Reflection week – gifting leaders with time off from work

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Mechell Chetty, head of HR at Maersk Ocean and Logistics Africa, says leadership is about giving people space.

When David Williams, MD at Maersk Ocean and Logistics Africa, walked into my office earlier this year, he said that he had an idea he wanted to bounce off me. He wanted to give his direct reports a “reflection week”.

I listened intently while he shared that he wanted to give his senior leadership a week off over and above their annual leave entitlement, fully paid by the company to go to a location of their choice in the same country that they were based in, and to totally disconnect from the day-to-day matters at work.

I was immediately intrigued, but waited to hear more about his thinking. He told me that his recent trip to the Mara (the Masai Mara game reserve) in Kenya, really put him into a deeply personal space of reflection. He talked about reflecting on his purpose, about truly thinking through the impact he wanted to make as a leader at a time of the most significant business reinvention Maersk is undergoing globally, and what opportunities that presented for Africa.

More importantly, his reflections went deeper into the lives he wanted to touch, both those of our employees and our communities in Africa.

He did not need to say anything further: I was sold at the mention of words like ‘purpose’ and ‘reinvention’. I also know that in my own personal experience, taking time off to reflect on one’s journey, past, present, and future, hardly happens naturally and requires real focused time. Despite our best intentions, it is often that exact reflection time that we trade off in a heartbeat in favour of short-term goals.

In March, our Africa Regional Leadership Team met in Devon Valley, Stellenbosch. After a full day of meetings and a lovely dinner connection, everyone went back to their rooms to find a personal letter from David with a box of wellbeing snacks and goodies. The letter outlined the intention behind the gift.

Dear xx
I am sure you will agree with me that with the turbulence experienced over the last few years, leaders feel an overwhelming amount of pressure to perform and be the face of resilience to keep the motivation of employees up during these uncertain times.
Whilst short term performance and staying grounded is so important, it is essential to take time out and disconnect from that reality from time to time. Re-energising, Reflecting and even Re-booting may be necessary to ensure that we maintain a wider perspective on the business and our environments. This time of reflection can allow you to think more deeply about your WHY, bringing your purpose to the fore, highlighting your HOW and allowing you to make some adjustments in your leadership style or equally importantly your WHAT, knowing clearly what it is that you are driving for as a leader.
I have realised that this cannot simply happen in the day-to-day hustle between business hours. As much as we try to carve out a few hours here and there, the distractions are real and often call on our attention. So as a gift to you, I would like to offer you a week off from work to allow for this deep introspection…

The letter went on to detail the few practicalities of the time off. It was also explicit in not extending this to other leaders or employees. The world needs leaders to reinvent and revive themselves. Our focus is on giving that time to the leaders who make the most critical decisions daily so that their decisions and actions can be more thoughtful and considerate of the larger impact to our customers, our colleagues, and our communities.

I had asked David if he wanted his team to come back and share their experiences and what emerged for them and he said that he required no update or report back, just the comfort that they had truly taken the time to reflect. I thought this was so supremely liberating and demonstrated – in my view – real “new power leadership” : the idea that when full trust is given, human beings rise to the occasion and put real effort into not disappointing themselves or those around them.

I wanted to test this theory. A few months passed and I got to talk to a few colleagues about what the experience was like for them – not what they achieved, but more how they felt.

Carl Lorenz, MD of the East Africa business, said that he had not heard of another company doing this before. In fact, he said that his family and friends could not quite believe him. Just the gesture by David to give him time to reflect made him feel incredibly valued as a leader. He described it as his first ever holiday alone, knowing full well that the intention was not a holiday. He spent his time in nature and in the mornings indulged in what has become a real passion for him – wildlife photography. He also did an afternoon game drive around 3pm and would then retire to his room for an early night, all the while relaxing and reflecting.

“No emails, no social media, no Instagram, no music, no alcohol and no contact with family – it was remote, it was special.”

Carl took a book along with him called The 12 rules for life by Jordan Peterson, which really aided his thoughts. “What is my role in this world and how can I contribute to Maersk as it embarks on this incredible transformation?” These were just some of the questions he asked himself. He realised that the more senior you are, the more privileged you are, and therefore you have a greater obligation to do the right thing. Carl remembers coming back from the experience fully refreshed and ready for the challenges and opportunities ahead.

The beauty of the experience was that each member had to pick a buddy from the leadership team who would “walk in their shoes” while they were away. Marnus Kotze, our Africa head for logistics and services stepped in for Carl. He spent time setting an agenda for Marnus so that he could meet as many team members and other stakeholders as possible, and he recalls Marnus’s compliment that the team were so honest about what was working and what was not. This is real growth and development and true psychological safety in action.

So, I had to ask Marnus for his perspective of the whole experience. He said that this was not the first time that he had taken time off to reflect, but the difference here was that his boss gave him the time off specifically for that. He called it “permission to focus.”

Marnus is very fortunate that his wife, Anzellé, is an executive coach and he ensured that he carved out a coaching session every day with her during that week. He notes that when you make time for conversations you make sense of something from a different perspective and that’s something he really valued.

For Marnus, who is an incredibly busy man building our logistics and services footprint in Africa, this experience was a validation of the care and respect that leaders like David have in this organisation.

He also went on to speak about standing in for Carl and said that for him it was clear alignment that the priorities we set out were the right ones, and because he got to see them in action it gave him clarity on what to amplify further.

I asked him what his team thought about all this time off and he said, “They thought it was incredibly cool.”

At every RLT (Regional Leadership Team) meeting we do a check-in at the beginning and a check-out at the end. It was clear to me at this last one in September that the team had shifted gear. There were more voices in the room, more passion for what we are leading for and certainly more challenging the status quo. It was also a meeting with loads of laughter and fun and high levels of trust in each other to “do the right thing”, as Carl says.

Leadership is not about controlling. Leadership is about actively giving space to unlock trapped capacity and passion. David’s intentional act of giving time and space to his team certainly ignited passion in our team to truly improve lives for all by integrating the world!

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