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Sabbaticals Yield Renewal, Resiliency

Monday, December 7, 2015

A few weeks ago, O2 Initiatives announced the recipients of our second annual O2 Sabbatical Award, which provides three months of paid leave to exceptional Bay Area executive directors. This year’s awardees include innovative nonprofit leaders from highly acclaimed environmental, social justice and educational advocacy organizations, as well as nationally recognized health and social service agencies.

As we celebrate this year’s outstanding awardees and begin receiving reports from last year’s awardees now back from their sabbaticals, we’re seeing firsthand how time away for renewal results in greater shared leadership and more resilient organizations.

We’ve been moved by the experiences of all of our awardees, and I’d like to share the story of one of them: Julia R. Wilson. Julia is the dynamic Chief Executive Officer of OneJustice, which provides life-changing legal help to the people of California.

When Julia, her staff, and her board began planning for the sabbatical, they sought to revolutionize the way decisions were made in the organization. Despite tremendous growth over the past decade, OneJustice remained stuck in a top-down decision-making culture in which Julia had to weigh in on nearly every call. “We knew that our leadership structure was not distributed and that our decision making was inefficient,” Julia says. “My sabbatical provided the impetus we needed to make change.”

Julia and her team dedicated themselves for several months to put a new, shared model of leadership in place. What they came up with resembled nothing they had tried before: the board would carry more weight, managers would be promoted to directors and given more responsibility, and each department would have greater say in high-level decision-making.

As a result, Julia was able to step away without worry. She took a family trip to Europe, and re-connected with her love of playing soccer. When she came back to work, she found that her team had become more fundamentally aligned on the organization’s purpose, with everyone more empowered to make decisions and foster new growth.

“What our team accomplished in my absence was remarkable and beyond what we hoped for,” Julia says. “We are a stronger, more resilient organization because of my time away.”

Julia reports that the sabbatical also allowed her to return with renewed commitment to OneJustice and its mission. “I was re-introduced to why this is my life’s work,” she says. “What a gift.”

At a time of year when we’re all thinking about the incredible power of reflection and rejuvenation, stories like Julia’s—as well as O2 Initiatives’ growing network of outstanding executive director awardees—demonstrate that when leaders have time to renew and recharge, the result can be profound changes not only for themselves, but also for their entire organizations.

Emily Cohen Raskin is the Executive Director of O2 Initiatives, where she directs the O2 Sabbatical Award program. In addition to her role with O2 Initiatives, she also serves as Senior Associate at Hirsch & Associates, an advisory firm that works with families, foundations, and corporations to maximize the impact of their philanthropy. O2 Initiatives will begin accepting applications for the next round of sabbatical awards in summer 2016.