What to Expect When Retiring from a Senior Executive Position

Mar 11, 2022

At Everything Retirement, we’ve never tried to minimize the upheaval many retirees – particularly those who’ve held down high-powered jobs and positions – feel as they prepare to quit the playing field for good.

The exception to this inescapable fact of corporate life can be seen in individuals whose sense of self-worth is not built into, and dependent upon, the jobs that they do and the prominence those jobs confer upon them.

They exist. But they’re thin on the ground.

Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance

All these five words describe the stages of emotion which occur when a C-suite exec retires. A new book called Changing Gear, co-authored by a head-hunter and a psychologist, compares the process of stepping down to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Dramatic? Perhaps. But also accurate? Likely.

In a discussion of the principal findings of the book, The Economist’s Bartleby reminds us that:

…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 realization that they are both replaceable and mortal.

The Harvard Business Review published a penetrating analysis dealing with the nastier aspects of letting go. The piece even went so far as to suggest that “how you handle yourself during your final months and weeks in power will have a big impact on how you are remembered” – perhaps as much as or even more than the work you accomplished during an entire career.

The Lasting Impact of Peak Moments

The article cited the work of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-American psychologist and behavioural economist, who suggests those final weeks and months have a determinative and lasting impact. It’s about peak moments.

Professor Kahneman, as a result of a series of experiments, proved that “people’s memories of experiences are shaped by peak moments, whether good or bad, and by how those experiences ended.”

The Peak-End-Rule

He labelled this the “peak-end rule” – which holds a lesson for office leavers – whether they are being forced out or have chosen to move on:

  • It will be too late as you exit to change the peaks of your tenure
  • All the more reason to create a favourable impression as you do so

You can be seen – to oversimplify somewhat – as a narcissist or a selfless steward. And your soon-to-be former colleagues will be especially watchful about how you interact with your successor.

“They will judge whether your congratulations are authentic. They will scrutinize your body language, noting how close you stand, how sincerely you smile, and whether you appear interested, bored, or disdainful when your successor is speaking. In the special case of a CEO who is retiring to the Chairmanship, they will also note whether you show deference to and respect for the new boss or treat him or her as the same old underling – by interrupting, for example, or lecturing, or insisting on having the last word.”

Step Down Gracefully

The Harvard Business Review referenced the exit strategy of David Kelley, a founder of IDEO, a design and consulting firm with offices in the U.S., England, Germany, Japan, and China. It was founded in Palo Alto, California, in 1991. The company uses the design thinking approach to design products, services, environments, and digital experiences.

The author of the Harvard Business Review analysis observed the handing-over of power between David Kelley and his successor, Tim Brown. Mr. Kelley spent most of the three days standing at the back of the room, listening carefully but only rarely making comments – a clear acknowledgement that this was his successor’s show now, not his.

Mr. Kelley’s job description had changed.

He said as much to the author of the Harvard Business Review analysis. It was Mr. Brown’s show now, and his job was to get out of the way.

It’s an excellent example of the peak-end rule and we can all learn from it no matter what our position is in work or life.

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