by Marshall Goldsmith
One of my favorite coaching clients is the CEO of a huge company. He is going to be leaving his company soon and has done absolutely nothing to plan for his departure.
I asked him, “If you knew that your company was going to face a major, dramatic change in six months, would you start developing a strategy to deal with this change now?”
“Of course,” he replied.
I answered, “Your entire life is going to face a major, dramatic change. You may not realize this now, but ultimately, your life is even more important than this company. Start developing a strategy for the rest of your life!”
When a retiring leader is considering a future position or a combination of interesting activities, I have one consistent suggestion: Get real offers. Don’t worry too much about money, perks, status or power. Focus on a position that will lead to happiness, meaning and contribution.
My friend Randy is an excellent example. Randy had a fantastic career in a top professional services company. In spite of his outstanding contribution to the business, he was in his early 60s, and according to this company’s published guidelines, it was time to go. He was very dynamic and had no interest in traditional retirement. He knew that he wanted an exciting new career challenge for the next few years, but he wasn’t sure what. He started thinking about leadership in the nonprofit sector.
“Perhaps I should be a leader in a human services firm,” he said enthusiastically. “I really don’t need much money, and this would give me an opportunity to make a positive contribution to society. A lot of what I have learned in business could be applied in the social sector, and who knows? At my age, this type of change might be great fun for me.”
His face changed as he began to debate with himself. “On the other hand, I’m not sure that I want to spend all my time taking rich old people out for lunch and begging them for money. That may be a large part of my job as a nonprofit leader. And sometimes those nonprofit people look down on businesspeople like me. They think we’re all just greedy capitalists with no real values.”
As he began his search for a new job, he didn’t do very well. Some organizations saw him as arrogant. They felt he showed more interest in “What can you do for me?” or “Would you like to know how wonderful I am?” They thought he asked a lot of questions he could have answered himself had he done more homework; they felt he communicated with ambiguity and showed a lack of genuine desire for the new job.
Randy became defensive when we discussed some of the negative feedback from the companies where he had interviewed. But I gave Randy the career advice I give most often: Get real offers. Do your homework, sell yourself better and get some specific offers in writing. Until you have those, internal debating is hypothetical, a waste of time. Get real offers, real salaries, real job descriptions, real co-workers and real board members. Then you can do apples-to-apples comparisons and figure out which position fits best.
Randy changed his attitude, did his homework and started getting real offers. He dropped his “are you good enough for me” questioning and started selling himself and his potential to make a contribution. He quit doing informational interviews that made it seem as if he was judging the organization’s worth and focused on organizations that might be a fit.
Within a few months he had some real alternatives. There was much about the nonprofit world he liked, but he realized his options there were not as exciting as leadership in a venture capital firm. He decided he could help society more by making money and giving it to other nonprofit leaders who would be better at human services management than he was.
If you’re facing a transition and are getting stuck in a mental debate among competing potential career options, focus your energy on getting real offers. Then you can make real decisions. At the end of the day, all job offers are good. Even if you say no, you will probably have learned something in the process, even if it’s learning what you don’t want. And it’s always nice to be asked.