How to Unplug (but Stay Connected)

Damon Gersh in an interview with Citibank talks about the benefits of unplugging.

Damon 1
Why it’s better for you and your business for you to work less

Maxons Restorations, a full-service disaster cleanup firm, has been tapped to do everything from clean St. Paul’s Church after 9/11 to restore pricey Persian rugs and irreplaceable artwork for individuals. By nature, it’s a high-pressure, always-on-call business—yet CEO Damon Gersh has found ways to lead his award-winning company while going in to the office just two or three days a week. He shares how his thinking and work habits have evolved over the years:

“You gotta wanna.” If you’re going to unplug, the first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the desire to do it.

When you first start a business, it’s easy to feed on the adrenaline. I took almost no vacations; I was on call 24/7. But I began to feel trapped. It’s the typical story of entrepreneurs: You start a business for the independence, then it becomes a golden cage of your own making.

Often, a life-changing event like a marriage, a death in the family, or a divorce provides a catalyst. For me, it was when our first child, my son, was born in 1999. I realized I wanted to be there for my kids, to be at every recital and baseball game I could possibly be at. I clarified my priorities: For me, the foundation of everything is having a loving wife, children, and close relationships.

But I believe you can have your cake and eat it, too. I love my business—we help people, it’s cool, and it’s inherently dramatic and exciting. Why would I throw that away? So what I’ve tried to do is not disconnect, but create a little bit of space from it.

“You gotta see it if you wanna be it.” You need to get a little distance to develop a plan. Carve out time away, even if just for a day, to clarify what your vision is for your relationship with your business. What would bring inner homeostasis? For some, getting an extra hour each day might do it. For others, it might be working from home five days a week. What does it look like for you?

While I was searching for this answer, I heard a talk by Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth, that helped me clarify my goals. I realized that I wanted to build an organization that was about the brand and its systems and process, rather than a cult of personality where my presence was required.

Create a vision, then take small steps to make it happen. After my son was born, I decided to take off every other Friday. That seemed to me to be a step in the right direction without completely upending my work schedule. After my daughter was born two years later, I began to take off every Friday.

Reinvent your management style. If you don’t want to be at the office all the time, create metrics to measure performance. Develop a manual so people consistently deliver service in a way that meets your standards. Write it down!

Create a leadership team to run the day-to-day aspects of the business. Do the hardest thing there is for an entrepreneur, which is to let someone else make decisions. This change takes time; empowering people is a strategy I’ve been working on for 20 years. What helps us is that we have a clear company mission, vision, and values. I’ve told people, if a decision isn’t the ideal decision, but you can justify it by our mission and values, I will never second-guess you.

Of course, none of this works unless you hire good people. And one thing I’ve never let go of is having the final word on hires.

Set email expectations. I realized I was wasting a lot of time in the office. For example, why should I commute and sit there doing email, when I could easily do email from home?

So Monday became my work-at-home day for writing, reading, and doing emails, and I get so much more done without drop-in interruptions. People in the office know that if something is urgent, they should identify it as such, and I’ll get back to them right away. Otherwise, they can expect to hear a response from me on Monday. I do have an iPhone and I do monitor it, but I’ve found that fewer than 10 percent of emails require an immediate response.

My leadership team knows that if something big happens, I’m a phone call away. But they know the call has to be important, otherwise I’m going to say, “Why are you calling me about this? Make a decision!”

Stay connected with regular meetings. We have a sales conference call every Monday morning, and I’m on that. In the office, we have huddles every Tuesday and Thursday at 11:30, which typically last about 30 minutes. We discuss action items, review metrics, discuss issues, and plan follow-up. We have full staff meetings every quarter, and every quarter our leadership team visits each of our regional offices. And this is all planned out for the entire year.

Dig up your old dreams. When you talk about unplugging, it’s not just about getting away from the computer, but feeling alive, having a sense of adventure and passion.

What were the dreams you had as a kid? For me, one thing I wanted was to be a rock star. About six years ago, I developed a goal to perform live before people, just once, even if it was in some crappy little bar. I mentioned it to a friend, and he had a friend who played keyboard, and on it grew. Now I’m in a band, Rock Steady, that’s played live 50 times.

What kind of life do you want to be living? Just by visualizing it and articulating it, at some level a momentum is created where you start giving light and life to those ideas.