Burnt Out? Try a ‘Careercation’

5/6/14

You’re CRAZY!

I was getting used to hearing that when I told family and friends that I was selling everything I owned and buying one-way tickets to New Zealand to travel around the world with my wife and 10-month-old daughter. After being a serial entrepreneur for over a decade, I was flat burnt out.

I called my journey to find happiness my “careercation” (career + vacation). I had two goals during my trip. First, of course, I wanted to create some amazing shared family memories. Second, I wanted to interview entrepreneurs wherever we went. I wanted to learn about their best practices when it came to leadership, culture, and managing people. In addition, since I rub shoulders mainly with technology entrepreneurs, I wanted to broaden my experience by interviewing folks in a wide range of businesses. What could I learn from the winemaker in New Zealand, the fruit trader in China, or the financial services consultant in Korea?

I ended up interviewing more than 30 entrepreneurs responsible for businesses worth around $2 billion, collectively. I came away with hundreds of best practices and tips, which I’ve compiled in a book chronicling my personal and professional journey. They were so generous with their time that I didn’t feel right profiting from their advice, so I’m giving away the book for free online region by region.

Here are a few of the most impactful lessons I learned on my careercation:

Hire and Fire By Your Values

Andrea Culligan, CEO of Harteffect, an agency in Australia had to work hard to reverse a company culture that was in the toilet. She engaged her team and came up with values that were meaningful, especially in the context of their day-to-day activities. Here’s what they crafted together:

  1. Explore the unfamiliar
  2. Let there be laughter
  3. Cultivate creativity
  4. Think community; live green
  5. Earn and establish respect
  6. Do it with passion; say it with truth
  7. Chase knowledge; share brilliance

Not only did the team identify phrases that were meaningful and personal to them, they committed to hiring and firing by them. Andrea embraced Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s approach that if you’re not willing to hire and fire based on your organization’s values, then those aren’t values.

Cultural Change Takes Time

Raise your hand if you’re the entrepreneur who sends an email on Friday and expects change on Monday. As entrepreneurs, we’re definitely impatient.

John Park, CEO of Asia Evolution, a consultancy in Seoul, taught me that implementing cultural change takes time and patience. It has taken him at least six months to see substantial cultural initiatives and change take hold.

One such example is his sunset policy. Team members are expected to complete whatever they committed to do before the sun sets. If they aren’t done, they must stay late to wrap it up before going home (or get approval from clients or colleagues on an alternate date.)

I know that company culture is organic and can rise and fall over time, but it starts from the top. If a company has a poor culture, the leader just has to look in the mirror. John quantified how long it takes to create positive change, and CEOs must remember that it takes consistent effort, and time, to raise your company’s culture to the next level.

Integrate New Hires in a Welcoming Way

David Hajdu runs Vinasource, a hybrid onshore-offshore software development company in Seattle and Vietnam. Hiring and retention of talented developers is just as ferocious in Vietnam as it is here.

Retention is a key issue. He discovered that new employees who work past their one-month anniversary most likely stick around. He designated that first month as the “danger zone,” since so many newly hired developers in Vietnam were coming onboard and then quitting abruptly.

Now, on their first day, they have a very specific agenda. HR ensures that the new staff member meets with every member of the team they will be working with and that the team goes out to lunch together. The new hire reviews the company’s vision and culture, and then dives into the software tools used by Vinasource. They also receive a company T-shirt. By redesigning the new-hire integration process, on-boarding is smoother and retention has dramatically increased.

And Now…

It was stories like these that inspired me to start my third and current startup, TINYhr. Many of the things I learned on my careercation have helped me grow as a leader and evolve the way I run my business.

Traveling for half a year can be challenging, and it was nerve-wracking to board that plane with one-way tickets. But the anxiety started melting away as soon as the door closed. There’s always an excuse not to jump or follow your dreams. But as Gretzky says, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

With proper planning and budgeting, anyone can do it!

David Niu is a serial entrepreneur and founder of TINYhr in Seattle. His previous companies include BuddyTV and NetConversions. Follow @

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