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Episode 029

 Ben Callahan

Ben Callahan

MORE ON SABBATICALS

with Ben Callahan

Most of us are just now getting back into the swing of things after taking a break the last couple of weeks of 2016. As we get back to work. let's enjoy a another Bureau Briefing on taking sabbaticals. In his first week back from a month off, Ben Callahan sits down with Carl to talk about the how and why of taking time off. From preparing yourself and your team to setting expectations and the eventual re-entry into daily life. 

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Full Transcript


Welcome to the Bureau Briefing. A podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now, for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:    
Hey everybody and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing, and it is Carl. With me today, I have Mr. Ben Callahan, the President of Sparkbox. How's it going Ben? 

Ben Callahan:    
Hey, it's going really well. Thanks for having me on Carl.

Carl Smith:    
I'm glad you're here. I would imagine it's going really well because you just came back from not working.

Ben Callahan:    
That's true. 

Carl Smith:    
Sabbaticals are a conversation that happen in our industry quite a bit. Obviously, it's mainly owners talking about them. I have got all of these questions for you around this, and I think the first one is just why? Why did you take a sabbatical? 

Ben Callahan:    
That's a good question. I was actually thinking about my career a little bit, kind of where I started. I realized that I started my first company when, I think it was back in like 2004. I realized that I hadn't really taken an extended break since then. I take vacations, certainly, my wife and I love to travel so we'll do two weeks a year, we'll get away for a week and then we'll split the rest of the couple of weeks or whatever this is left up, you know, a long weekends and that sort of thing. I hadn't really done this which for me, the sabbatical structure was basically a whole month of no work. It was kind of a big deal, I just felt like it was time. 

Carl Smith:    
You're going to take a month off?

Ben Callahan:    
Yes.

Carl Smith:    
You're the president of the thing and you've got a really good partner in Rob Harr, so that obviously I would imagine helps quite a bit. 

Ben Callahan:    
Yes. 

Carl Smith:
How do you prepare for this?

Ben Callahan:    
We planned a road trip. I'll tell you about that, the planning for that at some point maybe over a beer, but the planning in terms of business ... You know it's funny, I think it's even you Carl that I've heard talk about this idea of optimizing for sustainability and sleeping at night. We have as best as we can, wholeheartedly embraced those ideas here. In my mind, something like this means how do we, over time, slowly build our company into a place that can run without us, and that's the sustainability side. 

Over the past few years as Rob and I have grown more into the roles of running the company as opposed to doing the work with our customers everyday, we've slowly taken more and more little extended breaks away, even the two of us attending like an owner camp. That's actually, that's a challenge because we're the owners and we're going to be gone, and that's a week. Those have sort of have been test I think in my mind in terms of like, "Hey, are we ready? You know, are we prepared? Are we ready as an organization for our leadership to be away for a little while?"

We're really fortunate. I mean you mentioned Rob, awesome partner, the best partner you could ask for, but we also have the team here that is incredibly independent, they look for things to do. I feel like that has really enabled both he and I to be able to disappear when we need to and maybe it's for getting away to focus on the business, may it's for getting away to recharge, but whatever it is we can do that. We're lucky.

Carl Smith:    
Yes. Sustainability, that's a great way to look at it. This is the pause that refreshes. If you think about sabbaticals, if you think about that concept, I'm pretty sure it came out of education, I'm pretty sure it was like every seven years you could take a few months or a year off. It just seems in the last two years, three years, it started to come into our industry. Let's think about the team for a second. With clients, you're kind of out of the day-to-day now, right?

Ben Callahan:    
Mostly, yes. One or two that I'm still lightly involved with, but yes. 

Carl Smith:    
So it's not a huge deal for clients that you're going to be gone, but for the team, how did you share this with the team? Was it a conversation? What was their response when they found out you are going to be taking a month? 

Ben Callahan:    
Honestly, we didn't have much hesitation at all in terms of knowing that the team here would be totally okay with this. We talked about what should we call it, Rob and I did, extended leave sounds like somebody is in trouble or something, right? So that was not it. Extra vacation sounds a little weird. Sabbatical has that ... I think you kind of hinted it this way, it's got that meaning, that connotation of like, "Hey, I've been working hard an I want to get away so that I can come back and continue to do it, you know, not so that I can figure out what's next for me." It's a healthy word.

We just shared the week before even with a ton of prep because I'm not necessarily involved in a ton of that day-to-day with clients stuff, it was more of like, "Hey, you know I'm gonna be gone for the next month. Rob, you guys know Rob, he's more than capable of running this thing." It was really simple. The kind of responses I got were incredible, just Slack messages and people finding me in the kitchen here and just saying, "Hey, this trip sounds incredible." I kind of laid out a little bit about what we're doing. We drove to the Grand Canyon and just road tripped it. A lot of fun.

