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UNCHARTED: Making Choices – Things That Matter


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Starting the conversation:

In this conversation, Tobin Lehman, President at New North, shares how he planned his sabbatical, prepared his team, and then stepped back knowing that he could not predict what he would come back to. He shares the purpose for taking time away, what he learned about himself, what his team learned they needed from him, and how he will be strategic about taking more time to reflect and assess opportunities going forward.

Design your company’s next level of growth with an intentional sabbatical. More than letting go of stress, which is necessary – and more than innovating from the inside, which is daunting – to become objective means to let go of what has been tied to us and what we’ve tied to ourselves. Tobin Lehman, President at New North, shares about discovering who he must become to confidently lead his business to the next level of growth.

Host: Jess Dewell

Guest: Tobin Lehman



Announcer 00:01
This is Uncharted, a series of candid conversations about facing uncertainty. When we are called upon to be courageous, the strength of our leadership is tested. Red Direction has developed the Fast Track Your Business program to help you stay aligned to your business’s true north. Jess Dewell is your guide. Jess brings you a 20-year track record of Business Excellence with strategy and operations overlap. Your Path comes from consistently working from the special place your unique true north. Now, here’s Jess.

Jess Dewell 00:36
People. Fast Track Your Business people. Bold Business Podcast people. We are here today we are talking about uncharted waters. And this is so important because every single time we have one of these conversations, there is a tidbit that I walk away with and I get to learn from and I’m excited to share that with you today. And you’re going to discover it right along with me. I am pleased to get to spend some time with Tobin Lehmann. today. He’s the author and the founder of new North an award-winning digital marketing agency. He’s dedicated to helping business-to-business technology firms grow. Now, with two decades of experience. And not on this design. I in this hearing ear, he has worked with companies like southern states, Pfizer, Thermo Fisher, scientific, Kimberly Clark, and that’s only naming. Now, over time, he is earning industry reputation, not, not just earn continuing to earn a reputation for taking the mystery out of marketing with clear strategies that earn real results. And we’re going to be talking some serious business today. And what it actually means like going behind the curtain and of the orchestration of it. All right, so Tobin.

Tobin Lehman 01:56
Yep, that’d be a good time.

Jess Dewell 01:57
It’s gonna be a good time. And one of the things that came out of our prep for this was you were just coming back from a sabbatical. And so how did you decide just have to start here? How did you decide it was time to take a sabbatical?

Tobin Lehman 02:11
Wow, great question where to start and weigh the top. So for me to two major factors, one, I’m, as of September, I’ll be 13 years running this business in a good bit of time, time to, you know, kind of climb the mountain to a certain pace, sometimes you got to stop and look around, I need, I think I felt the need internally to stop and look around to you know, last year was tough. Like I said, my own version of COVID, burnout, and we got through it, which is great. All those things good. But it’s like those two things aligning, saying, I need some perspective, there’s there is this there is a life past whatever what last year was, and I already felt that urge to kind of get some perspective. And so that led to the idea like even in March, and then I’m taking my sabbatical in July, when I started the process in March and planning for it, like this will be something good this year to do.

Jess Dewell 03:06
So you took a good 90 days to plan a sabbatical.

