I once worked for a director who was unable to be away from the office for more than a week. On one occasion he booked a two week summer holiday and appeared back at work after the first week having left his family in Wales. This may be an extremely case but it is not uncommon for senior managers not to take their full annual leave entitlement. Many are afraid that a colleague on the senior management team will take advantage of their absence to undermine their position, cut their budget or push through a controversial proposal. I was determined not to make the same mistake.
I saved up half of my annual leave for three years with the intension of taking three months holiday to travel to visit my brother in New Zealand stoping over in Hong Kong, Bali and Australia.
Appropriate cover arrangements were made from within the team. I assumed when I returned I would just pick up where I left off maybe it would take a little time to readjust to the routine of work but it never occurred to me that one of the team would seek to replacement me and that the team would be happy for her to do so. Rather than welcomed back my return was met with apprehension from the team and hostility from my would be "replacement".
The team thought they had managed very well without a manager and had demonstrated I wasn't needed. I thought differently.
What I hadn't taken account of was how effective my wannabe replacement had been in wining over members of the team and my contacts in partner agencies by making the case for being much easier to work with, far less demanding and more willing to compromise.
So much happened to me during those thee months that I found it difficult to accept the team's view that , " not much" had happened whilst I was away and yet I kept coming across changes in the way things were done. There were forums that I had set up and chaired for two years that had simply been dropped and regular reporting arrangements discontinued. These were all tasks that I had delegated in my absence!
How do you re establish your authority and leadership when your managers have enjoyed the freedom of doing their own thing? What do you do about a senior team member who convinced the team your return would be problematic and then proceeded to make it so?
There was a very tense atmosphere in team meetings. I was keen to avoid open conflict, it was not my style to close down discussion in team meetings but I did not want to creat opportunities for "debate" where I was defending my position. I tried to reassert my control of the team through the well established one to one supervision sessions. This worked reasonable well with the others but the member of staff covering for me found ways to avoid these sessions.
To the team and to out side observers the situation was seen as a personality clash which was only going to be resolved when one of us left.
So how could this situation have been dealt with better if not prevented? If there had been a formal acting up arrangement rather than dividing my responsibilities between the team members then there would not have been the opportunity for an informal leader to fill the vacuum. A formal temporary leader would not have allowed people to do their own thing and thus resent my return when I began to questioned and challenged. I did not make enough use of the expertise in HR,in subsequent posts I sought the advice of senior people in HR whose judgment I valued. I also should have been much more open with my own boss about the difficulties I was experiencing at much earlier stage but I didn't want to bother her with this little domestic matter and I thought to admit difficulties would make me look a weak manager. The final lesson was that I let it become personal, if I had been a little more open and a little more relaxed then I would have realised that most people realised what was going on and weren't interested.
At the time I questioned whether my extended leave was worth it but I soon forgot the difficulties I experienced on returning to work but I have never forgot the adventure and experience of having 3 months completely away from work.