Are You A (Former) Boss Who Just Won’t Go Away?

For many people, “retirement” conjures up images of long-postponed travel, catching up on home repair projects, or more time with the grandchildren. But for others, retirement is an uncomfortable prospect, especially for people who simply don’t want to let go.

In many cases, the reluctance to move on has nothing to do with finances. Some folks just can’t imagine life without the job. Maybe their self-identify is too closely linked to title and position. Maybe they just can’t fathom doing something “new.”

In most business situations, rank-and-file employees have no choice. When it’s time to retire they are politely asked to surrender their keys to the office, turn in their security badges, give up their access to company computer systems, and ride off into the sunset.

But with senior executives, especially at the C-level, reluctant retirees sometimes continue to hang around the office.

I once served as an executive coach for a global high tech firm. On my first visit to the corporate headquarters I noticed a man in a nice wood-paneled office sitting at his desk reading a newspaper. I asked someone who he was, and was informed that the newspaper reader was the former CEO. He had no specific duties or responsibilities. He attended no meetings and interacted very little with anyone. But he came to the office every day and read the newspaper. Oh, yes. He was on “retainer” for about $500,000 a year.

I told my client I had a deal to offer. I would come to the office to read the newspaper every day for half that amount. My offer was politely rejected.

In this case, the presence of the retired CEO was rather benign, notwithstanding the high cost of his newspaper reading. In others cases I’ve observed, hangers-on make things miserable for their successors. They second-guess decisions. They interfere with policy-making and implementation. They constantly try to involve themselves in matters that should be handled by someone else.

They. Won’t. Let. Go. They remind me of a recent Wall Street Journal cartoon showing a man hunched over a desk. The cartoon caption read: “He retired as an executive, returned as a consultant, and now he’s a brooding presence.”

For the won’t-let-go crowd, I offer these suggestions:

Be honestly empathic. Seriously, when you had a big responsibility, how would you have felt if your predecessor had looked over your shoulder either literally or figuratively? How could you have operated if the guy who had the job before you continued to hang around as “a brooding presence”?

I know a man who retired after leading his company to a headline-grabbing turnaround. He was beloved by his employees and admired by thankful stakeholders. But the day he retired he vowed never again to set foot in the corporate headquarters. He declined an invitation to serve on the board. He was done. Finished. Gone. Why? Because he had seen the damage that can be done by a reluctant retiree. He was determined to give his successor the chance to be his own man. Bravo for him.

Bite your tongue. Through your lenses of experience, you may see things that others don’t. Resist the temptation to interfere. Don’t second-guess. Don’t drop hints about how you might have done things differently. Find other ways to feed your self-esteem.

Search for new venues. You shouldn’t have to look far for non-profit organizations that would salivate to have the benefit of your expertise. Your church or synagogue can no doubt use your skills in some way. Have you ever complained about any social issues? Find an organization that focuses on the issues closest to your heart and see how you can help with a cause that hits your hot button.

Reinvent yourself. Some of the happiest people I know are those who have discovered—or developed—talents they didn’t realize they had. My friend Tom Pullium spent a career working for a meat processing company. Then he had a second career as a sought-after voice-over talent, doing radio and television commercials for dozens of well-known products. Finally, for a third act, he turned his love for words into a bestselling book on crossword puzzles. Tom was never bored.

Discover or develop new passions. For example, some of the most fulfilled “seniors” I know are completely immersed in family history. With the help of websites like Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org, they’ve joined millions of other people who are finding enormous satisfaction in exploring their family roots.

General Douglas McArthur famously declared that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” But with so many options available in today’s activity-rich world, nobody needs to fade away.

If you’re a “retired” executive, make the rest of your life the best of your life. And stay out of the business of the man or woman who took over your old job. You just may discover that when you stop living at work you can start working at living.

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

The following two tabs change content below.

Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
This entry was posted in Blog, The Duncan Report and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.