How to sabbatical with San-Marie Barnard, Senior Principal of Executive Search at Jack Hammer Global

“I remember words you told me before I left saying that you don’t have to ‘sabbatical’ like most people, you don’t have to achieve anything.”
– San-Marie Barnard
How do you ask for a sabbatical? Firstly, how do you recognize that you need to take a sabbatical? And, most importantly, does your workplace culture support such an ask? In this special episode of On Work and Revolution, Debbie interviews San-Marie Barnard, Partner and Senior Principal of Executive Search at Jack Hammer Global, who shares her unique experience of planning and taking an extensive sabbatical and why it was so important for her professional and personal development.

Debbie & San-Marie discuss:

✓ The process of asking for a sabbatical and the planning process leading up
✓ A behind-the-scenes look of San-Maries’ 3-month sabbatical
✓ One thing that surprised San-Maire about the experience

About our guest, San-Marie Barnard:

San-Marie brings a global approach to executive search, with more than twelve years of experience leading executive and C-level recruitment projects in a range of industry sectors across Sub-Saharan Africa, the USA, South America, and MENA.

With her broad range of skills, San-Marie leads Jack Hammer’s research teams on multi-country search projects and also plays a hybrid role in both client partnering and candidate-facing capacities.
Her rather eclectic industry expertise ranges from Ed-tech, Fintech, and digital payments, to Media-tech, Agri-Industrial, and FMCG. Feel free to pick her brain on these…and more!

She is known for her direct approach, asking the hard questions and cutting to the chase – which is what delivers exceptional results for her clients. For San-Marie, success is based on persistence, not luck. The words most often used by clients and candidates to describe her are ‘extremely knowledgeable, dedicated, and tenacious.’

San-Marie is an avid traveler! This has created broad personal and professional networks to draw on globally and leaves her with wanderlust and admiration for the beautiful planet we live on.

Helpful Links:

Follow San-Marie on LinkedIn

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  00:05

Welcome to On Work and Revolution where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work, and how we can make work life suck less. For those of you who know me, you know that I’m actually aiming for amazing work life, but on some days suck less will do just fine. I’m your host Debbie Goodman and today we have my awesome colleague and team member San-Marie Barnard as our guest. A little bit of background about San-Marie, also known as Sanna. Sanna works for Jack Hammer Global’s Cape Town head office. She is one of our executive search partners for Jack Hammer Africa. And she actually occupies a really unique position. Let me explain. In the executive search world, you typically have people who handle the client side of things, and then others who handle the candidate engagement. But Sanna is a unique breed of executive recruiter, and she actually does both. She’s led searches at C-levels in a range of different sectors in at least 30 countries on the continent. I may have made up that number, but it’s a roundabout there and is a real expert on everything from negotiating expat packages to dealing with multi geography, talent plans. But today, we are going to be talking to Sanna about something that has absolutely nothing to do with executive search. We’re going to be talking to her about her recent three month sabbatical that she’s just taken. In fact, today is I think it’s day four back in the office. So listeners, sabbaticals are on the agenda today. And welcome, Sanna.


San-Marie Barnard  01:48

Thank you for having me, Debbie. Wonderful to be back.


Debbie Goodman  01:51

How did the idea about taking a sabbatical come about? I mean, were you just like, super exhausted?


