Stopping May Not Be an Option

Talent Management

April 16, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

People live a lot longer than they used to. If you leave a CEO or other senior management role in your 60s, as most do — if your finances permit it in our current economy — you may have 20 or more good years ahead of you. Today, when people have the ambition, drive and energy to achieve great success in any field, it is unlikely that it will just stop when they change or leave a job.

I have never in my life met a successful CEO who was lazy. CEOs, like you, are incredibly hard-working and ambitious. And in spite of some grumbling about how tough the job is, the great chief executives I know love their work. Thus, it stands to reason that unless you are about to die or you are infirm, when you make a career transition, your drive is not going to just go away.

You may even think you want to rest and relax, but according to the “retired” CEOs I have met, that desire won’t last long. You will need an outlet to express yourself. The prospects of sleeping late, living on the beach, improving golf scores, going on cruises and playing all day hold almost no allure for the great leaders I have known.

Along with rest and relaxation, another favorite myth for the retiree is the ability to spend lots of quality time with the family. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your perspective, senior leaders likely have been working continuously for years, usually for decades. For better or worse, their families have been able to survive without them at home. It’s a mistake to delude oneself into believing family members now want you around all of the time. For those who are married, retirement may be the spouse’s greatest nightmare!

One top military officer shared his experience. “My wife said that she was looking forward to spending lots of time with me. One day, after a few months of retirement, I was in the kitchen alphabetizing the cans. To my amazement, she didn’t really seem to care if baked beans should be filed under BA for baked or BE for beans. On the contrary, she reminded me that this was not the military, that I was not her officer and that it was time for me to find something else to do since I was driving her crazy.”

Another former CEO laughed as he remembered his retirement. “My kids were grown up and living their own lives. They quickly grew tired of my visits. My wife got so tired of me she got a job in a dress store, just to get out of the house. One day I was watching TV by myself, and a delivery guy came to drop off a package. It was his last stop, so I invited him in for a cup of coffee, and we had a very interesting conversation about life.

“After he left I thought, ‘What a great conversation. That was the highlight of my week.’ Then I looked into the mirror. I hadn’t shaved for three days. I had been watching junk on TV. Then I realized what I had just said: ‘The highlight of my week was having a cup of coffee with the delivery guy.’ As a CEO, I may have had some bad weeks, but I never had a week so boring that coffee with delivery people was a highlight. I got a job the next day.”

As you slow down to hand off the baton of leadership to your successor, whether you are the CEO or the executive vice president of human resources, you should have less to do at work. Let your successor start running the place. And I have an important suggestion: Use this time to start planning something exciting to do with the rest of your life. You will probably have too much drive and ambition to be a successful retiree.

You may be thinking: “If I announce my successor in advance, isn’t there a danger that I will just become a lame duck?”

Almost every executive goes through this dialogue as part of the challenge of slowing down. This fear often results from postponement of the announcement until the last minute, and inhibits what could otherwise be a much smoother transition process.

When it is approaching time to leave, face reality. You will become a lame duck! Attention will shift to your successor. His or her vision for the future of the company will mean more than yours. If you disapprove of executive team members’ ideas, they will just wait it out and resell the same ideas to your successor. People will start sucking up to him or her in the same way they used to suck up to you.