Life after the C-suite

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THERE COMES a time when even the most glittering career must come to an end. Choosing the right moment to retire is difficult enough, but many people also struggle to imagine what they could possibly do next. In their new book, “Changing Gear”, Jan Hall, a former headhunter, and Jon Stokes, a psychologist, discuss the strategies that people can follow when approaching the “third stage” of life, after their childhood and their careers.

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As the authors note, the third stage involves individuals redefining their role in the community. This process may be particularly difficult for those who have been in high-powered jobs. They must come to terms with a loss of their status and the realisation that they are both replaceable and mortal. Employment provides people with a lot more than just an income: it gives a structure to the day, opens up new friendships and provides a purpose that comes from taking part in a shared endeavour.

Those who have reached the top of the tree often neglect the other areas of their life—indeed, they may not have got so high if they didn’t. For such people, retiring may be a lot like the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Denial is particularly significant. As Ms Hall and Mr Stokes observe, “those in power gradually become insulated from reality” and “develop an inflated sense of their own importance”. Executives may not realise they have grown out of touch with new market developments or so overweening in their behaviour that they are alienating their staff. When others suggest that it is time for them to step down, they may feel angry at the apparent betrayal.

It can also be hard for high-powered people to map out a future after they quit their posts. While they are working, they may have no time to consider alternative activities. Leaving their jobs may be a little like a drug addict going “cold turkey”. The word “retirement” conjures up ideas of passivity and retreat that many find unattractive, Ms Hall and Mr Stokes point out. Individuals may have chosen leadership roles because they like having power over others or sway over events. Shifting into a role as a non-executive, or volunteering for a charity, will not seem like an adequate substitute. They still want to be in charge of something.

Nor will home life necessarily be easy. Spouses and children have often become used to coping without a parent who has worked long hours. They have built their own networks of friends and activities. They may find it hard to adjust to the presence of a bored pensioner knocking about the house. On top of that, it may have been tricky for those in positions of authority to develop close friendships themselves, particularly at work.

The book presents a series of case studies of people who have been through this kind of upheaval, some a lot more successfully than others. There is, inevitably perhaps, a bit of psychobabble. But readers who tolerate talk of “transition mindsets” and “potential desired competences” will discover that the individual stories are instructive and the questions posed by the authors are important. Those near retirement must work out who they have been, who they are now and who they would like to become.

The answers will vary from person to person; there is “no one size fits all” solution. Bartleby’s father was never happier than when, after retiring from his job as a headmaster, he was able to spend his time reading, gardening and listening to Mozart. Other people would be bored to tears by such a life. The authors suggest that people be willing to experiment, to try new activities, develop new skills and talk to others who have been through the same process. Another approach is to keep a journal and make a list of things that you like to do, or have also wished to do.

In addition, those approaching retirement should consider the type of role they like to play. Do they enjoy working with others or working alone? Do they draw satisfaction mainly from developing ideas or from co-ordinating teams? Since self-awareness is a difficult skill, people should talk to a few trusted contacts to discover how they are perceived by the wider world. They may find the answers are surprising.

This is a critical issue. Think of all the time people spend deciding which university they would like to attend, which course they would like to study and which career they would wish to follow. Deciding on their post-career lifestyle is just as important. They may have decades left to enjoy.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Stepping down is hard to do”

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