San-Marie Barnard  01:58

Firstly, I’ve never heard of a 37 year old taking a sabbatical. Because in my working career, you always think or what we see is that people at the age of 50, or 55, take sabbaticals. And it feels like they’re allowed to because they’ve been around long enough, and they’ve worked hard. So you know, are you deserving of a sabbatical before you 40? That was an interesting question, I think for me. And secondly, it was we often see people taking sabbaticals when they join a new company – so when they resign from old one and join a new one. And I got this question a lot “Did you resign”, and I was like, “No, I’m going back to, to my job that I love”. So that’s a little bit back story of sabbatical. And I think, really, the pivot point for me came during COVID, because we were all in the last three years, not only in 2020, tested, mentally and physically and emotionally a lot. And after, well the first COVID year I guess, when 2021 came around, we just worked so hard to keep the momentum going. And I thought, you know, what if it comes back, so we need to push harder and harder, and it kind of just rolled into 2022. And then the beginning of 2022, I had a conversation with Advaita – I think with you as well, I can’t remember or it was briefly mentioned that, you know, sabbatical, but again, we got busy. And it didn’t happen. We didn’t have the conversation. So we just carried on and I think the pivot point for me, then when I asked for it came where you start thinking, and I don’t know if this is for everybody, or if it happens to everybody, but I thought, I’m unhappy. And when you feel you’re unhappy, you mostly look at the things that are most present in your life, one of them being work or family. So either you’re going to be unhappy with work, or you should be unhappy with work or with your family because you’re unhappy. And I’m very grateful that I’m, I guess was emotional, emotionally mature enough to know, I’m not unhappy in work. I’m just tired, I’m literally tired, and I’m exhausted. And now all of a sudden, I’m sort of feeling unhappy. And that wasn’t the right word. I was tired. So that’s how it came about.


Debbie Goodman  04:22

So interesting. It’s like this is the first time I’m actually hearing about your thought process prior to that, um, and then how did you feel asking for it? What was going on in your mind? Like, were there any worries? Or like, how did you eventually broach the topic to actually ask? Because I think that is you know, we’ve got people listening to this. I mean, I’m sure many people would, you know, think about this, and they go but no I would be too scared to ask. I wouldn’t know how to ask. I wouldn’t know how to motivate for it. What was going on for you?


San-Marie Barnard  04:56

I remember vividly lying in my bed one night and as the word sabbatical then came up. You’re not unhappy, you tired. Sabbatical. It happened within 30 seconds. And I actually went to bed with a smile on my face. And I think it’s because I knew, and I’m not sure if everybody is privileged enough to have this, but I knew if I ask, my leadership will probably give it to me. Maybe not immediately, but at some point, so I went to bed. I first messaged Advaita, for those who don’t know her, the MD of the Africa business Jack Hammer, the next morning saying, I want to take a sabbatical, literally. I mean, no “Hi Advaita”. I want to take a sabbatical. I want to talk to you and Debbie about it. What do you think? And her answer back almost immediately was, “Debbie will love this, let’s talk about dates”. And I sent back, “I already have dates in my mind”. So it wasn’t really a choice. And then I emailed you both. And I did email with a little bit of a plan. I wanted to present to you that this is my timeline, and this is the reason and the business won’t be let down if I go during this time. I think it was an opportune time for me because I could plan my work accordingly. But I wanted to go in with these are my thoughts so that it could be structured for you. And your response back was, “I think this is awesome. Let’s talk about it tomorrow”. That’s how I asked, I can give more detail in terms of how I phrased it, I just said to you that it’s needed for me, I haven’t had a break longer than three weeks in 17 years of working consecutively. And I was tired, and I needed to break. I gave you the flow of my current work and the deadlines of the work I had at the time. And that’s how I motivated for the beginning of October sabbatical start.


Debbie Goodman  07:00

Yeah, so my receiving end of this, which you may also not necessarily be aware of, because this is the first time we’re actually having this conversation, is that I received the message from Advaita that this is what you were thinking about. And for me, actually, I had been tossing this idea around and it wasn’t necessarily time-based, just more around like from time to time, people do need an extended break. That is just beyond the usual vacations that we that we get. The question that I had posed to myself, I think it was more than a year ago was is this viable? Is this possible? And how would we do it? And I guess it took you positioning this to try it out for the first time. And what I had thought was like, Okay, you know, you put the idea out, now it’s come back to you, how you’re going to deal with this? Is to go Okay, so first of all three months is long and it’s short. We have had so many of our team members who take three or four months out on maternity leave process, and we know how quickly that time goes. And the thing about taking maternity leave is that we’ve usually got time to prepare. And we know that if we’ve got enough time to prepare, and to work around it, then it is absolutely doable. We’ve done this actually over and over. And people go and then they come back and the time passes just like that. And we actually make a plan. And so I must admit I was a little bit nervous, because you’re such a huge contributor to the business. So I was like, okay, yes, we’re gonna do this, but oh shit, how are we going to cope? But I also knew, of course, we will make a plan. And so what were the logistics? I mean, was there anything special or unique that you needed to do in the plan up to actually, the D Day when you were like, cheers, guys, I’m out of here.