Carl Smith:    
When you realize it's been over a decade, like coming up on 15 years since you have taken an extended leave. No, since you had taken a sabbatical. That part of the story, it just makes perfect sense. You're doing a road trip, how do you start? Because I know for me personally, whenever I was separating, and I was very involved in the day-to-day for a while, it was so hard, it's like muscle memory to check stuff. How did you prepare yourself for day one of the sabbatical? 

Ben Callahan:    
This is great. This actually is, I think one of the most important parts of this. While we were talking about it, Rob and I, it just kind of like throwing around the idea way early this year, like very beginning of the year. One of the things that we talked about was the potential of one of us or both of us over the next year or two, taking that extended time, taking that sabbatical. We started to lay out like what does that look like, why are we doing it, the kinds of things that you're asking about. 

Initially, I had this idea that if I was going to be gone, there needed to be something that the company got out of me being gone. Like if I would go away I would come back with a dozen new ideas for ways that we could shift our business, or be more valuable, make ourselves more valuable to our customers in some way. About two weeks before, it wasn't super specific there but somewhere a couple of weeks before I was thinking a lot more about that and I actually was starting to get nervous. 

I was imagining this scenario where I disappear and I'm busy with my family, and we're hanging out, we're having a great time, and I'm relaxing, and then I get back and I don't have those ideas, I don't have that thing to bring back. I just had this mental shift and I realized that the thing that I would bring back is really just myself, but myself ready to be more fully present. That little shift in just the mental approach to the trip for me is really what helped me to disconnect. 

We were driving out west, we had a lot of times where there wasn't that much cell signal, and I was with my son, just the two of us, the first week just driving, taking our time getting out there. It was like, I don't know, I could just focus on him and we could just have fun. I don't know man, it worked so well, I don't think I would change a thing. The prep was actually that little switch mentally.

Carl Smith:    
Sabbatical comes from the word Sabbath which means to rest. 

Ben Callahan:    
Yes.

Carl Smith:    
That's something you have to do, the idea of coming back was something of value for the team. I think you're right, that works completely against it because always in the back of your mind is, "I'm going to have to deliver this thing." The question becomes, did they cut you off at the server? Was your email disabled? Things of that nature. Did you have like a bat phone if something happen, like if Rob ended up in a hospital or something?

Ben Callahan:    
Yes. Rob threatened to cut me off at the server thing. I don't think that would have happened. Maybe you're in the same boat Carl, but I love what I do. For me, working has never felt like work, it's just the thing that I want to do, and if I had a free time I would be doing it anyway. How lucky to be able to get paid to do that. I really wanted to be intentional about it this time so I was pretty comfortable with the idea of like saying, "Hey, you know what, I'm really gonna be gone." 

In the first week of my sabbatical I was actually just at home and was prepping for the real trip itself, the road trip itself doing all the prep that I kind of put off until that week before. In terms of the bat phone thing we did talk about, there may be scenarios where I'm needed in some context. Rob and I share a big responsibility around here which is bringing in a lot of new work. We got 27 folks here and we've learned over the past few years that staying busy is key. Utilization, key for us. That was probably the biggest concern that we had. 

We did have a few things happen, and Rob in Slack, they weren't like, "I need to call, I need to get that on the phone immediately" kind of thing. They were like, I got I think maybe two messages from Rob, and they both started with, "This seemed like something that I needed to let you know." It was in Slack, and he mentioned me. I also hate coming back to, I mean you've done this, where you're gone for two weeks, you come back to 350 emails. 

I actually did take one day a week where I would spend about maybe half an hour to an hour, and all I did was look for messages from Rob, something specific in his and my direct message area in Slack. The other thing I would do is just quickly flip through email and just delete things that I knew were junk. I could literally do it in three minutes, it's using key commands in Google Mail. I did that so that when I came back it wasn't like sorting through a bazillion emails, it was like these are the things that I know I have to read. That helped.

I don't know, I feel like I disconnected so I think there's that personal level there, you're going to make a decision about what works for you and your scenario. That was what I needed. 

Carl Smith:
For you, that weekly check in to scan was the way you could keep your brain focused on not working?

Ben Callahan:    
Yes, that's what it was exactly.

Carl Smith:    
I can see that. It's so funny because so often we draw these lines and we say, "You shall not cross this if you are on vacation." It's total bullshit, because you have to do what keeps you sane, what allows you to relax. It happens to me all the time. I wake up in the middle of the night with some idea and I'm like, "Okay, I'm just gonna go ahead and write this email right now but not send it because I have to get it out of my head." I can imagine in those types of trips it would be like that as well. If you actually schedule it, then you've also told your brain, "I'm gonna check, just calm down."

