THE HUMAN FACTOR: One London lawyer admits that although his firm was keen to join with a US partner, the American line on holiday leave was a big hurdle for the deal.

THE HUMAN FACTOR: One London lawyer admits that although his firm was keen to join with a US partner, the American line on holiday leave was a big hurdle for the deal. - Several years ago, when memos came on paper instead of e-mail, the publishing company

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor, The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Several years ago, when memos came on paper instead of e-mail, the publishing company I worked for sent staff a missive that ended: 'Holidays are to be taken and enjoyed.'

This was not a reflection of old-style paternalism but an attempt to find a justification, beyond the perfectly respectable one of cost-saving, for the decision to stop paying people cash in lieu of unused holiday entitlement.

But despite its hint of Soviet authoritarianism, the memo was right. Holidays are the antidote to the long-hours, high-pressure culture of modern business life.

They may not always be enjoyed - psychologists relate that holidays are the precursors to the breakdown of many a marriage that has held together until the couple have to endure a fortnight in each other's company. Yet for most of us a break from the office is a physical and mental restorative.

The British, however, cannot throw off a certain puritanism when the subject of holidays arises. Senior managers rarely broadcast that they are abandoning their desks for a couple of weeks in the sun, preferring to present themselves as wedded to the job. And should they be caught out by something happening back home while they are away, the tut-tutting would be audible.

Poor Jonathan Bloomer, Prudential's chief executive, found himself on the receiving end of such criticism this spring, when he took off for the Caribbean. He thought he and his family deserved a break after pulling off a pounds 14 billion takeover of American General. Alas, while he was on the beach, a US rival, AIG, slapped in a higher offer. Bloomer hopped on the first plane home but not in time to stop the critics muttering that he should not have left his post until his own deal had been finalised.

In fact, even if he had remained tied to his desk, he would not have been able to prevent AIG making a more attractive offer for American General.

He might, however, have been able to persuade investors to warm to his bid and thereby lift the Pru's share price and the value of its offer.

He had planned to do the rounds of the investors once he returned, sun-tanned, from Barbados, but by then it was too late.

Now he regrets the loss of American General but not the holiday. He reasons that no amount of effort would have enabled him to defeat AIG. And at least the Pru collected dollars 600 million in compensation for its defeat. But the negative reaction to his decision to take a break will stir fears among less confident executives that they can't be seen to relax.

This view is prevalent in the US, where holiday entitlement is meagre and, even then, not necessarily intended to be used. One leading London lawyer confides to me that, although his firm had been keen to join with a US partner, the prospect of being expected to conform to the American line on holiday entitlement was one of the major stumbling blocks to a deal.

Conversely, the French have traditionally taken their break from the office as being de rigeur. But the annual flight from Paris is not as pronounced as it was. In the global economy, leading businesses cannot virtually shut down.

Yet in today's world of easy communications, a physical presence in the office for 52 weeks of the year should not be a necessity, even for the most hands-on leaders. Sir Chris Gent conducted much of his ground-breaking bid for Mannesmann while also taking seriously his role as sponsor of English cricket and enjoying the test match in Australia. He reckoned he was providing good publicity for Vodafone and the world-shrinking abilities of mobile telephony.

Any executive going on holiday should be able to leave instructions that he can be contacted if necessary, and to trust his colleagues that they can judge when that might be. The break then serves not only to allow the holidaymaker to relax but to energise those left behind to take on extra responsibilities and demonstrate their worth.

Delegation is an executive skill that should never be underestimated.

The boss who telephones the office twice a day, despite the delights of his holiday venue, betrays a lack of confidence in himself and his subordinates.

That is little better than what Henry Ford was said to do - declare that he was going away and that his deputies must take full control, then on his return countermand almost everything they had decided.

Those who are truly confident of their position in a company should be able to take some time for themselves and their families. The ideal work/life balance may be more discussed than achieved but, even if it is difficult to get right on a daily basis, there should be a few weeks each year when executives rebel against the tyranny of the workplace.

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