San-Marie Barnard  08:55

Definitely, I do think you need to be well planned, because I think if you are not well planned, not only for what you need to hand over, but for what can potentially happen when you’re not around, It may not turn out as well as as it did. So for me, I literally started making a list next to my desk every day of what I thought. Because it’s small things. Sending the check-in question on a Friday, so it’s not always big things. Handing over clients, handing over work, you know, what, how everything is going to work. It’s really the small things. So I started with my list. And then I started connecting with people that I knew could help me while I’m away and, and again, you know, I’ve got so much faith in the team, that it wasn’t necessarily hard for me to leave my clients to be supported by other people because I knew it would happen but you know, it took some planning. I gave a list to Advaita of all the work that was in process because although I delivered or finished delivering work at the end of September, obviously, there were still often negotiations happening. And people were starting in the time that I was away. So I made sure she had that list of what is happening. I emailed all my clients, most of them with enough notice. Some of them that I was in process with, I only told a little bit later because I didn’t want them to get nervous or were scared. But I emailed all my clients, I was very upfront saying I’m taking a sabbatical. This is when I’m going to be back. Here’s the contact details, please meet my colleague, if you need any support, please ask her and you can ask a question.


Debbie Goodman  10:41

I want to know what was the feedback from clients? Were they surprised? Were they? I mean, did you have any interesting sort of interactions or conversations with about that?


Debbie Goodman  10:51

Yeah, you’re going to do an Eat Pray Love vibe in India or something? Yeah. Okay.


San-Marie Barnard  10:51

Most of them just came back saying how wonderful, we are very pleased for you, enjoy your time away, we’ll be fine. There was a couple of more interesting, I think calls where people, a lot of people asked me, you know, are you going to do a Camino? Or are you going to soul search in Nepal at a monastery?


San-Marie Barnard  11:18

Exactly. But I could I could hear that the people that actually asked that question didn’t necessarily ask it with excitement for me, should that have been my plan. It was more like a, you know, are you also now going to kind of do this? Are you now one of those people? You know, that kind that do these things?


Debbie Goodman  11:39

What do you think? What do you mean by like, one of those people? What do you think the judgment was?


San-Marie Barnard  11:43

Obviously, I knew the person or the people that reacted this way. And I could have predicted that they would have reacted this way, because they were very old school in their thinking. So I think the judgment of that there’s not necessarily judgment, but I think it’s the old school way of thinking really about everything. Thinking about the way of working the place of working, how the new generations do things. And they probably didn’t get the opportunity to do this. Because they, you know, are at the end of their career.


Debbie Goodman  12:12

Oh, okay, they’re probably what are they going an e-commerce millennial, or some other sort of term to describe?


San-Marie Barnard  12:21

Absolutely, yes. Yeah.


Debbie Goodman  12:24

Okay. So all the planning is done. And I know that you’re also very planned from a, you had felt pretty secure financially as well. So that had also given you enough time to we continue to pay your monthly salary, but you know, you had savings as well. So this was not going to put you in a challenging financial position. Okay, so there’s all this build up. And then finally, it’s D Day and then we wave goodbye. And then off you go. And what was that like? What was the first week like?


San-Marie Barnard  12:55

The first week, I ran errands eight hours a day, to be very honest, 


Debbie Goodman  13:01

Oh, God, that sounds terrible. 


