CEOs Should Never Stop Working

Dec. 21, 2004
It's a terrible waste of talent.

Let me tell you about retirement. Retirement is a time when chief executives feel as unloved, unwanted, and unnoticed as plain celery at a Thanksgiving Day dinner. Retirement is when your take-home pay is replaced by take-care pay. Your blood pressure soars, and your bank account shrinks. You enter the snapdragon period of life: Your snap is gone, and the rest of you is draggin'. The retirement dinner is your last chance to be fawned over by friends. And fed up with your foes. It's a time when employees assemble to feel sorry for you. Like a wake with a live corpse. Instead of prayers, people make speeches. The human resources vice president says: "John Jones gave us 40 years of faithful service, and he will always be remembered by all of us." And the new CEO asks, "Who's John Jones?" Your company gives you a gold watch and takes away your perks. When you started 40 years ago, you earned $5 a week. You lived in a one-room flat. You ate gourmet meals such as Velveeta, sardines, bean soup, and onion sandwiches. Over time, you grew to become the "big cheese" and developed a taste for caviar and fine wines. But, now they take away your "From the Desk of. . . " memo pads, your key to the executive washroom, your special parking spot, and your embossed calling cards. They change the locks on the office doors, take away your company car, your credit cards, and your expense account. You are now the chief ex-executive. Now you will reside in Happiness Heaven. Your golden years will be made up exclusively of Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. You now have time to travel to all those exotic places you never had time to before. With one difference. Now it's at your own expense. Retirement is recommended as the time to perfect your golf game. Wrong! Your pars will turn to bogies. Your putts will rarely find the holes. You can afford a Big Bertha driver and new Callaway irons. But you can't use them. Your mind may be willing, but your body isn't. Your skills have deteriorated to the point of embarrassment and a painful reminder of your age, your ineptitude and your uselessness. However, the skills that made you a chief executive don't wear out, they rust out, unless you use them. People who are happy in retirement are almost always those who were unhappy at work. Most chief executives are happy in their work and, therefore, will probably be miserable in retirement. How we feel about our work often defines our lives, our personalities, and our achievements. Work has a deep and lasting effect on our sense of self. Having tasted the fruits of work-related success, it is difficult to trade them for a lifetime of shanks and three-putt greens playing golden-ager golf. Working helped us earn a living. It also helped us earn respect. And that is why feeling useful is important to retired folk. Playing gin rummy with your country club buddies for the rest of your life is a frightening experience. It's particularly demeaning for energetic and talented CEOs. Back in July/August of 1959, I read an article in The Harvard Business Review. Chief executives were asked: "Would you continue working if you became wealthy enough to afford not working?" A solid 80% said they would. That may be a surprise to you, but it's not to me. Doing things without purpose kills some people. Playing games bores others to death. When chief executives say they prefer not to retire, they are labeled workaholics. Psychologist Max Weber asks: "Do we live to work or work to live?" I believe we need to work to live longer. Humans are the only creatures who know they will eventually die. But humans are also able to do things to prolong their lives. Working is one of those things all humans should continue to do as long as they can. Charles James Apperley stated it best when he wrote, "The heart is like a creeping plant, which withers unless it has something around which it can entwine." Retirement should not be an endless stretches of Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Retirement is a second chance to put your skills to work. To continue to be productive. You can start a new business. You can buy an old business. You can help someone else start a new business. You can consult. You can advise. Or you can become a volunteer in the charitable institutions you support. Or you can teach. Write books. Or write columns. Retirement should never be allowed to become a temporary lot in which you park yourself and wait to expire. Don't let yourself regress from "Why not?" to "Why bother?" Optimists look forward to retirement. Pessimists are optimists who retired. If your desire to work is cold, you're old. If you no longer look ahead, you're already dead. A company can retire you. But it can't make you stop working. Only you can do that.

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