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How My Sabbatical Made Me a Better Leader

Michael Richards sold his business in 2011 to go travelling with his wife. It turned out to be a life-changing decision. Inspired by what he saw, Richards went on to found a sustainable water bottle company and build his own ‘Grand Design’. Now back in the corporate world as the MD of Unlimited Group, an award-winning digital agency whose clients include Google, Microsoft, Unilever, Ford and BMW, Richards talks candidly about how the experiences during his sabbatical made him a better business leader.

I spent 20 years working for large advertising agencies, including Ogilvy and Saatchi, before building my own company, WFCA Advertising. I loved every minute, but it was exhausting!

Ironically, I ended up running the PLC that bought WFCA. It was just at the start of the credit crunch and it was a frightening time.

The PLC had a very poor balance sheet that unwound through that period. At the same time, a lot of our clients were losing their credit insurance and we were having to prepay media spend for massive retailers on Channel 4 or ITV. So the cashflow implications were huge. I did a cash deal, so I didn’t need to be there, but I felt I should be for a couple of years [to oversee the process].

I could feel myself becoming ill with the stress and knew I couldn’t carry on at the same pace – and I was in the fortunate position where I could afford to make a change. The only concern was for Tina, my wife, because it would mean that I would be spending a lot more time at home!

Unexpected inspiration

Tina and I had hardly spent any time together for a long time because I was so committed to my career. We knew it would be a period of change for us both. To bridge it, we decided to go travelling.

Firstly, we started our travels by spending three months in India. I’d read Shantaram [a novel by Gregory David Roberts], which is a book about a guy’s experiences in India, and that really inspired me. It’s so life-changing when you go to a country like that, particularly the way we did it, travelling to loads of different places. It was such a vivid experience. I still dream in colour about India.

When you see a baby crawling through a gutter, you appreciate how lucky we are but also how tough life can be. Yet many Indians succeed in making things simple. Culturally, they are so ambitious, and they won’t be put down. You can’t compare the scale of issues that people face here to the situation over there.

I was on a beach in India and came across this mountain of plastic water bottles. I said to myself: “There’s got to be a better way.”

After India, we continued our journey and ended up in New York. I was in a deli when I saw what was basically water in a Tetra Pak carton. I thought: “What a great idea.” I contacted the brand owners, explained my background and said I would love to launch this product in

Europe. However, they weren’t interested in scaling it – it was just a project for them rather than a commercial enterprise.

So, with memories of that plastic mountain in India still vivid, I decided to do it myself. However, I had no experience in manufacturing, so I got in touch with an old friend who had just retired from a soft-drinks business. Within 18 months, Water in a Box had launched.

New ambitions

We came back from travelling after a year, refreshed and with a different outlook on life. This new mindset was probably the catalyst for our next project: building our own house. We’d been looking for a new place to live and were after something more environmentally conscious, but my wife couldn’t find the right location.

One night in the pub, she said: “Why don’t we just knock our own house down?” I said: “This beautiful Sussex farmhouse?” She replied: “Yeah, yeah!” I drew a picture on the back of a napkin and took it to an architect, who said: “It’s a bit odd, but I guess we could.” I became the project manager and main contractor for our new home.

I’d always been good at getting a team together, doing spreadsheets and negotiating. I thought: “How hard can it be? I’ve got Google, so if I’ve got any questions…” It turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But the house is still standing – we only went a month over our timeline and only 10% over budget.

I learned fast how to project manage. I must have made 20,000 cups of tea and god knows how many bacon sandwiches just to keep people going! I now have increased respect for people who do a trade. And giving a whole team a sense of purpose – clearly communicating what we are going to achieve, by when and what I expect of everyone – is an essential skill in my current day job.

Deeper understanding

I came back into the agency world in May 2018 when I was offered the managing director role at Unlimited Group. It’s a very exciting role and an interesting time for the group. Taking that time out has definitely enhanced my ability to lead such a brilliant group and take it into its next chapter.

Bringing a disparate group together, whether it’s different companies within Unlimited or different trades on a building site, is all about getting them to work in a collaborative, focused way. I’m no less decisive, but I’m more thoughtful. Before I would leap in both feet first – now I try to be a bit more considerate.

Agencies typically and arrogantly have thought that the most important thing in their client’s life is the ad campaign or the marketing campaign. But the truth is that it’s only a small part of what they do. Dealing with the factories, dealing with retailers, dealing with packaging – the list is endless.

I also now have a real appreciation of how tough it is to be a manufacturer. I can have sympathetic conversations with clients because I’ve been there. That’s not only given me

more credibility, but my empathy definitely brings a deeper level of understanding of clients’ challenges and objectives.

Very recently a friend of mine had a quadruple bypass. It was driven by stress and it nearly killed him. Thankfully, he’s now out of hospital. At a certain age or certain stage, you’ve got to take some time out, breathe, calm down a bit, take stock and work out what you want to do next.

My sabbatical taught me that I never want to retire, but also that you must recognise you’re only here once. I’m so energised by the world I’m in, but stopping the world and getting off for a while only brings positives.

Michael Richards was interviewed by Ryan Herman, a journalist who writes about business, entrepreneurship and sport for publications such as Director and Vice Sports.