Tobin Lehman 03:11
Yes, yeah. And I would, I would recommend that I actually didn’t think that until like, one day I was googling, like, how do you take a sabbatical? Right? Yes, like everyone does for their life questions, right? And so I found a couple articles. And it was wise, right? It’s the main people saying like, Well, you know, you set it up, you need to make sure your team is ready, you need to kind of get to the preparation in my grand idea was to just like, pop in and be like, Hey, I’m gonna be out for a while, you know, but that would have, that would have been a disaster now that I kind of see it. Plus, I still have in my role client-facing responsibilities. So it would have been strange had been questioned about doing it. So yeah, having a process now is a personal process. Probably the first two months, it’s only about a month with the team and the clients and things like that. So first couple months, were just, what am I going to do? Like, you know, having a plan for the sabbatical was really key. I mean, I think we all could find something to do for a month, that’s not a problem. We can, you know, enjoy the town we live in or walk around, or these but actually having a day by day plan, actually have a calendar I printed out in every day, like what I was going to accomplish, what I was going to do, how I was going to stay on track and accomplish something. And that was, that was really beneficial because I got I got those things done. It’ll stay on track, because the temptation very early, I tell you was to like, let’s just chill. Let’s just, just hanging out, right, let’s not be productive, I would say as easily as productive. You know, in a sabbatical mode, if not more than I would be like in work mode because that has had objectives over here versus objectives over here. I lost clients on sabbatical. I lost clients on sabbatical, but it’s okay. I’m 12 years in business. Business comes back. business grows like you’re doing this. So I think people probably have this fear like Lego the wheel bearings are But oh, yeah, they will, for sure. But it’s you have to have a different view of like, like, I have an abundance mindset. That’s kind of part of who I am like, there will be new work that will be new clients, we will grow like we lose some, we will gain some, like there’s plenty of clients out there, like I’m not going to lose sleep over losing and like I regret losing it, I don’t want to lose them. But I’m also not at a place where I feel like I’m going to, you know, lose sleep over it in the same sense, like this idea that there’s an abundancy of work, there’s more than, more than a client’s for us more than enough work for us. We can always just find more of it as men are getting out there. So I don’t want to be so rosy that was all great answer. Like No, there was really probably hadn’t let somebody go like we lost in the clients. But with the bigger changes coming, coming into the sabbatical, I already had to make that mental change and shift to be okay with whatever outcomes come because it was about the break and those kind of things.

Jess Dewell 05:54
So sometimes I think and I hear this with some of my clients, too, that I need to take time off, and I need to take like six weeks off in a row. Yet, what they’re saying that that seems, seems to be like camouflaging or code for. I don’t know how to continue. I’m burned out. And it sounds like the way you went about it. Did you have any of those sensational feelings behind the scenes that were like spurring this forward into fruition?

Tobin Lehman 06:24
Yeah, I would, I would say yeah, like I said, definitely feeling the burnout from the previous year, long haul. But what I’ve also realized in my own life, and I think it’s pretty true with other people, like, guess we want to turn the noise down. But if as an entrepreneur as a leader, like you’re not good, just doing nothing, like that’s not your thing. Like you need to be doing something growing, expanding, like having some guidance to that and so, like you have my wife and her infantilism is like, you need to plan for this. Like, it’s not going to go well like you won’t be happy at the end of it. If you just sit around for a month, like you’ll be lose you go crazy. Like, I don’t personally believe in retirement either. Like, I don’t know, planet surrounding golf, like at any point in my life for multiple months in a row. Like, I’m going to do something with my life. Like it’s just a matter of doing something different. And I think that was the big key was doing something different. Taking a break from this. I did, I did yard work I did you know, things like that. tax hikes, day trips, things like that, read different material, just like almost like a break from that to something different. And we have the burnout was there. And we and we all felt that sensation like this need to stop this train. A friend of mine has this. He says I need to get off the merry-go-round like Yeah, he’s gonna definitely grow every, every so often. And I think we don’t do that as business owners or leaders. You know, after a long time, that number tends to hyperbolized in our mind, like, I need five weeks, like I need six months. Like, we send it over exaggerate. But really, I would say I felt pretty refreshed, just mentally in like two weeks. Okay, yeah, just being so I was properly disconnected, which I’m sure we’ll talk about here in a minute. But I was able to get enough break where I felt like, you know what, I’m feeling pretty good now. Like, I still am gonna definitely work these next two weeks of sabbatical here and enjoy the time. But I think it wasn’t, it wasn’t. It was more than enough time that I thought like going into like, mid-month, I don’t think is gonna be enough. It was enough. Like for me personally, because I did separate like, I didn’t check email at all. Like, I didn’t check in with the office at all. We had. You know, we had we basically had a list of things that my executive assistant that I hired part of this for this sabbatical, I’d like to things that she should break the glass for reach out to me, one was like an employee emergency, like a death or something like I obviously want to know that. And that was basically it. And I saw our one day socially, she’s like, I think I’ve got something I’m like, I better check this, like, I don’t want to talk about work. And, you know, the police had called our office looking for something because there’s a crime outside of our building. So I was like, yeah, that’s fine, that’s fine reason to break glass to do that. But the big thing in the preparation time of those two, three months coming up to it was understanding what I want, what I’m going to be part of what I’m not a part of, and actually my team, even as I brought this to them in the final months, you know, actually the day before I left, even, we’re having conversations and things they can take off my plate. Going into it. That was one of the bigger surprise and the preparation was not only my own work, but the team around me like having the support of that which I thought was going to be mixed was actually really positive. Like they saw that they saw the burnout, they saw the need, like you need to do this. We can handle this. People stepped up into roles that I was doing, which was fantastic. I mean, not to the same degree, but he’s covered some of it. And so even up to the last hour, people were saying like, Can I do that task that you’d normally do like this, like sure I can’t train you cuz I’m not here in an hour, but you know, go forward, talk to This guy talk to this person, I’ll help you with it. So that was one of the big surprises of it was when I did bring my team in this the love and support that I felt from them in that process.

