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The challenge of making partners/directors retired or redundant

14 May 2020 By Victoria Tomlinson

COVID-19 has been the biggest challenge of our working lives. But its impact is only just starting. Firms and corporates are already looking at what next for our business. And inevitably many will be weighing up loyalty to their peers against the need to rethink business models and open up opportunities for younger generations.   

And that may mean approaching partners and directors for discussions around early retirement or redundancy. This must be top of anyone’s list of awful things to do. 

But what if you could help people see a new future that they want?  So this wasn’t a terrible conversation but about opening up new opportunities.   

What if you could transform how people look at ‘retirement’ and what comes after it?    

We have now been working with the partners of international professional firms – before our workshop, typically two thirds are ‘apprehensive and uncertain’ about their future. By the end of the two-day programme, this completely flips – and two thirds are excited about opportunities ahead. 

As one partner said, “I now realise the future doesn’t have to be a random process.  I can start planning now and make it happen.”   

A director of a FTSE corporate emailed us after one of our events and said she had been all over the place about her future. She had had enough of corporate life but wasn’t ready to spend her life travelling and lunching. What else would she do?  But having listened to our speakers she suddenly realised there was a whole world out there and full of opportunities to use her skills in new ways.  She was buzzing.  It was as if we had unlocked an Aladdin’s Cave for her. 

Another director, this one in banking and also at the same event, spoke to me after and said, “It was the first time in a long while that I walked into a room where people didn’t look at me as a ‘has been’. You just presented one idea or opportunity after the other to us.  I had been in quite a low place and this made me completely rethink what I could do.” 

So what are the issues and how can you help your directors and partners to be optimistic about life after full time work?  (I am avoiding the word retirement here, because the R word is so negative to most senior people these days) 

  • It is now very normal to live to 100 years old. People could be retired for longer than they worked. This is an extremely daunting thought if you have no idea what you can do 
  • What I have realised is that if you have worked in one organisation or sector for 30 years, you may be fantastically networked, great with clients, brilliant with your team – but have absolutely no idea what the ‘real world’ looks like or what you could do in it (the phrase ‘real world’ is not mine, this generation uses it themselves time and again) 
  • As an example, we did an event with a charity talking about the skills and help that this generation of skilled people could help them with – everything from helping with strategies to rolling up sleeves and helping present their accounts in a new way. We had a former IT director at this event and someone who had sold a large marketing agency.  Both said at the end, something like, “When I think of helping a charity I always imagine this is about working in a charity shop or rattling a tin outside a supermarket”.  Neither had thought about their skills and who/how to use them in different ways 
  • Over the last decade or so, it has become an expected norm that if a senior person wants to do something other than golf when they leave, they will get one or more non-executive director roles.  In fact, many firms and corporates have geared up services to help people retiring to get these appointments. There are two problems with this. First, those roles are becoming ever harder to win – there is the whole diversity issue (not just gender) but the need for digital skills, have younger minds around the table and more. And an even bigger issue is that in the last year or so, there has been a massive swing from the individuals – they are no longer sure they even want these roles.  It just feels more of the same but higher risk.  Yet what else do you do?
  • I have found it astonishing that a generation of people who have been trailblazers, senior and widely recognised for their skills are the ones who limit themselves in their ambitions. A classic story is that of Julie Gray, who was head of executive education at Ashridge Business School.  She was introduced to me because I am networked and might know someone who needed help. We had a coffee (yes, those were the days!) and in conversation she mentioned she had had an idea for a business for some years. I said what’s stopping you doing this? She looked at me, almost appalled, “Well, I am 60 and all my friends are retiring”.  My response was, “So?”  Apparently I said to her I was nearly 60, then, and planned to work for another 25 years.  What this did was to switch on the competitive button in her mind again. Literally, that was all she needed.  Our coffee turned into lunch and by the end she had an outline plan to launch her business. And she has successfully been running Corporate Faculty for the last five years 

This list gives a quick overview of many of the issues. What can you do to help partners and directors? 

  • The first is to remind people of their skills and who would welcome them. As an example, we get this generation mentoring tech and social entrepreneurs – I spend time with the individuals beforehand to work out a challenge that I reckon anyone over 50 could help with. Typically those are people issues, but also articulating their business better, refining their target audience or developing their personal leadership skills.  Have a look at this video to hear how a group of professionals helped six entrepreneurs.  Everyone was buzzing from this! 
  • Give people ideas about what they can do next.  We do include non-executive directors in this, but we use real people doing interesting things to fire up imaginations – from turning hobbies into a business such as growing flowers for wholesale markets to setting up campaigns (see Iain Wilkie’s story helping people who stammer) to writing to mentoring to helping charities … And more 
  • Offer them the chance to learn new skills – especially in networking and using LinkedIn strategically.  Time and again people who have left say, “I networked in the wrong places to start – I had to work out where I would get business/roles and find a way to go to the right places” or “Marketing yourself as an individual, without the big name brand behind you, is really hard – and quite a shock. People quickly forget you. The quickest and easiest way to stay in touch, build the right connections and build a new brand is LinkedIn. But I wish I had started using it years ago – it takes time to master.” 
  • Help people understand that leaving corporate life will be hardharder than they can ever imagine. Let them meet alumni (you need to know the right ones and how to get people to open up honestly about this stage) and start planning ahead before they leave 
  • Think about the skills of people leaving and whether they could take on new roles to continue after they leave. Coaching younger teams; supporting more women into leadership roles; looking at sustainability targets; developing community relations.  Think of people retiring as an extended asset to your business 

    Get all this right and you could find a win:win process that everyone feels good about. A time to celebrate, not create gloom in your organisation.  

    Everyone is expecting numbers of people to return to work and say they don’t want to commute any more, they have reflected and want something different. This is a chance to do more than just having more Zoom meetings. It’s a chance to get organisations structured for the long term and give a generation of people coming up to retirement, new opportunities. 

Victoria Tomlinson

Written by Victoria Tomlinson

Victoria Tomlinson is chief executive and founder of Next-Up. Next-Up supports employers with a range of services for directors, partners and employees to help them understand the impact of retirement on mental health and create a plan to use their skills and experience in new ways to ensure wellbeing. A key part of our role is to inspire people with ideas and contacts, beyond traditional expectations. A former director of EY, she is an international speaker on unretirement, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically as well as on leadership and women on boards. She mentors chief executives and directors, start-up businesses and ex-offenders. Victoria is Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University and chaired an advisory board for University of Leeds.

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