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Quentin Zentner from Phoenix Group talks to workingwise.co.uk about his decision to take a sabbatical and the benefits for him and the company of doing so.
Quentin Zentner returned to his job at Phoenix Group, the UK’s largest long-term savings and retirement business, in early March after just over three months off on sabbatical leave, travelling South America with his wife. He says the time off was a chance to spend time with his wife and step off the corporate hamster wheel for a short time. He has come back with new ideas, renewed energy and a different perspective on work.
Quentin has been Phoenix’s General Counsel since 2014 and his decision to take the leave gives the green light to others in more junior positions that it can be done. Not only that, but Quentin believes there have been considerable advantages for both him and his employer as a result of his time off.
Phoenix Group introduced the sabbatical policy in July 2020. There was never a specific list of reasons to be eligible to take a career break, but in May this year the company clarified the wording to make it clearer that a career break could be used for caring purposes. Since Jan 2022, 29 people have taken some form of career break, varying in length from one month up to one year.
Quentin says his decision to take the unpaid sabbatical which he lengthened using saved-up annual leave, came out of a conversation he had with his wife. She is from Colombia and they spoke about how neither of them had explored South America and that it was a good idea to do it while they were still in good health and had the energy to make the most of it.
Originally, they had been intending to go before the pandemic, but life got in the way and then the lockdown came. Quentin, 57, had been worrying about how the sabbatical would work and who would cover for him. But as he looked into it more seriously, he realised how it might be manageable. It became clear in conversations with his team and his boss that this was an opportunity to give more responsibility to two members of his team and give them more exposure to the senior executive team and the CEO. He says the two worked really well together in his absence, appreciated the additional experience, but were also grateful that Quentin came back. “It was an opportunity to grow,” he says.
A lot of planning went into the handover and the allocation of different responsibilities and lines of reporting. Quentin looked in detail at what his role involved and divided it clearly between the two people covering for him in such a way that he was able to completely switch off during his sabbatical – in three months he only had one phone call and made two others and he was not copied into any emails. “Everyone knew I was on sabbatical. It was like a magical forcefield,” he says.
His trip around South America began in Argentina during the World Cup. He and his wife travelled the length of South America, making excursions into Antarctica and to the Atacama Desert in Chile. They took all manner of transport, boats to islands off Chile, for instance, and they did a huge amount of walking – up mountains, along rivers, through rainforests and more. They visited Peru and the Galapagos islands where they saw giant tortoises and iguanas as well as hundreds of sealions promenading up and down the road, orcas hunting in packs and huge varieties of birds, from humming birds in Ecuador to albatrosses. Quentin and his wife finished with a family visit in Colombia.
Quentin says he needed a week to adjust to life back home after months of being outdoors and constantly seeing new things, but he adds that after three months of living out of a suitcase he was happy to get back to his creature comforts.
“Overall, I came back recharged with new energy and I’m now really making an effort to explore new areas, see new plays and exhibitions and push myself outside my comfort zone,” he says, adding that seeing the rainforests up close and enjoying the beauty of the natural world has also made him keen to see how Phoenix Group can do more on climate change and sustainability. “It has become my driving passion,” he says.
Not only that, but seeing the inequality in South America has made him more determined to do what he can do to make a difference in the UK, for instance, in progressing Phoenix’s diversity and inclusion agenda. Quentin is on the Group’s DEI steering committee and is looking at the General Counsel’s policies on trainee solicitors and apprenticeships through a social mobility lens. The time out has also helped him to think about life post work, about what makes him happy, although he has no plans to hang up his hat yet!
Quentin has spoken about his sabbatical experience in the forums he is involved with, including Mind Matters, Phoenix’s mental health network of which he is a passionate executive sponsor. He says: “Taking a sabbatical gives you a different perspective on work.
It gave me the chance to improve my Spanish, to have contact with other societies and cultures, to read lots of books, to spend quality time with my wife and to get out of our 9-5 existence. In a long working life, it should be normal to take time out and have some time for yourself without sacrificing your career.”
*Phoenix Group is sponsoring National Older Workers Week which begins on 20th November.