Jess Dewell 10:10
You know, that’s really interesting. And, and I was I’m sorry that you were feeling some burnout to, to make this happen because I was hoping you were gonna say, No, it doesn’t have to be like that. No, you don’t have to wait until the worst of the worst is happening. And it sounds like you were somewhere in the middle, right? You recognize the tiredness, and you knew that if you didn’t do something, there could be imminent, crazy. And you were able to mitigate that. And so I think that would be for me personally, my biggest takeaway in this moment is how we show up to the stresses around us could be that we are burning out, it also could be that we just need to reimagine what we’re doing. And that may or may not need a sabbatical. And so for you stepping away and taking this step back and getting this perspective, this new, you know, this new lens of things, do you mind me asking? What was the thing that you were learning and working on during your sabbatical?

Tobin Lehman 11:09
Well, it’s, it’s tied into the business, I’d tell you just basically the threshold. And it’s a big story behind it. But I was taking the time, mostly in the sabbatical, you know, dealing with the stress components of all those things. But then the second hand, my promise to the business was really architecting, the next level of growth. Next, we’ve had 12 years of kind of making it to this point, you know, as a small business, this year, more willing, we are going to cross over being a $1 million business. So we’re still fairly small, we’ll be 1 million in revenue, which is great. And so that, but that, you know, as I say, you can’t get there with what got you here. And so there needs to be a process a time of rethinking that. And so, I’ve met with some consultants over sabbatical, I’ve talked to some people, I read some really interesting material and books. And so for me, my promise back to the business was to come back different. To come back as a differently engaged kind of person, to have a different kind of view of how we’re going to grow going here can’t just brute force, what we’ve been doing in greater scale and energy, that’s not working, that’s what kind of got to that to the burnout, right? working harder, working longer. Like, eventually that doesn’t work. And that’s, I’ve seen that so it’s kind of like, I’m going to come back different, come back with a different perspective, a different energy level, a different view of how we’re going to get there. And almost just like mature, it’s like, almost like when you know, back in the day, we used to go to like, no grade school, we go to ninth grade, and we take a summer break, and we get to 10th grade and we’re like, little more mature, like, similar thing, like just running hard for 12 years in the business. And not ever having that bigger break to get perspective. Like I think I’m, I think I’m greatly changed even in that time. Now I’ve had a little bit more with some illness. But in the same sense, like, the team senses the difference already. I’m very different in the business where I am now, given those times, like it sounds crazy, like what just four weeks like, but it really does because in that sabbatical part of that process is you end up, when you pull out, you end up breaking a lot of strings that are tied to you. And the big benefits coming back has been, I get to pick and choose which strings or ropes I picked back up. Because they were being covered by the team members here and there. So like, I’m actually not doing some of the things I’ve been doing for the past 12 years, just because I took a break and came back and someone covered it. But that’s my own lack of perspective or a team that steps up. I’m actually reenvisioning my role now in the company, because everything was working without me, you know, for lesser purposes in since I’ve been going out, I come back, it’s like, Where am I really needed right now. Because I’m not stamping envelopes anymore. Not that I was but I’m saying you get the metaphor, like I’m not doing little things that I was into, because that had to be picked up and covered. Now I get to be more selective. See what my true value is to the business. And that’s gonna be part of the growth going forward.

