How to best prepare your Sabbatical Leave at Amazon
Tanja Ruesch is the HR Director for Amazon Devices in EMEA. After working several years in HR at eBay and PayPal, Tanja relocated to Luxembourg to join Amazon in 2011. She has spent the last eight years building up the Amazon Devices team from the ground up, supporting the business with their HR and Recruiting needs as they were expanding the ever growing family of Amazon Devices in Europe, such as Kindle e-readers, Fire TV and later Alexa.
In 2018, she decided to take some time off for her work-life harmony. In this short Q&A, Tanja shares her insights and gives some tips on how to best prepare for your time off.
When did you start thinking about taking a sabbatical leave?
It has been on my mind for some time. I have taken a few sabbatical leaves in my life. I have deliberately taken time off every five to seven years and usually in-between jobs. Having been here for 7.5 years, I felt the time had come to take a break. But I did not want to quit my job! I thought about how to build a break into my role. While the idea had been on my mind for some time, the timing was not right until recently. I knew that I needed to have a solid coverage plan for our business and my team. And it needed to be such a good plan, that my manager couldn’t say no to.
How did you get prepared?
The plan is critical. It starts with identifying, well in advance, who would cover for me and how to structure the team during my absence. I began talking to my manager about wanting to take a sabbatical leave about eight months before going on leave. She approved the plan but we did not finalize the timing until about four months before going on leave. At that point I started to talk to my direct reports and peers about my sabbatical, the coverage plan and the impact on them. I needed to ensure that we were all aligned before I could communicate that I was going to take time off. Once the key people knew and agreed on taking on new responsibilities while I was out, I started working with them around what the role would encompass. As we were getting closer to my sabbatical start date, I began to invite them to the critical meetings to ensure a smooth transition. I’d say the key is to probably start even earlier - by hiring people with the potential to grow and the skills and motivation to continuously take on more responsibilities. It’s also a great development opportunity for the team. I was fortunate that I had two direct reports who were willing to cover for me. The workload was distributed between them and this made it far more manageable. It also created opportunities in their teams, as subsequently their teams had to step up and take on more responsibility. It’s kind of a snowball effect in that sense.
What have you done while you were out?
The main reason why I wanted to have a sabbatical was to gain time. Time for my family, my friends and myself. I didn’t have the need to travel the world, I already travel quite a lot in my professional life so I was actually quite happy not to get on a plane for a change. I also didn’t feel the need to climb Kilimanjaro or do this once in a life time experience. Simply having time was the motivation for me. I wanted to leave as much time as possible to go with the flow and not to have a fixed plan. I have many hobbies and I had this longing inside of me that I wanted to spend all day just doing pottery and nothing else but pottery. It was a luxury. At the same time, I discovered new places in regions nearby, I went sailing and camping. I spent a lot of time with my family and friends. Given that I don’t live in the same country as my family, it was priceless to be able to do that - having quality time with the people who are close to me and dear to me was the most precious gift that I could give myself.
How did your return to work go?
It was great. As I said before in my past, I would leave my job, take a break and then start a new job without knowing exactly when that new job would start. It’s a completely different way of taking a sabbatical if you know you have a definite end date. I knew I was coming back into the same job. What I did not know was how I was going to feel. Was I going to be ready after three months to come back? One of my biggest lessons I discovered was that I missed work. It was nice to be off, of course, but there was something missing. I realized that being able to contribute to something was important for me. Probably about three weeks before coming back, I started to scroll through emails just to get myself mentally ready. The first day back, I truly felt like my first day back to school. It was the same sense of excitement.
How did you pick-up the Amazon pace again?
Three months is not that long. For many of the projects or the topics that I came back to, I had only missed small pieces in-between. It was just a matter of getting updated on what had happened in the three months and being able to slot back in. It felt very natural to me to move back into work. The impact was greater on my personal life though … I could not spend as much time on my hobbies anymore. The days were not long enough to do everything. Since being back at work, I’ve been pretty conscious of keeping certain routines, be it exercise, cooking healthy meals or doing pottery. I keep making sure I give time to these, but it’s of course different to the life that I had lived during my three months off.
What would be your advice to Amazonians considering taking a sabbatical?
I would really recommend that you start thinking about it a year in advance. Regardless of which role you’re in, you do have the responsibility to think about a coverage plan. It may not be down to you to organize that coverage but you should think about it and look for solutions at least. What does the team look like? Who could cover for you when you’re out? The objective is to go to your manager with a proposal rather than just the ask and say “I’m going to take time off”. It’s a much more constructive conversation if you actually come with a plan.
What would you say to team managers who would be skeptical or reluctant to approve a sabbatical leave?
When people are out it creates learning and development opportunities for others and we should always see it like that. It could be an opportunity for someone else to step in, take on additional responsibility for a limited period, and to gain additional skills. I think if you look at it that way, sabbatical leaves are a powerful tool not only for your own team but also for the organization. Obviously, it does mean that managers need to distribute the workload somehow, maybe across multiple people as we did in my case but I would really encourage every manager to think it through. Ask the requester to come up with a proposal as opposed to, as a manager, having to solve that alone. What do they think would work? It may be a good proposal or not, but it’s worth taking time to think about how you can make it possible together.