To avoid ‘failing at retirement,’ develop a purpose when planning

By Stephanie Brun de Pontet

An often-overlooked element in succession planning is helping retiring leaders plan for their personal transition. When they are no longer at the helm of the enterprise, what will they do with their time and talents? This
often is a critical gap in planning that may contribute to a struggle to let go.

Another common phenomenon is the “boomerang effect,” which takes place when a leader transitions out but then returns actively to “fix a crisis” or remains active in the background, precluding successors from making important changes or otherwise asserting needed control.

I recently interviewed a number of prominent business leaders who had retired from the helm of their enterprises and gone on to pursue a range of fulfilling projects, passions and opportunities. Their stories and ideas are recounted in my book Transitioning from the Top: Personal Continuity Planning for the Retiring Family Business Leader. One common theme in these successful leadership transitions is the notion of purpose.

I know from my work and research that humans are purpose-driven and that business leaders in particular tend to have a strong drive for purpose and engagement. When family business leaders tell me they will “play golf
and travel” upon their retirement, I tend to suggest that plan is inadequate.

Those who have led an enterprise for many years are used to being in a position where their ideas and decisions
matter. Shifting from such a life to one primarily oriented to leisure is very likely to result in great dissatisfaction. Some leaders in these situations are conscious of this prospective void of purpose and struggle to let go. Others take the plunge and then “fail at retirement.” They may return to the business, which is likely to cause all sorts of issues. If they resist the impulse to return, they may feel empty and adrift. Both outcomes are unnecessary and sad.

What will I do?

The challenge is that many business leaders cannot imagine where else they could continue to tackle interesting
challenges and make an impact. In addition to lacking ideas, some CEOs lack options. They have been so committed to their company that they have not had the time to explore or develop other passions or connections.

These are challenges for which there are not easy solutions. The leaders I interviewed who had made the transition
successfully often had long embraced a range of interests, hobbies and commitments outside their business. They had well-developed passions that motivated them, and years of experience and useful connections in worlds beyond their business responsibilities. From these experiences and relationships, they were able to develop a retirement life full of interesting opportunities and engagement.

Some of these leaders had been involved with outside interests and projects most of their lives, while others came to this more toward the later part of their career, or only upon leaving leadership. A few gave thought to what they loved in their leadership role (e.g., building teams, solving problems, mentoring) and explicitly developed new roles and opportunities that would allow them to do more of the same. Others made a lateral move: They became deeply involved in an industry R&D initiative, served on boards or took on consulting or mentoring engagements. A number had the opportunity to parlay connections and resources to tackle a big problem in their community, often with friends or peers. The specific pursuit is not critical to the retired leader’s eventual satisfaction. What matters is that the leader is deeply engaged in the work and motivated by the sense of purpose.

But what if you’re a leader who hasn’t developed many outside commitments and connections? How can
you take steps to plan for their personal continuity? A good place to start is by reflecting on what motivates you. I found the CEOs who were the most fulfilled were those whose post-leadership roles and responsibilities were at the right intersection of their skills (enabling them to continue to feel useful) and passions (missions
they identified with on a deeply personal level). These satisfying roles also enabled them to truly add value to the people or organizations they served — their efforts met some kind of need. Finding the purpose that will motivate and energize you is key to thriving in retirement.

Where am I needed?

There is no doubt that there are many organizations or activities that would benefit from the ideas and experience
a retiring CEO can offer — but not every opportunity is the right fit for you. Think strategically about how
you want to occupy your time when you are no longer leading the business day to day. Consider the following questions:

  • Is it important to you that your projects make an impact? If so, what kind of impact motivates you?
  • Is involvement at the forefront of new ideas or innovation energizing for you?
  • Are you excited by efforts that affect many people’s lives?
  • Do you want to be in a position to influence others?
  • Would you like to be involved in projects related to a personal or family legacy?
  • Is it important to be able to see the fruits of your efforts?

If you are honest with yourself, the way you respond to these questions can help you seek out and refine projects
and roles where you will find greatest fulfillment.

What can I contribute?

In addition to thinking about the kind of impact you would like to make, it is also important to narrow your options so that you invest your time and energy in the right projects for you. Many retiring leaders worry they will not have enough to do in retirement. However, several CEOs told me they overcommitted themselves and had to make some hard choices when faced with many compelling options. How do you find the right options for you — the purpose that most resonates? When you consider whether to work with a particular organization, the following questions might help you determine if it fits with your personal goals:

  • Mission: Is the organization’s mission aligned with your values? Why or why not?
  • People: How well do you know the people there, and have you worked with them before? Is this a team of people you will respect and who will put in the kind of effort that fits your own work style? Are you excited about working with new collaborators there?
  • Synergy: Are your skills and experience likely to be valued by the organization?
  • Your goals: What are you looking to accomplish through your involvement? Is the organization likely to be receptive to your ideas and goals, or do you risk being too much of a disrupter (unintentionally doing more harm than good)?
  • Experience: Do you have experience with the organization already, or with its general mission and activities?
  • Shared leadership (or subordination): You likely won’t be the top leader. Is that OK, or should you find a project or opportunity where you can be in charge or fairly autonomous?
  • Collaboration: Will you be able to work with the full-time team that is currently in place? Will they be able to work with you?
  • Partnership: Do you want to partner with someone on this project or effort? Who would be the best candidate(s)?
  • Time: How much time are you willing to commit, realistically? Is this enough to have real impact? Will the organization expect you to contribute more time than you wish to?
  • Metrics: Does the organization have clear measures for its performance/success? How will you know if you are succeeding on important dimensions?
  • Money: Are you willing to put financial resources into this effort? How much? Is it important to be paid for your work?
  • Excitement: Based on your answers to everything above, how excited and passionate do you feel about this opportunity?

While personal continuity planning involves far more than simply answering these questions, hopefully these provide a springboard for important thinking and conversations that can help you approach this process with greater intention.

Know thyself

Of course, playing golf, traveling, visiting with friends, spending time with grandchildren and curling up with a good book are wonderful ways to spend one’s time and, for some retirees, may provide adequate fulfillment.
The rule of thumb is: Know thyself. Find pursuits that fit your personality, interests and goals. Some people are highly motivated by being in the middle of the action or tackling challenges where they can keep score. For those people, golf scores alone may not be sufficiently motivating.

Do not simply fall into retirement. Approach planning for your personal continuity with the same strategic focus you apply to your business. Be clear about your vision and purpose so you can build a plan that will lead
you to joy and fulfillment. FB

Stephanie Brun de Pontet is a senior consultant of The Family Business Consulting Groupspecializing in advising family enterprises facing important transitions. Her new book, Transitioning from the Top (Palgrave), provides tools and success stories to help family business leaders plan for retirement.

July/August 2018


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