Jess Dewell 14:05
Right? And so in the last 13 years in reaching this, by the way, congratulations and amazing level of success. Do you feel like and I don’t know how familiar you are with Jim Collins but do you feel like you understand some of elements of your flywheel that this perspective is said oh, we can’t help but do this now.

Tobin Lehman 14:27
Yes, if I kind of think through his, his parlance a bit but yes, because in stepping out I’ve whatever part of the flywheel I was part of became a gap. Right, and the team had to figure that out. I have a great number two at the company who helped step in some of that role. People stepped in the heart of it is coming back in, like the objectivity which it sounds again, it may sound dramatic, but it really is you come back after four weeks is enough time for our company that things have settled and moved on. They had to solve problems, I can just wait till I came back like they had the second back my see the flop. Because I’m basically choosing to come back into it, I’m not so blinded by the day-to-day activity, that I can see what needs attention, what needs to be adjusted, and I’m still objective enough in the temptation. And the challenge now is actually to not get sucked back into being part of the flywheel. But actually creating it and making sure I stay objective to it. Because otherwise, I’d lose the gift of what the sabbatical has been from a perspective and just get into punching numbers or doing this little task or doing those things. And so I would say yeah, definitely helps you get a better view of it just from the time and away, and you get to see now more objectively, like how’s the flywheel been spinning for the last month. And you know, getting mentioned to you a little earlier, like I met with every team member, when I came back spending an hour just talking 90 time about me, but just how they felt about it. What did they learn? What did they do? What do they think about the team and how they responded. So very objective for me about understand how the team and the company went while I was gone. And they were interested in what I did. And I shared a little bit about that, and shared about my vision for the company before but more about how is the flywheel going, like, what, what worked, what didn’t work from their perspective, and I learned a ton, an absolute ton from that because people were very candid, very open. I mean, they wanted to, you know, give kudos to where it belongs and talk about the challenges they experienced. So really interesting, very interesting.

Jess Dewell 16:31
That’s it, I love that you had a culture where candidness, when you came back, was not only accepted but actually practiced, right? that’s actually something where we really see what values stick and how they’re showing up when we’re not in a day today. And I’m stopped, I’m pausing with the value piece and inserting that here because you definitely need it going forward for growth. But you also need it from the perspective of well, how, and you were even saying this the beginning, my team was willing to step up, they wanted to take on these tests, they understood what it meant they wanted to have success while I had stepped away to do this architecting of what’s next? And so I’m with the, with the one on ones with that objectivity? What are the types of questions that you were asking your team when you came back to find out how it went?

Tobin Lehman 17:27
And I wish there are more sophisticated.

Jess Dewell 17:31
You know, I’m glad you started with that. I’m gonna say, we tend to overthink things, I want them to be sophisticated and simpler is always best.

