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Could Your Vacation Be a Great Time to Develop Leaders At Work?

Letting high-potential employees fill in for a vacationing higher up can be a unique way to develop leadership skills and build competencies.
July 24, 2017

When is a vacation more than a break from the office? 

When it's used as a leader development opportunity that lets a candidate for promotion try out the higher-level position of someone who is taking time off work.

Using vacation as an opportunity for training can help a company fill an important role temporarily while its usual occupant is taking a break, says New York City executive coach Rebecca Kiki Weingarten

"It's not a good idea to leave the position empty," Weingarten says. "You need somebody at the helm."

Weingarten says having leadership candidates fill in for vacationing colleagues can give them exposure to other areas in the company. Having a leadership candidate spend a week or two in a new position can also help give those employees an opportunity to learn new skills. 

"It's also really great for the evaluator to see if this is a person who can do the job," says Bonnie Hagemann, CEO of Oklahoma City-based Executive Development Associates and co-author of Leading With Vision.

The practice can spur innovation as well, adds Heidi Pozzo, a Vancouver, Washington, business advisor. 

"You have a fresh set of eyes and can think about things you may not have thought about before," Pozzo says.

Vacation Training Gotchas

While there are a few benefits to using vacation for leadership development, it has to be done right, Hagemann says. One of the most significant risks, she says, is that the practice could unsettle the vacationing employee.

"The person going on vacation can feel threatened," Hagemann says. "They might be thinking, What if you show me up?"

The high-potential employee needs to be coached that it is a learning experience and that he or she will go back into the current role with new knowledge and experience for future roles...

—Bonnie Hagemann, CEO, Executive Development Associates

Another possibility is that the people who will be reporting temporarily to a new face might be confused about who is really in charge. Pozzo says those employees may dilute the effectiveness of the leadership training initiative by not letting the temporary replacement do much. 

"Any major decision [isn't] usually made during the time that person is on vacation," Pozzo says, "So the person who is temporarily filling the role would [be handling] just day-to-day, not major issues."

Employees may go so far as to virtually go on vacation themselves, delaying real work while the usual boss is out of town, Weingarten warns. (She calls it "the substitute teacher syndrome.")

Vacation Training Done Right

To help avoid such problems, Weingarten advises making sure that everyone understands what is happening. Consider distributing a memo explaining the move and conducting face-to-faces with groups and individuals. 

"Do a little training and have informational meetings beforehand so it's not [discovered through] the grapevine and whispering behind somebody's back," she says.

Also consider whether the employee filling the role has access to the advice and resources necessary to handle the responsibilities expected of them during the trial period. 

"Anytime you're pulling someone up into a position that they are not quite ready for, you want to surround them with support," Hagemann says. "So when the current leader goes out on vacation, you want to pre-arrange that there will be a peer of the current leader's who will act as a mentor."

Even though the job may be temporary, the training may not be as effective unless the high-potential employee who is being developed has adequate standing and significant tasks to complete, Hagemann continues. 

"You want to give [them] plenty of real work to do with the authority and the empowerment to get real results while the current leader is out," she says. "Anything less would not be a meaningful development experience."

During the vacation period, replacement employees can benefit from taking meetings with the person the usual employee reports to regularly, Hagemann says. "The high-potential employee needs to know what the normal meeting is like with that person's boss and what he or she would be expected to bring to the meeting and take away from it," she says.

Lastly, thinking ahead about the transition back to normal chains of command post-vacation can help smooth re-entry for the returning employee and amplify the lessons the temporary replacement has learned. 

"The high-potential employee needs to be coached that it is a learning experience and that he or she will go back into the current role with new knowledge and experience for future roles but not to be disenchanted with going back to the regular role," Hagemann says.

Making the Most of Vacations

Making a vacation development initiative part of a comprehensive development program can help boost its overall effectiveness. This would mean including the practice in the same space as developing a vision for leadership, hiring potential candidates for promotion and providing other training for peak performers. 

"You're not going to get there if you just have someone fill in for a week and that is the extent of your development," Pozzo says.

One way to overcome the limitations and challenges of using vacations for development is to assign candidates for promotion to specific projects that they can take authority for and execute over periods longer than the usual vacation. "This allows them to own the end-to-end project and see what it takes to lead, think strategically and deliver results," Pozzo says.

Done well, using vacations for training can help turn potential problems into opportunities for trainees as well as vacationers, Weingarten says. 

"It can be great for companies to have this as something they do on a regular basis," she says. "It can free good people to move to a different spot because they've already prepared a person to take their place."

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