for a sabbatical by starting healthy conversations with your fellow leaders. I felt so supported by everyone I shared the news with— even if it required them to plan for my absence, provide coverage, or put in place transition support.
Sofia: Did you see things change when you came back?
Yes, it’s true, things moved around in the office. I could see change happening. And when I came back, we had started a completely new work planning system. But I knew to expect change, and even welcome it. I’m so glad that Blue Garnet does not revolve around me! In fact, it’s wonderful that things moved on without me. My BG partners Way-Ting and Shannon and the whole team (including one of my clients themselves!) carried the client work, and it was great. I had so much confidence and peace in the team that I really did get to “turn off” and not check my work email, like Anita recommended.
Sofia: And how has your perspective shifted coming back to work now?
I never doubted if I would return to Blue Garnet, which I think is a fear of many nonprofits letting their execs take a Sabbatical. The board may worry “But they may never come back!” The question is more on how we come back. How do I keep prioritizing these goals, in a way that fits with returning to work?
I also had a ramp-up transition period in coming back to work, which is another good tip I received. In returning, I realized more and more what an incredible Partner and friend I have in Way-Ting. She had so much wisdom in helping me re-enter. My clients were also amazing and understanding, even with my role shifting upon return. They were thought-partners all along on how to make my Sabbatical a success for both of us.
In a way, having me take a Sabbatical was organizational capacity building and leader development. When a key leader steps away, the organization has to figure out like how to keep running, right? And I have to say, Blue Garnet really did. I really should go away more often— Blue Garnet is thriving! Everyone in the team stepped up and grew in some way.
Now that I’m back, I feel like my capacity has grown as a human, too. Not because I learned new consulting frameworks while on the Sabbatical, but because I feel stronger and balanced in all the other areas of my life. I feel proud of accomplishing goals— like getting my yellow belt!— and taking time to rest.
Sofia: Any last thoughts to share?
Sabbaticals are healthy and life-giving, especially if boards and leaders can think about it in a proactive way. It should be a reward. I feel rewarded and grateful to have taken one after twenty years of building Blue Garnet! But I’d recommend taking one before twenty years 😉
If you’re a social sector leader considering a Sabbatical, check out The Durfee Foundation’s resources online. You can also reach out to Jenni with any questions about her Sabbatical at email@example.com.