Tobin Lehman 17:37
Yeah. So I basically started in with just, you know, how did it go for you? Like, how is it ending? I just initially changed the objection, you’re probably thinking this has to be some kind of lecture or something that was giving that was like, hey, how’d it go for you? Like, what was it like? And so then, you know, following the thread of their conversation, they mentioned something I might, you know, say, tell me more about that. Like, was that like, second frame was really around? Well, how do you think, you know, I kind of tweaked this based on the conversation, but how did everyone else’s behaviors meet? or change your expectations? Like Did everyone kind of perform the way you thought they were? Are there any anomalies, things that surprised you? What, what stuck out to you as you think about like, what you were thinking was going to be like going in to the team. So it wasn’t designed to be like a tattletale session. But in the same sense, like, where, what were they in surprise? Where did they see people step up, like give them a chance to give kudos or given a chance to highlight issues and, and kind of work that that culture there. But I think I think you’re right, in your earlier point. I mean, so much of this is predicated on the groundwork of the culture we’ve created and transparency, that’s a big element for us. openness and we’re very open, very transparent. So no, it wasn’t, you know, there wasn’t any tension in it, like they knew the new everything can be shared, could be confidential, but also, you know, would be, you know, part of the process as we grow and we openly challenge one another and things like that. So, I think the date I got back here is, you know, part of the fact that is already the groundwork has been set for it, but really asking them about themselves and how they felt others went. And then, you know, a little bit of like, if, I mean, in a sense, not like if I did this again, it’s I don’t want them to think I was gonna do this again, like, right away, but like, you know, if I were to do this, again, what, what recommendations we have how we would do it different. And it mostly turned into conversations of just like, well, so much of this went well, like, it’s interesting, they get turned into like, where they saw my role going forward. And so it was it helped me kind of shape occasion like they see that we needed to, we have a gap here, we have a gap here and, you know, kind of saw that. And actually, just as I’m thinking about it now, one of the things I did in preparation to this and this is real, this is pretty bold. Okay, so this may fit with your audience pretty good. And we do quarterly retreats. So on the quarter so July 1, when I took my sabbatical was the beginning of quarter three, beginning of quarter two We had a retreat. And I knew this was something I was planning on. And I kind of want anticipate where the issues be. But I wanted to think about it. So I actually told one of my teammates that I was talking with that I was going to be doing this kind of in confidence. And I basically said, Hey, I am not going to show up to the retreat. For the first eight games, and we start up. I’m not going to show up at nine and a 15 when people are excellent Burstow, but I want you to read this email. And basically the email not to sound really morbid for people and basically said, What if Tobin didn’t make it to the retreat today? What if you get into a car accident? What if something happened in? How would we survive as a company? Could we? Would we? What would it look like? What roles would you take over? It said, you know, all for all. Good purposes, Tobin will be here, but it’ll be here at 9 am. And come a little bit later to the next 45 minutes to basically brainstorm as a team of what the plan would look like. Now I knew I was going to sabbatical in a couple of months. They didn’t necessarily know that at that point. But it was a fantastic exercise because it’s a growing business grow intrapreneur we know where all the bottlenecks, like we’re the were the jam in the systems for a lot of growing businesses. So it’s really interesting to replan the egg, the plan had some holes in it, obviously, just as was very ad hoc, as 8 am. In the morning, people are still drinking coffee and everything. But it was really fascinating. And the team really responded well to the exercise. They thought, you know, what, man, we don’t need him as much as we think we do, you know, in the long run. So as part of that preparation process getting into but that kind of came up again, in those conversations post sabbatical of just, what is my role here? How do you see me being able to serve you best in what you’re doing here? As we go forward?

Jess Dewell 21:48
I like questions like that, by the way. And I’m a big, I’m a big proponent of not only Okay, so I have to ask this now, I’m a big proponent of quarterly retreats. And in fact, that’s something that I do with a lot of our clients is, is quarterly, we’re getting together. And whether it’s an off-site or a board meeting, it doesn’t matter. The concept is very fluid based off of the desires and where each organization is. And so do you take time? Or how about this? Maybe it’s a before and after concept? Did you take time to work on your business each week? Or did you wait until it was time to plan for those quarterlies? And how will that change? Now that you’re back from sabbatical?