I think that's actually really, really wise especially when it's a month. If it was six months or longer, that probably would become a problem because the emails are getting stale. 

Ben Callahan:    
We did simple things like an email, a way, a message that connected anybody who is reaching out to Rob so that he could handle situations like if there were something specific that was needed, that was timely. Just little things like that. Really man, I'm telling you, it was so worth it. I'm looking forward to next year, I'm hoping that we can make it work for Rob as well, give him some of that time. I just think it's invaluable.

Carl Smith:    
Screw that guy, that guy didn't get time off. Everyday is time off for him, all he did is goof off on his Twitter, I watch him, he's not working. 

What was it like? You get in there, you get in this rhythm, what was it like not to work? That first week to hang out with your son and continuing, what did you notice in terms of changes about yourself?

Ben Callahan:    
That's good. I think it gave me perspective on the times when i am home and working. It was like this compare and contrast things for me. I'm still processing a lot of this because Monday was my first day back, literally couple of days ago. Just getting back, I'm sort of sorting through a lot of it. I think it was the contrasting of what was like to be gone, sabbatical gone and what it's like for me on a weekend when I'm supposed to be disconnected from work and hanging the fam.

In terms of what's the takeaway for me or will I change behavior in my normal weekly life after the sabbatical because of the sabbatical, I think the change that I want to try to make is to try and be a little bit more just willing to be where I am. It's that presence thing, I kind of mentioned this before. One of the benefits I think that I will bring back to Sparkbox is the fact that I'll be here and be ready to really be here, not wishing that I didn't have to come in early so I could hang out with my kids, you know, summertime morning breakfast scenario, instead, I want to try to make sure that I'm taking that time when I'm home throughout the week, week evenings, weekday evenings and that sort of thing. 

The contrasting experience of being wholly gone from the office and with family, my immediate family for four weeks solid, it really made me appreciate that time more. I want to be able to do that on a smaller scale. I'm not quite sure how that'll pan out honestly. 

Carl Smith:    
For me, what you're talking about right here, I'll just call it being where you are. I'm sure you and I at some point have probably shared the story, but I have been on the road for about three weeks speaking, I think I had five speaking engagements over the three weeks and I was just wiped out and I wanted to see my family, and I wanted to see my dogs. I'm walking down the hall at the MGM Grand and I'm about to burst into tears. I just called my wife and I was like, "I just wanna come home" and she was like, "But you're not." She was like, "Just be where you are." She was like, "When you're there, be there. When you're here, be here."

I was like, "What?" She was like, "Yeah, when you come home don't open your laptop, don't pick up your phone, but be here and be with us. And then when you're there, don't worry about us, we're fine." When you say that it really reinforces for me that concept of being present in the moment but it's so tough. That's one of the things when you go away for a month and then you come back in, I wanted to have you as soon as I could coming back from the sabbatical. I told Rob I was like, "Tell him, tell him." He was like, "I can't tell him, I'm not allowed to talk to him." I was like, "Dammit."

What was the reentry like, and you're still going through it? You come back in on that Monday, what was that like?

Ben Callahan:    
Rob and I have a weekly schedule where Mondays we get together, kick of the week, we have breakfast or we'll meet for a coffee at some place local here. He actually had some contractor stuff going on in his house so he texted me the night before, Sunday night and he's like, "Hey man, I'm gonna have to bail on breakfast tomorrow. What do you wanna do?" I was bummed honestly because I was like ... Ron and I are good friends, with live life together honestly, and we do this work thing but our families are good friends. It's pretty awesome.

But I was really looking forward to that opportunity, to sit down and just talk with him and hear about what I missed. What we decided is is said, "You know what? I'm gonna go to Press". Press is our local really good coffee shop here in Dayton. I said, "I'll be there, you get there when you can." I started out there. I found over the years that I have to like, if you just come straight in to the office, I am the kind of guy that you'll just get sucked in to whatever is happening. I'll open up the email and it's like the next crisis or whatever the things is, I'm into it. 

I need that time even just when I'm not coming back from a sabbatical but I just need that time to plan the day and be smart about how I use my time. If I don't do that, I don't use it smartly. I was feelinglike I needed the morning to do that, and so I went to the coffee shop and I sat there, and I had connected with some friends who were local just hanging out in the coffee shop there. I got to look through some of that email, a little bit of it and just started.

Actually at that point, what I did is I went back to ... Each year, at the beginning of the year, actually the end of the year, we sit down and talk about our goals for the next year and review how we did this year. We did that quarterly. I kind of went back to that document for 2016 and I just started looking through some of the goals that we had set for this year. Thinking through in my role now, where can I be of the most impact. I don't know, it was like fresh eyes looking at those things.

