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Note I work in a high growth industry where workload is unpredictable - on one week we could have a sudden surge in clients, and the week thereafter there's an unexpected calm.

If I had scheduled time off during a week (and maybe I am on vacation abroad), and suddenly there's a huge client - will it be unprofessional for me to be absent during those crucial initial meetings?

Or what if our CEO organizes an important social/teambuilding event for all senior employees during my holidays?

Should I try my best to attend those specific situations, e.g. come to the office on that day just for the client meeting, go to the social event just to say hi to the CEO? Would it hurt my career prospects to be absent?

Or would I be "forgiven" for staying away?

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Shouldn't your company have someone who can fill the role while you're away and bring you up to speed when you get back? What would happen if you were hit by a bus? –  AlbeyAmakiir Jan 29 at 22:07
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As a senior employee/manager, I'm confused by this "time off" of which you speak. –  jcmeloni Jan 29 at 22:24
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I have never met a team building event the was worth attending. If you don't know your team after spending 10 hours a day with them then you have bigger issues. –  Craig Jan 30 at 3:25
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The "What would you do if he was in the hospital?" anecdote would seem to refer. –  AakashM Jan 30 at 9:28
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Senior employees and managers must hone a skill called 'delegation'. If you can not hand over properly before you go on your leave it's a sign you're lacking this skill. –  maksimov Jan 30 at 11:05

8 Answers 8

will it be unprofessional for me to be absent during those crucial initial meetings?

Or what if our CEO organizes an important social/teambuilding event for all senior employees during my holidays?

Should I try my best to attend those specific situations, e.g. come to the office on that day just for the client meeting, go to the social event just to say hi to the CEO? Would it hurt my career prospects to be absent?

Or would I be "forgiven" for staying away?

The only real answers to these questions come from within your company.

If you worked for me, the answers might be different. And if you conducted a poll here (assuming that were actually permitted), you'll get a variety of answers. But none of those answers will make any difference - only your company and your management can tell you what they actually expect of you.

You really should ask them, that's the only way you'll know the answers.

We all need to find ways to conduct ourselves within the rules and customs of our company. I've worked at positions where I was expected to be available whenever my company needed me. And I've worked at other positions where time off was considered "sacred" and nobody would ever be expected to work when they had planned to be elsewhere. Asking someone outside of the company doesn't get you anywhere.

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+1 It's too bad that this is really the only correct answer to the question, because the question is a good one, overall. All based on company culture. –  asteri Jan 29 at 21:54
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I kinda hate it too, but I have seen completely opposite positions in various companies I've been in. In one company you might be brushed out the door with a "shew, shew, you are no good to us if your burnt out, we can handle this without you - now go home!", vs "I know you have non-refundable tickets and you are already on your way out of town, but we expect you to come back because we are short a cashier" (and even senior managers were at times treated poorly for not skipping their own kid's wedding, or long planned trips to Hawaii). Just how important the event is matters, too. –  BrianDHall Jan 30 at 0:57
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Time off should™ always be sacred. That is why you book in advance and generally it is logged in a shared calendar. The only exceptions would be emergencies - critical product failures, company restructure, buyouts. If I was asked to pullout of a holiday for an occurrence that i am not accountable for i would expect the right to refuse. Work is a means, not an end and people who live at work die early. –  Gusdor Jan 30 at 9:46

There's two questions here:

  • What's a successful strategy for a senior leader to do when he's away?
  • What will work in your specific company and what, conversely, are career-limiting behaviors?

The latter point is not something we can answer here, as it's really a case-by-case situation for the business, the culture, the company, and even your boss' specific opinions. You're only going to answer that by both having a frank conversation with your boss AND by watching the outcomes of the decisions you make.

In terms of the former - my answer is that there is always a cut off line. Somewhere between "where are the paperclips?" and "help, the city we work in just had a major catastrophe and we are doing major disaster recovery" is the line between you being bothered while away and the situation being addressed by someone else.

The more senior you are as a leader, the more it becomes YOUR job to figure out where that line is, and to train the organization around you (both beside and below you) to act accordingly. Some of it is likely to be business related - how much does the company risk, if you are NOT the person who handles this? Some of it is contingency related - what is the risk if you are the ONLY person who could ever handle this? Ideally as a senior leader in a healthy firm, you are NOT making yourself indispensable, you are growing the organization so that a new leader is ready to take your place by the time the business has grown to the point that you deserve a promotion. If no one is available to be your deputy while you're gone, I'd say you need to consider whether you are addressing the skills within your team appropriately.

In terms of scheduled events - it's probably time for a conversation on how much advance notice should be given (for either your vacation or the company's event) vs. the expectation of a drop-everything all hands on deck type of gathering. Generally for a "we could book this at any time" type of occasion, there's a reasonable expectation that if everyone is expected to be there, you'll be told to be there far ahead of a reasonable time for booking time off. And also that such events will not occur so frequently that you can't possibly take a vacation. But this is a factor of the company, the size, and the nature of the event.