San-Marie Barnard  13:03

It wasn’t terrible. It sounds terrible. But it’s the things that I just haven’t had time to do. Some of them more pleasing than others. Going to the bank obviously wasn’t pleasing. But I needed to get it done for a year, actually. But the other things were nice things that I’ve wanted to get to wanting to do at home, or, you know, people I wanted to see. So the first week really was running errands, and almost into the second week as well. But it also made me feel accomplished because it took time to be okay with the idea that I don’t need to do anything.


Debbie Goodman  13:40

Okay, so you went from work doing to personal doing and then the transition beyond that, where did you get to?


San-Marie Barnard  13:49

I remember words you told me before I left saying that you don’t have to, sabbatical like people know it, is you don’t have to achieve anything. If for three months, you want to sit on your couch and binge watch NetFlix. That’s your prerogative. So and, and I didn’t want to do that. But I did take a couple of days doing that. But it was a transition to eventually I got to, after running all the errands and then realizing OK you literally have nothing to do now. Except for working on a specific art piece. I didn’t really have anything else to do. So it was really nice to go in a transition. Firstly, I’ve not thinking. And I really got to a stage where I got up in the morning and I still did things. But everything wasn’t planned. And it was very nice to know I don’t have to think about what I’m going to do tomorrow, or what is expected of me tomorrow. And that was really a big takeaway for me. It was wonderful to not think at all, most days. 


Debbie Goodman  14:58

Or plan. Yeah, because our lives as recruiters, it’s like a core part of your lifeblood is planning, even if you’re not doing that much thinking you’re doing a heck of a lot of planning. Okay, so there was the, did it feel spacious? Or like, what did your day feel like if you didn’t have to actually do anything? And then the errands got done? And then what did the day look like for you? Was different all the time? Like, to me, it just sounds very wonderful. And amazing, but like, what do you and I keep saying, what did you do? But the point of it is to not necessarily do. Describe to me like, what did the time look like?


San-Marie Barnard  15:40

It sometimes looked different. It looked different most days. I think, because I didn’t plan it obviously always started with a morning coffee, right. So that plan never and I kind of got up the same time because it felt weird to just stay in bed reading all day. So I got up and got dressed. And there was a lot of space. I can 100% say that days feel a lot longer if you don’t have that many things to do.


Debbie Goodman  16:10

Did you get bored?


San-Marie Barnard  16:11

I got bored in the last couple of weeks, to be honest. Not in the first. I thought I’d be bored earlier. But also I keep myself busy. So I went to the beach a lot. I took nature hikes and walks a lot. I met up with friends that I haven’t seen in a long time. So I drive to Paarl to meet somebody for breakfast or for lunch that, you know, we haven’t connected in months. So things like that. I practiced a lot of creative art, because we always talk about buckets. And one of the buckets I have that needs to stay filled is being creative. And not creative in thinking, literally physically creating something with my hands. It’s what makes me very happy. So I created a lot, I painted a lot, I learned a new art form, which was wonderful and messy. And so every day is looked different with different things.


Debbie Goodman  17:09

What’s one thing that surprised you about this experience?


San-Marie Barnard  17:14

We always say time goes quickly. I was surprised at how quickly it went. Because it really went by incredibly quickly. Oh, there is actually one thing, and I don’t necessarily know if it surprised me. But it was certainly an eye opener to realize that without the stress – and I mean, work is stressful, right? It’s sometimes bad stress, sometimes good stress, but there’s always a little bit of stress. I feel that I was so much nicer and more patient in general, I don’t think I’m always not a not a nice person. But I know how I would have reacted in certain ways while I was working, or while I am working, because there’s no time, don’t bother me, I’m busy with other stuff. Where when that wasn’t around, I actually just felt nicer, more patient, I actually feel I listened to people better. And we could actually think through some issues or things that happened in, let’s say, a circle of friends or family without, having judgment, because there was space in my head to think objectively and to take time to think about it. Because sometimes there’s no time or you’re too tired. You just don’t think. And say what you’re not supposed to.