To be completely honest, Rob and I have only had a small amount of time to reconnect since I've been back because it's busy around here. We're looking for that time, I think it's going to end up being early next week before we get to really sit down and just unpack what's happened in a very detailed way. Yes, still working on it.

Carl Smith:
I appreciate what you're saying about the way you start your day, and so for me it's the same. Mine's a little bit different because I don't have a business partner that's local so it's not like you can go and hang out, for me it's a run. If I don't have a run at the beginning of the day to clear my head and figure everything out, it just falls apart. There's also that Benjamin Franklin, the famous five hours a week where that one hour at the beginning of the day he would reflect on what he wanted to accomplish and things he wanted to try even though you're super busy.

Ben Callahan:    
That's it man.

Carl Smith:    
That makes perfect sense. You're still involved in the reentry right now, I will give you a tip on the emails. 

Ben Callahan:    
All right.

Carl Smith:    
Delete all of them. You know why? 

Ben Callahan:    
Why?

Carl Smith:    
The important ones will come back. Somebody will say, "Did you get that?" And you'll be like, "Ugh, I just got back, you know, it must be buried." Seriously, to-do list and email, I'm notorious for deleting them. I can just say, "You know what, it'll ... If it's important they'll bubble back up." Then again, you're running a successful business, I run a marginal one, so perhaps you know what you're doing better.

Ben Callahan:    
I'm going to remember this next time I send you an email though.

Carl Smith:    
Don't do it man, don't. Send me a direct message on Twitter or something, because the emails, they always just gets lost. Now, you've gone through this experience and you're seeing the benefits of it, how do you hold on to the place you're at right now and not just get sucked right back it to the next sales call or whatever?

Ben Callahan:    
That's a good question, and I don't ... Not having done this before, I don't believe that I know the answer. It's something that I desperately want. We've talked, Rob and I a little bit about, "Hey, what does this look like longterm? You know, is this something that we do every year? Is this something that we do every other year? Is this something that we do every five years? What is this?" We're both similar and that we don't like to put specific process on something until we need to. I know that what we'll decide to do is just play it by ear. 

I think the other thing that's really important is like ... One thing I've learned as I shifted out of the frontend dev role and into more of a leadership role is like I have to model what I expect from my people. It's not enough to just talk about us as an organization carrying about the whole person, it has to be something that is demonstrated. I can talk, and talk and talk about the value of family, and talk, and talk and talk about the value of taking time off and leaving here at 5 or 5:30, like get home, have dinner with your family. I can say those things but if I don't do them it doesn't mean much. 

Rob and I, we call each other on that kind of thing, we want to model it and we expect our employees to do that too. We've introduced some new benefits that, I think you can talk to Rob about this on ways to try and just help develop the whole person and not just make them better at building web stuff, but make them better parents, and spouses, and significant others, and uncles and aunts and all that. If they can be better people they'll be better at their job too. Modeling that is really a big deal. I hope that that's one of the longer term takeaways here is people here at Sparkbox will see that it is something that we take pretty seriously. I don't know if that makes sense.

Carl Smith:    
No, it makes perfect sense and that's the value. Again, I'm in Jackson, Florida, you're in Dayton, Ohio, we're not necessarily those cultural meccas or those huge centers. I think a lot about the way we run our shops is what adds the value, it what makes people appreciate where they are, and want to work hard and protect the gift that they have and where it is that they work. 

Ben Callahan:    
Yes. 

Carl Smith:    
I've got one final things, we're coming up on time here, but I've got one final thing I want to ask you. What that is, is now that you are super calm, Ben Callahan just back from sabbatical, what do you want to say to slightly frantic, I've really got to figure out a solution for this Ben Callahan three months from now.

Ben Callahan:    
You're going to play this back for me later, aren't you?

Carl Smith:    
Yes.

Ben Callahan:    
I think it's like the priority thing, it's like remember what's important. There were a lot of frantic things happening, the last day that I was here right before I left, a lot of things. A lot of those frantic like things happen while I was gone, and you know what, they happened and things kept moving. It's almost like that humbling feeling that it's like, "Hey, you're not as important as you think you are, you know. Like the world is going to keep spinning even if you're on sabbatical, Ben." Just letting go of some of that worry.

Carl Smith:    
Yes, I think that's great. Just realize it's going to get done or it's not, but either way you're going to keep moving forward.

Ben Callahan:    
That's it man.

Carl Smith:    
Ben, thank you so much especially for carving out some time when you just got back. I really appreciate it and I know everybody listening to The Bureau Briefing appreciates it too.

Ben Callahan:    
My pleasure man.

Carl Smith:    
Alright everybody, we will see you next week. Until then, hey, get back to work would you?