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Your top questions on retirement – that you dare not ask?

29 June 2021 By Victoria Tomlinson

We are working with a number of professional firms, helping partners plan for their retirement. Some can be as far as ten years off, most just one or two years away.

The session that everyone loves the best is the panel session, when a group of partners and directors share honestly their experience of unretirement – the challenges, the opportunities and the highs and lows. The audience is always grateful for such honesty – often the panel are sharing insights that they have not articulated to anyone else, even life partners.

So here I thought I would share some of the more personal questions that partner delegates typically ask, along with a summary of the answers from a number of panels. Of course, everyone is individual, but I have picked up on a few themes.

  1. How did you deal mentally with the expected drop in earnings? Did the drop in earnings bother your family?

Money is clearly a big deal and it is amazing how many people put off thinking or really planning in detail for this next stage. I was with a group of very senior lawyers coming up to retirement and a number had not even made a will! We are all human and there can be a block about planning ahead.

What most of our panellists say, though, is that it is extraordinary how you don’t need as much money once you are retired. One partner said, “When I was travelling all the time, it felt like I employed half our village to do things because I wasn’t around – gardening, cleaning, jobs around the house. I enjoy doing these things now I have time.” People also comment that you don’t need so many expensive work clothes, commuting, flash cars (I am adding that last one in – I haven’t heard it specifically mentioned but various comments suggest this!)

Talking to family about money is a really big issue and you hear mixed stories. Some admitted they thought of ‘retirement’ as being all about them and hardly talked to family about the future, implications for everyone and agreeing what would change. And later wished they had.

Others sat down and talked, not just about money, but joint dreams and wishes for the future – and money was a part of this. It can worry life partners.

Listen to Rob Toguri, former EY partner, who talks about the financial challenges in his podcast interview with us .

  1. Do you miss the adrenalin and sense of achievement that you get from work?

I know a big 4 firm that asked partners what they have missed since leaving the firm. There were three key things: working with bright, young people; structure to their lives (everything from getting up in the morning to emails and phones); and the chase. Competing for and winning business; sealing a deal; the big highs.

So yes, many do miss the adrenalin and sense of achievement. However, our panellists said they are getting the adrenalin kick (as much as they want) from the roles they are involved with. One referenced sitting on a board and having to pivot the business overnight with Covid; another is mentoring a start-up and they were as much on tenterhooks about raising finance, as the entrepreneur was. So you can replace the buzz.

A lot also comment that the need for excitement is often fuelled by wanting to outcompete your peers, as well as a fear – fear of failure especially.  Once you remove yourself from that environment and re-evaluate what’s important, adrenaline-fuelled moments seem much less important.  

  1. The panel’s stories were all about changing course – doing something completely new. Did you ever consider continuing your professional life but in a different setting, say in private practice or with a competitor?

I should say that we choose people for our panels who have left full time corporate life – so there are people who move to competitors rather than retire, but we wouldn’t pick them up until they have left. Some do go to the new law firms emerging where they can just practice law and focus on clients, without any management activities.

See this interview with Rob Eldridge who joined Keystone Law.

The majority of people see this as a time to get a better work/life balance and do something new, not connected with their old life. A lot say, “been there, done that”. However, a lot also look for NED roles on a board – and some question, isn’t this still creating a stressful life where you are almost 24/7 again?

We always ask the delegates to give feedback, having heard a number of stories. One professional recently said, “All the panellists are talking about how happy they are now. I never thought that ‘happiness’ should be a goal for me in this next stage.” A really great observation.

  1. What proportion of time do you now spend on ‘work’ as opposed to ‘leisure’ or family? Have you got the balance right?

I think all the panellists say that what they are doing now doesn’t feel like ‘work’. They are doing things that mean they are learning, out of their comfort zone, making a difference. It is really rewarding and they are generally loving life.

And everyone I know talks about making time for important things, that they could never do before – lunch with friends, looking after grandchildren once a week, visiting elderly parents regularly, going to exercise classes, walking the Cotswold Way with friends and more. They feel they are getting a really great balance to their lives.

  1. How much of a time gap was there between making the decision to retire and implementing it? How did you prepare in this time?

This question has widely varying answers. We started Next-Up because we saw so many people wanting help, having left their companies or firms, with absolutely no idea what they were going to do next. Many – if not most – had expected opportunities to come their way.

Once people decide to leave, typically they seem to concentrate on practical issues – extricating from a professional firm or a corporate where you have a stake involves discussions around tax, handovers, succession plans and the rest. From the stories I have heard the time gap is usually around six months to two years.

The most organized – and the most successful – are those who start having a lot of conversations outside their firms, networking with new people, and listening to what the market needs and positioning themselves within this. These usually start around a year before they leave.

While lots of people say they wish they had started planning earlier – and it is what we recommend – others say they needed to leave work first and chill out before they could figure what they really wanted.  

So those are the insights from our panellists.

But times are changing. Our panellists always say how lucky the delegates are to be on a workshop that is helping them to think and plan ahead. They wish they had had something to help them.

Companies and firms are waking up to the fact that few people want to ‘retire’ in the old slippers and pipe way – or in the portfolio of non-exec roles for a few years (though a few still want this). There is a recognition that partners and directors have given years of their life to their work – helping them to have an ‘elegant exit’ is a win:win for everyone.

We would love to hear your own thoughts and experiences – these are interesting times with big changes going on.

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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