Debbie Goodman  18:42

I wasn’t very involved in the day to day, but how did you manage to, I mean, you had very minimal engagement with the office. I mean, I certainly I don’t think I spoke to you once in three months. I think I sent you one WhatsApp. So how did that all work? Because I think there are people who take extended leave of some form or another they call it a sabbatical or a slightly longer leave. But nevertheless, they’re still getting bothered by stuff that’s happening at work. So how did that or how did the logistics of that work?


San-Marie Barnard  19:12

I think firstly, we set our intention. So I said our intentions before I left in terms of please I told the team, please don’t completely forget about me and tell me when there’s nice things happening or you know when there’s something great but I also don’t want to hear from you every day or every week. So the intention was there and people respected it, which was really wonderful and phenomenal. In terms of emails, I knew if the Outlook app was on my phone, I was going to check because I don’t have I don’t have the ability to not check.


Debbie Goodman  19:50

It’s actually up to you as well to figure out how to not engage with the stuff that’s going on in the office because it’s otherwise you just stay tethered and tied.


San-Marie Barnard  20:00

Absolutely. So it was interesting for me because I wanted to know the nice things. And the first week, I did send Advaita a message going, I just want to know what’s happening with this process. And she was like, just leave me alone. And then I did and then I sent her one more message. And I said, I promise it’s my last one because I did communicate with her, but also because she was handling offer negotiations for me at the point. But I deleted the email app from my phone completely. I didn’t just log out. And Zinzi very kindly offered to check my inbox for me while I was away alhough there was an out of office, but just to support me to not come back with seven or 8000 unread emails. So I closed my laptop and I did not open it almost for three months, unless I had to check a personal email or something like that.


Debbie Goodman  20:54

Now let’s fast forward a little bit. It’s the week before you go. Okay, time’s up. Got to go back. How are you feeling? The week before? January, you came back January 9, right. So what was the week before like in the lead up to coming back?


San-Marie Barnard  21:13

There wasn’t, nothing really changed for me. I didn’t feel dread. I mean, I was excited, because I’m always excited to come back and to see people. I must say, I felt incredibly rested. So I felt it was good for me to come back. And I am, I must say from Monday, I’m enjoying the routine. Because I think I missed it a little bit. And it is good to have routine for me. So I think the week before, I just kind of thought did I do everything that I wanted to do? And maybe that’s a good point to talk about this. So what I decided to do at the start of my sabbatical is to actually take a photo a day, during my sabbatical. And some of them are beautiful and with friends and in a wonderful place, and others are reading a book or baking a biscuit. I don’t know, like not exciting photos, but normal stuff that you would do in life. So I’ve actually gone through the album quite a lot of times to remind myself of what I did for the last three months on a daily basis. So I did that for the last week, I just checked in with myself and very happy and then I was very happy to start on Monday. It’s like I never left. I opened my laptop and there we were!


Debbie Goodman  22:39

Well, I’m very happy to see you. I’m very happy that you’re back. The time did pass really quickly and I know that everybody missed you. But you know, we also got on with ourselves and I’m so very glad that you actually took the time and that it’s been worthwhile and beneficial for you. But I’m mostly very, very glad to have you back. So thank you for sharing the story with us and with all the listeners out there and I hope that 2023 is just off to an amazing start for you after you’ve had your your three month break. Amazing.


San-Marie Barnard  23:20

Thank you so much Debbie. Thank you for affording me the opportunity to go away for three months but also very, very happy to be back to make this a wonderful year. I’m well rested.


Debbie Goodman  23:32

Fantastic. Thanks, everybody. Bye now. Thanks for hanging around all the way to the end. It would mean the world if you would rate and review On Work and Revolution on your favorite listening app. It helps people know that the show is worth listening to. And so I will really appreciate that. Thank you so much.


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