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+1 for "train the organization around you". –  Andris Jan 30 at 6:35

Should I try my best to attend those specific situations, e.g. come to the office on that day just for the client meeting, go to the social event just to say hi to the CEO? Would it hurt my career prospects to be absent? Or would I be "forgiven" for staying away?

If your goal is to advance in your career with this company as fast as possible then yes you should. Missing them for a scheduled vacation may not hurt you or you may be forgiven for being away, but you can never get the opportunity to interact with your companies senior management back. You can attend future meetings but you can not go back to the one you missed.

Something could have happened at the meeting, or event that catapulted your career. Or it might not. This is a Schrodinger's Cat type scenario. You can never know what could have happened if you had been there, or had missed it if you choose the other path. But if you choose not to go then there is no chance for good things to happen but there is the real risk that your not being there will be missed and it could be damaging to your career. The person who could become your boss may be the one that gets the opportunity that would have gone to you.

That said my observations of senior management moves is that more people get ahead by moving on to another company rather than being promoted from with in. Assuming that your organization is typical you have approximately 6-10 directors for every VP and a similar number of VP's for every president. Those positions open up on average one every two-ish years. on the low end if you have 6 directors per VP, and 6 VP per President, you have 36 directors competing for the same VP position that is filled about 40% of the time from outside the company. So your chances of advancement in an established corporation are realitively low to begin with.

However, there are companies that are looking for people to fill their senior roles. You have a better chance of advancement through changing companies because there are more open positions. And those companies do not know, or care if you attended the bosses impromptu team building exercise. Then, assuming you left on good terms, you have a better chance of being hired for that advanced position at your old firm, once you have demonstrated success in that higher management position at another company. And again since you are coming in from the outside they do not care about the fact that you missed a meeting because you were on vacation, they know you have experience in their industry and a proven success rate in the role you are applying for.

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As Joe said, the culture of your company will determine the appropriate answer to this question. As a practical matter, you may be able to determine this for yourself.

What are the work habits of successful managers at your level within your organization? What were the work habits of managers who have been promoted beyond your level? It's not a given that emulating their behavior will provide the same results for you, but if your primary concern is career growth, you're better off emulating the behavior of the ones that move up the ladder than the behavior of the ones that don't.

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"What are the work habits of successful managers at your level within your organization?" One of the best points made so far. –  Jordan Gray Jan 30 at 10:35

A long time ago, I regularly worked a 90-100 hour week. It nearly destroyed me, and taught me how important vacation time really is. Later, in California, I worked in a startup where coming in after 7 a.m. or leaving before 7 p.m. was cause for comment. It started to annoy me that management couldn't distinguish quantity of work from quality. I started to push back on that mentality, and left soon after. In another role, I got seriously off-side with my manager about this, which ended badly for me [as it always does], so you do need to be somewhat sensitive to the local culture.

The most common 'thing' I do when I'm on vacation is check email, mainly because it is a way of surviving potentially dangerous office politics [and why lose the ship for a ha'penny worth of tar?]. But in my most recent jobs, I fully delegate to someone I trust, and allow them to make the decisions they feel are necessary. I am available to them [and them only] if they need to talk, but otherwise I'm out of there. Living in Australia, it is very easy to be out of range of all electronic contact, which is the best 'excuse' of all for not being available. It also empowers your delegate, because they have no choice but to make decisions. On your return, it's amazing how little of importance you have missed.

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I would love to upvote this but I do not think it really answers the question. It addresses how to be gone well but it does not address the truly important meetings unless you are saying there are none. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 30 at 14:48

This is why you should eliminate as many aspects of your job that only you can do. Other people can add these duties to their responsibilities even if they can only do it for a short time it's better than nothing.

Many claims about being indispensable are exaggerated. We all get "hit by a bus" eventually in one way or another.

You may not be able to avoid the company party. Because there things that someone else in your company may not be able to do, it is that much more important to address those that can.

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The only unprofessional thing about it is whether you didn't tie up loose ends before leaving for holiday. What, if any flexibility do other managers have, and what protocol do they follow for time off? That might be a good indication of when you're needed in the office.

Also, if the CEO calls the meeting when you said you'd be out it's hardly your fault; and if you've been at the company for a while they tend to let more things slide. A call, email or even facechat with the office might be enough of a check-in. They shouldn't claim your declared off-time, even with a salary position.

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@gnat It's six lines of content on my screen, about what I'd consider average for a paragraph. It's nowhere close to being a "wall of text". –  Anthony Grist Jan 30 at 11:31

I have a strong opinion on this. No matter how far you have climbed the career ladder, it must be possible for you to be absent. Think of the president of the United States. He surely IS important and the things he deals with are important. But if he is not allowed to relax he will be a nervous wrack and do bad work after some time. So he must relax, even if that means to find a date in the year where he goes on vacation with his family. And this is a planned thing, you cannot just cancel it because "something happened". Hey, there is always "something happening" even in my job and I am not even president of a company ;)

What if you are ill? What if you quit? If you think the company cannot do without you, check your thinking, not your vacation plans.

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This is not about the companies survival but rather maximizing your career potential. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 30 at 14:51

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