Many of us know first hand, or otherwise, about some senior-most leaders who have fallen in love with power, status and control. These are the men and women who adore the trappings of power, the ability to manipulate others or situations and the apparent idolization they receive from others. For them, their sense of self esteem is almost completely tied to their status, position, level of influence, feeling of invulnerability and self-importance. In my experience, however, these individuals are actually in a very small minority. A far more common scenario when individuals are facing the experience of giving up the reins of an organization, it is rarely the case that preservation of ego is at the root of their angst….when angst is indeed experienced. More often then not, the emotions which senior leaders of organizations experience when confronting their succession include worry, regret, anxiety, disappointment, sadness and loss…..rather than loss of self-esteem due to over-inflated egos.
Fundamentally, giving up a company role is difficult regardless of whether it’s being the CEO, President or any other corporate role. A key difference, however, is that as the primary custodian of the company the sense of responsibility that a senior-most individual feels is immense. The passion they feel is generally unwavering. For them, walking away from the organization can be likened to losing a best friend. The sense of loss can be enormous….and this has little if anything to do with ego. In one of my experiences, for example, it took a company 3 retirement parties, post the actual retirement date, before the executive stopped coming into his office….daily….and with his replacement already physically situated in the office. Hard to imagine, but true. Furthermore, no matter what the individual has accomplished during their tenure, these high performers are life-long learners. They see every day as an opportunity to grow and develop….regardless of their age and stage.
You’ll often hear them saying that they love the challenge that their job brings or they love being around young, eager, enthusiastic and smart people. They miss the repartee, the intellectual stimulation, the new advances in their field of endeavour, the next deal, and so forth. These folks are afraid of becoming stale and living a life without challenge and growth. As Viktor Frankl (a renowned Psychiatrist) noted, it also gives their lives even more meaning and purpose. Others at the top may even have legitimate concerns about the future of their organizations when they depart. Everyone knows how markets react, both positively and negatively, with the retirement of a senior officer of the company. So too, senior-most executives share the concern as to the future of the company if their replacement happens to not meet expectations. They don’t want to see the value that has been created erode in a few short years, or in some cases, even months.
These folks have generally weathered many storms and regardless of the successor’s capability, many “newbies” have been untested during difficult times. Then there are those executives who can envision the next big opportunity around the corner and may have even laid the foundation for that opportunity. Not being around to see the opportunity or project through to completion can constitute a major frustration or disappointment. Human beings seek closure and here the executive is frustrated by their need to move on….often on a specific date regardless of circumstance.
Finally, for many senior most executives, the loss of contact with people who they have worked with, toiled with, celebrated with is a major source of difficulty letting go. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of big ego which these folks are struggling with. They recognize the importance others have played in their personal success and achievements of their organizations. They have come to value and appreciate team members not only as colleagues but also as friends. Indeed, on a recent vacation, I came across a book of quotes, one of which stated that “friends are Gd’s apology for family”.
Laughter aside, many of these leaders’ colleagues have become close confidants and friends, with the corresponding realization that the level of contact is likely to change dramatically. In summary, before one attributes the challenges which leaders have in transitioning into the next chapter of their lives to “ego needs”, it is essential that we recognize that these are people first. And, as with others, there are a multiplicity of personal and organizational reasons why leaving the organization can be such a significant challenge. While many senior-most leaders will come to terms with this crucial transition stage of their lives naturally, some will be challenged.
So, given that many of us will be in this position sooner or later, regardless of level within the organization, here are some suggestions I’d like to provide in order to prepare and actually look forward to the next chapter:
- make time to stay connected with friends no matter how busy you are; Bloomberg still makes the time to play weekly poker with his buddies from high school (you read that right);
- create your “bucket list” of things you want to learn and your plan (when, where, with whom, how often) for doing so at least 5 years before stepping down; initiate your plan in moderation, e.g., once a month, but at least 5 years before the departure date;
- determine, along with your partner/spouse, how often you want to travel annually, duration of trips, types of holidays and where you want to visit at least 5 years in advance of stepping down; initiate the plan well before stepping down;
- consider where your extended family will be in their development, to the extent possible, and determine how you plan to stay in relationship with them (e.g., cottages, weekend visits, holidays, family dinners, etc.);
- determine the type of community service and/or philanthropic activities you plan to engage in;
- make certain that you have your financial matters in excellent order and if you don’t trust any of your advisors change them now;
- get a thorough physical and create a gameplan which is realistic and addresses your current and future needs; surround yourself with your “wellness team”, be it physician(s), personal trainer, nutrionist, chiropractor, psychologist and so forth;
- figure out your cultural desires and make sure you engage in something monthly (plays, music, film, dance, book clubs, writing)
- if Board work is of interest, you will need to receive some training if inexperienced in the area and start by working on some voluntary Boards (hospitals, schools, the arts, community associations, religious affiliations and so forth); networking with those already on Boards is essential;
- consider mentoring young people who are starting a new business, and if the opportunity exists and it makes sense to do so, invest in it;
The list is endless. The goal is to stay vital in mind, body, spirit and action. The underlying purpose is to not lose momentum once you leave your senior role.
Finally, and this might seem self-serving but it needs to be said, those of you who are struggling with the transition, and a number of you will, including those with ego needs, I strongly recommend you seek the input of a counsellor or coach familiar with the territory. It can save a great deal of consternation and help put you on the right track.