Pilita Clark: Give the boss a break and firm will prosper

Only about 15% of US employers offer sabbatical leave, and most of that is unpaid

Marc Benioff: give him a break. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

At the age of 55, Silicon Valley's Marc Benioff has accumulated a wife, multiple homes, 36,000 employees, a net worth of nearly $7 billion and a ridiculously long list of accolades.

The founder of the Salesforce software company has been named the decade's top innovator by Forbes, one of the world's greatest leaders by Fortune and one of the best-performing chief executives by the Harvard Business Review.

But back in 1996, Mr Benioff was lying in bed in San Francisco with no will to get up, feeling lost. He had a brilliant job at the software giant Oracle, where he was the group's youngest ever vice-president. He drove a fast car and had a big salary.

But he was so out of sorts that his boss, Oracle's co-founder Larry Ellison, told him to do something baffling: take three months off on a sabbatical.


“I didn’t really know what the word ‘sabbatical’ meant,” Mr Benioff wrote in his new book, Trailblazer. He took off to India, where he came up with the seeds of the idea for his own company. By 1999 he had started Salesforce and begun his relentless march to tech triumph. That puts Mr Benioff in an interesting club of successful people I keep coming across who, at a reasonably important point in their careers, have left their striving peers behind and headed off to see the world.

Few match Yngve Slyngstad, the outgoing boss of the world's largest sovereign wealth fund. Last month the 57-year-old unexpectedly announced he would step down as chief executive of Norges Bank Investment Management, the manager of Norway's $1 trillion (€910 billion) oil fund, which quintupled in size during his 12 years in charge. But what he did before joining the fund was more surprising.

First he completed four master’s degrees, in law, economics, political science and business management. Then he went on a four-year road trip that took him from Patagonia to Alaska and from Alexandria to Cape Town. Then, my favourite part, he spent six months by himself in a cabin in the Arctic studying German philosophy.

Dame’s detour

Dame Inga Beale also took a detour on the way to being named the first female chief executive in the 300-plus year history of Lloyd's of London in 2013. She had started working in the insurance industry in the early 1980s but soon tired of being the only woman in a team of 35 underwriters.

In 1989 she took off for the best part of a year to backpack around Asia and cycle around Australia, returning to begin her climb to the top job at Lloyds, a post she held for five years.

It is hard to say how many business people belong to the sabbatical club, successful or otherwise. I am probably prone to noticing them because, to the horror of my parents, I spent three years between high school and university picking tomatoes, renovating sailing boats and working on building sites in far-flung bits of Australia.

Obviously I never went on to reach the peaks scaled by the likes of Benioff and co, who are all about the same age as me. I doubt the break did me much harm, though I am not sure I would do it again. The world of work has changed beyond recognition and there is abundant evidence of successful people who have worked at a cracking pace all their lives.

Prove their worth

Yet I am always pleased to hear of research suggesting sabbaticals are beneficial for both employers and workers. Because these breaks have traditionally been most prevalent in academia, researchers have often studied professors who, unsurprisingly, report returning to work refreshed and happier than colleagues left at the grindstone. Other research, on non-profit groups, suggests that packing senior leaders off can also help those left behind: people filling in can prove their worth in ways that are otherwise impossible.

Despite this, the number of companies offering extended leave has not grown much since McDonald’s offered one of the first US corporate sabbatical schemes in the 1970s.

Only about 15 per cent of US employers offer sabbatical leave, according to a 2018 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, and most of that is unpaid. I wish that number were higher. Sabbaticals need not last four years, nor involve Arctic cabins or tomatoes. But any employer who can offer them will always be a step ahead of the rest. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019