I had a thought provoking – and sad – conversation with an HR director of a professional firm recently. We are doing a workshop for partners to help them think about their future – unretirement, if you like. Like many firms they are starting to help partners some years ahead, not just in the last year as they are about to leave.
What is the rationale? She said, “My goal is to help partners achieve an elegant exit. When I have used this phrase before, partners think I am talking about achieving a good compromise agreement and payout. That couldn’t be further from what we are aiming for.
“I want to help partners visualise what their future could be when they leave here and have a plan to work towards, in a really positive way. Too many partners stay on too long – not because they love the work or necessarily even need the money. But purely because they can’t work out what else they might do.”
There is a lot to think about in this. I admit the bit about the compromise agreement was a surprise, but the rest was not.
When we did our conference 18 months ago – which was the model from which we developed our corporate workshops for executives – one FTSE director emailed us afterwards saying, “Genuinely moved me to action to change that which is not making me happy. It’s a big step to understand that I don’t want to do nothing, but I equally don’t want to keep doing what I am doing! There is a next step which does not have to be retirement. Few big personal decisions to make over the next couple of months but thank you for facilitating an enlightening day.”
And a director of a FTSE bank emailed saying, “It’s the first time I have walked into a room in recent times when I didn’t feel I was being written off. Instead you just said, right here are a whole bunch of opportunities. Go out and make the most of them. It was really energising and got us all smiling and thinking!”
As we have focused on this market, a few themes are emerging
- Very few senior people – actually, most people? – ever talk publicly about the rubbish time they have once they retire. It is natural to put on a brave face and say everything is marvellous. I have helped numerous senior people who emailed me after on the lines of ‘thank you for the therapy session. It’s the first time I have ever talked about all this to anyone’. There is a conspiracy of silence – and it is not surprising that most HR directors are not really aware of the impact of retirement
- One enlightened HR director in the public sector had prepared for their own next steps. They were slightly irritated when colleagues kept saying, ‘lucky you, you can lie in, travel, no commute’ when they had a really busy future planned. They had found trustee roles, were supporting a business, had a full on (voluntary) role with an HR organisation. But the reality was worse than even they had imagined, ‘truly awful’ was the phrase. Despite the activity, this life lacked purpose
- A lot of the people we have met and worked with have been given considerable amounts worth of support from outplacement companies. I regularly hear of sums from £10k to £40k per individual. I have yet to hear a single good comment about any of this. I have realised that when HR teams appoint outplacement agencies, they are delivering what they hope is really good support to the individual as they leave. But it doesn’t get evaluated – why would it? That person has left the company, you have done your bit. So no-one queries if this support is meeting the need – and it isn’t
- The Equality Act 2010 was brilliant in terms of making age discrimination illegal for the first time. However, it has brought its own problems, particularly around a clear ‘retirement age’. Professor Paul Ewart successfully won his case against Oxford University earlier this year – they had made him retire at 70. It seems that there is now a lot of dancing around the sensitive subject of ‘when are you going to retire?’ (I wrote about some of the issues in this blog about when partners of professional firms should retire)
- Once people put up their hand to say they are thinking of retiring in the next year or five years, this brings another set of challenges! Again, we hear of colleagues and clients writing off the future retiree; or worse, that some senior people become ‘dead wood’ in the last few years. They tend not to keep learning and innovating and glide towards retirement
- This last theme is the biggest surprise. I hear time and again from so many different quarters, senior people don’t know how much money they will need to retire comfortably and have never really sat down with either their financial adviser or partner/family to work out what they will have and what they want/need. It’s easy to think that anyone earning a lot of money will have their finances sorted. It is a wrong assumption! And that means too many ‘hang on’ and put off thinking about their future
So what does an elegant exit look like? Here are our thoughts – and we would love to hear what others think. I refer here particularly to senior people in organisations because we have so much experience here. However, the more we work in this space, the more we see these issues apply to all employees
- Partners and directors should understand their financial situations – at least ten years before they might reach ‘retirement age’
- Similarly, senior people need help to see the vast range of opportunities as to what they can do later on. Our workshops do this through bringing in alumni, others who have ‘retired’ and doing interesting things (yes, a few with non-exec portfolios but also starting a business, blogging, being creative and earning money and more) as well as lots of video clips from our peer stories. Most excitingly we bring in young social and tech entrepreneurs for them to mentor and build relationships with – this video shows just what both parties get from the exercise
- What we are doing with these events is to re-energise people and give them new skills – in networking, personal branding and using LinkedIn strategically, all of which will help them in their current jobs as well as build skills for when they are on their own. Typically, our events introduce directors to around 15 to 20 new people outside of their existing networks, particularly the tech entrepreneurs. Simon Hill, ceo of Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation, talks about sitting on the board of an entrepreneurial business that they bought. He says, “The new business is young, dynamic, entrepreneurial, at times chaotic, focussed, unpredictable – all the things we’re not. As a result, I’ve more often found myself thinking ‘why don’t we do it like that?’ than suggesting ways of working to the new team.” Getting involved with these dynamic entrepreneurs helps bring new ideas into the existing business
- The thing we focus on most of all to ensure an ‘elegant exit’ is to get people starting a lot of conversations and exploring what market needs are out there that individuals could help with. We suggest an initial target of 20 to 50 conversations – see more here about this. And above all listen to people’s issues and problems and start thinking whether they care about them and what they might do to help – this could be as a NED or trustee but also rolling up sleeves and helping with projects, starting their own charity or business, becoming a coach, mentoring or guest lecturing and more
- From the HR director’s perspective, we are seeing a growing number think about finding new roles for senior people in their last few years which are more outward-facing and could give contacts and a new focus to help the individual and the company. This is really imaginative and is a win:win for everyone
As the HR director said above, the key is to help people visualise a new future, have a plan and work towards it and focus on the beginning of something new and exciting – rather than hanging on or becoming bitter about leaving their comfort blanket of the last 30 years.
None of this is easy and we don’t pretend to have a magic wand. The hardest part of this is for senior people to find the time to think about themselves when they are in 24/7 careers. But, as a number of directors said at one event, this is a time for people to be a bit selfish and focus on themselves. Actually, by doing that they should bring new energy, ideas and contacts to benefit their company as well.