Tobin Lehman 22:28
All good questions, those are great. So I would say my working on the business was kind of hit and miss seasonal, if you will, right? If there’s fires in the business less, as good seasons more, wasn’t very disciplined, going into it. But with the quarterly retreats, it you know, kept keeps a good perspective, we had time set aside. So there was set aside time, but me personally not quite as much. Definitely more seasonal, more reactive. Coming back in so we’re also like in US company really attraction us. That’s kind of our framework we do. So coming back now, though, I am actually I, you know, I feel like I’m in a jet eyes and mode here coming back in like, I can choose the engagement. And in a lot of cases, I’m setting a whole day aside, my calendars actually just blocked, it’s done. Like this is the day off, like off in the sense of like working in working on. And so that’s totally set aside. So that’s gonna be great. That’s just part of the growth we’ve been able to experience too. And just a choice like I realized to come in on sabbatical. A lot of things we do are choices. We choose to compress our schedule, we choose to overlap those meetings, we know we can get the both of them. We’re going to pretend that maybe today, we’re going to get all that stuff done today. I think maybe it’s my personality. Maybe people are saying as are listening to this too, in their own minds. Like we think we’re going to do these super things and come to me about a sabbatical. I just realize it’s not really worth it. Like from the burnout energy perspective. Like I’m looking at my calendar. Now. There’s things I didn’t get to. But even the beginning this week, I went through and slashed some things. I was like, No, this is not going to happen. Like I want gaps, actually, like the first time in 12 years, which probably sounds insane as some people like I actually have a lunch break in my schedule.

Jess Dewell 24:28
It doesn’t sound senior to me, you’re now preaching to the choir. This is great. Let’s see if more people listen and I’ll tell you what, I take Monday’s I started out with four hours because I was like how do I do this at all. And by the way that took a while and then I was like you know what I need my four hours and then I need two hours to implement. And then it turned out I actually needed six hours and two hours to implement which meant the last two hours of every Monday of mine Mine are always on Mondays the last two hours of every day on Monday. is taking a look at the next not this Next week, because it’s already done, but two weeks out, and then four weeks out to make sure I don’t use Eos. But I’m familiar with the system to make sure that all those priorities are set. And what do I need to change? What conversations will I need to plan? How do I support that team to move those things out and around to do that? And it’s fantastic. It is the best I call them present retreats. I don’t know what us calls them. Yeah, mine are called present retreats.

Tobin Lehman 25:28
Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, yeah. It’s so nice. It’s so great to have that perspective. And, really, I think just just to make an appeal to maybe the doubter out there that’s listening. You know, I think having been fresh in a right now to, you know, the, you know, and I hate this thing. In some cases, I think it’s overused, like there is this slow down to go faster, kind of thing. It’s absolutely true. When you give yourself that time, you realize how far you can plan. And I come out of these things, like, mine’s more like Friday. And so I come out Monday, and people are like, Whoa, all this stuff starts flowing out of Tobin, with directions and changes and tweaks and things like that, like, things just start moving. Because you just can’t, unless you get that perspective and come back. Like, I tried to limit myself coming out of sabbatical with changes in, you know, initiatives and things like that, we can stay with our US process. But just having that perspective, like, you realize you quit, you know, just saying like what you give back and, you know, taking the slices to get back on loaves. Like, there’s this element, like just taking that day almost gives you days of speed and efficiency and new things coming and going in the future. Like it just moves so much smoother, but it’s just hard to Britain can’t You can’t just tack that in in the day. Like you really need to have this slow down to set aside. And it’s only slow in the sense that we’re used to the frenetic pneus of daily work. That’s slow in the sense of that perspective. Like you’re stepping aside and doing that. So yeah, I’m a big, big believer in it now. And I think the sabbatical was a, you know, King Size version of it. And now it’s like, well, they the weekly version of it is still really valuable to accomplish.

Jess Dewell 27:07
And here’s what we’re going to talk about folks, we’re going to take this conversation to the Fast Track Your Business platform. So for those of you who are around, you know what I’m going to be asking the question next is going to be what were the biggest surprises you learned from your team when you got back from sabbatical, and more so for those of you who are listening in to this just out there in the Bold Business Podcast, you already have a lot of stuff you know where to go Tobin’s information is not only going to be tagged in our social media he is going to be all of his contact information are on the show notes page for you. So stay tuned there, everybody else.

Announcer 27:45
Here we go. You’ve been listening to Uncharted. Fast Track Your Business subscribers receive access to a vast set of resources, including extended conversations to this and other Uncharted episodes. Visit Fast Track Your Business Your preparedness and the right perspective are absolutely necessary when you find yourself somewhere Uncharted. Special thanks to The Scott Treatment for technical production.