Releasing Status, Power and Relationships

Talent Management

June 6, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

Senior-level executives such as the chief talent officer or equivalent learn to live with amazing amounts of status.

After awhile, it just seems to be a part of who you are. None of the great officers I have known have any desire to act like big shots or come off as arrogant or superior to others. They adapt well to their status and don’t abuse it.

On the other hand, one of the great fears of any mega-successful, well-known person is becoming a “used to be.” Instead of being introduced as the chief talent officer, you will be introduced as the person who “used to be the chief talent officer.” It isn’t the same. To be honest, it isn’t even close.

After you have retired, instead of looking at you with admiration, the ambitious young people you meet may be looking around the room for someone more significant to talk to. In the words of the Eagles’ “New Kid in Town,” “They will never forget you till somebody new comes along.”

Make peace with your loss of status in advance of retirement. Learn to enjoy the process of others’ striving to get ahead. If you cannot make peace with losing status, don’t retire.

When I asked one executive what he had learned about leadership since becoming a CEO, he laughed and replied, “My suggestions become orders. If I want them to become orders, they are orders. If I don’t want them to become orders, they are still orders. No matter how open I try to be, as the CEO of a multibillion-dollar corporation, I don’t make suggestions. I give orders.”

Many senior-level executives won’t admit it, but studies indicate they have a higher need for power than most other human beings. Incredible power can be hard to give away.

Power can simply be defined as the potential to influence. For examples, senior-level talent executives love to get big results. It is hard to get huge projects completed without power. Throughout their careers, leaders experience an increase in power gradually. Over the years, as you move from position to position into higher levels of authority, you get more and more power. In sharp contrast, when you leave the role, you may lose power suddenly.

One executive reported, “It was like falling off a cliff, my loss of power. They’re not bothering to return my phone calls. When I was the CEO, my phone calls always got returned, immediately!”

Let’s stop and review what you may be giving up when you retire: money, perks, status and power. You begin to get the picture. While the theory of stepping down from the chief talent officer role is easy, the practice of letting go can be a little painful.

It can be amusing to listen to gossip about chief executives, with apparent shock, and gasp, “I am amazed that anyone who made it to the level of CTO could have made that mistake!”

Have you ever read a history book? Is there any evidence in the history of the world that shows that when human beings are given incredible amounts of money, perks, status and power they begin to act completely sane and rational? I have never read that book.

Face it: You may be the “chief retiring so-and-so,” but you are still a human being. Millions of leaders throughout history have had trouble letting go of money, status, perks and power. If you cannot make peace with giving up some of this stuff, you will never be able to make a smooth handoff to your successor.

That includes severing ties with your peers and co-workers, the family and friends you’ve gathered on the job.

If you make a chart of how you have spent your time during the past few years, you’ll find you’ve spent far more time with people at work than you have with your actual friends and family members. You’ve been through a lot with your co-workers. Most of your success has been caused by them. Their success has been heavily influenced by you.

The more you’ve been through together, the harder it can be to leave. But leave you must, because that, my friend, is what retirement means.