After a powerful sabbatical, a new beginning

Upon my return from a three-month sabbatical this week, I found myself looking back at the website of the O2 Initiatives Sabbatical Award (the program that made it possible). The first paragraph states that the award “supports a three-month break for executive directors.”

Yes! That is what I signed up for, and needed after 18 straight years directing TransForm.  

Further down their website there was a sentence that, at the beginning, I had been less certain about: “Research and experience show that a sabbatical has the power to be a life-changing experience for leaders, as well as a transformational experience for the organizations they lead.”  

But this profound transformation is exactly what has taken place.

It all began on June 5, when my TransForm email password was changed so that I couldn’t even sneak a peek at my inbox. Instead of early morning emails, I chased sunrises on my bicycle. And as I pedaled, the weight of work quickly melted away.

It helped that I had no need to worry. Before the summer, TransForm staff developed an extensive transition plan which divvyed up my responsibilities. With longtime Deputy Director Jeff Hobson at the helm and wonderful staff and board beside him, I knew I was leaving with a team in good hands.

So I went backpacking with my older daughter. My wife and I fell in love with Barcelona. I spent days with wonderful friends I haven’t seen in years, and nearly 3 weeks with family on the East Coast. I read wonderful books, and tried my first oil painting that we are still getting some good laughs from.

After just a few weeks, friends remarked that they had never seen me so relaxed.

And the bicycle became a metaphor for going deeper. With all my free time, I got in the best cycling shape I’ve been in for 25 years. Soon I was out there experiencing the great corners of the Bay Area, with the help of transit of course. My favorite? Redwoods and the coast, from San Bruno BART to Pescadero then back over the hill and the Bay to Union City BART.    

Meanwhile, the gang at TransForm was humming along without me. From the launch of our Climate Benefits for California online map and serious advances in our regional Express Lanes campaign, to extensive media coverage of our GreenTRIP program and significant legislative victories in Sacramento, TransFormers continued our track record of success without missing a beat. 

Not only that, they felt great too. With the guidance of our sabbatical plan, everyone stepped up in significant ways, embracing a new model of shared leadership that worked really well. There was more communication across teams; more key decisions made by program directors; more investment and confidence and problem-solving from everyone as the whole staff rose to the challenge. 

I felt it before I returned, but I feel it even more now as I get settled back in: the sabbatical’s impact was indeed profound. And as TransForm moves forward it is now clear to me that we can nurture the talents and vision of TransForm’s incredible staff, and keep me effective for the long term, by carrying many of these changes forward.  

So I’ll keep my routine of cycling in the morning, and shutting down my e-mail on weekends (thanks to the sabbatical for forcing me to use a personal e-mail account for the first time!). And we will keep the incredibly open communication and clear work-planning that was necessary to prepare for the sabbatical.

I can’t express how grateful I am to the founders and staff of the O2 Initiatives. What a gift and a blessing – not just for allowing me this incredible time off, but for providing coaching and support for TransForm staff. And staff also deserve a huge thank you! They are stepping up to share leadership and responsibility more broadly, and our whole team is stronger for it.

We’re going to need all the energy we can get in our movement to win real transportation choices, fight climate change and connect more Californians to opportunity – and I know we’re ready.  

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.