Life after leadership

By Ed Cohen | Winter 2012

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Retiring CEOs Find Their Post-Work-Life Plans Often Leave Out a Critical Element- a Reason to Go On

Sam Duncan knew something was wrong.

Six months after retiring as CEO of OfficeMax—on his own timetable and terms—the previously tireless and optimistic executive felt neither. All he wanted to do was be by himself in his Portland, Ore., home. The TV room became a refuge. He felt negative about everything. He had always loved waking up early and going for a run. Now he had to force himself to get out of bed.

He was 59 years old, financially independent, and worried. Why wasn’t he happy?

It couldn’t be his surroundings, he was certain. The whole reason he’d retired was to come home to Portland and be with his wife and near their three daughters and four grandsons.

He’d been away from Portland for eight years, the first three as president and CEO of ShopKo, a Midwest discount-store chain based in Green Bay, Wis. Then came five grueling years rescuing Chicago-based OfficeMax from probable bankruptcy. His successful turnaround strategy included putting more than 1,300 of the company’s top employees through a customized Notre Dame Executive Education program on Economic Value Added or EVA, an approach to measuring the true profit of a business. He helped design the course.

When he retired from OfficeMax in November 2010, Duncan says his plan was to do “absolutely nothing” for six months and just figure out if he wanted to do anything else. But after six months, all he wanted to figure out was what was wrong with him.

He went to see the family doctor. She ordered blood tests. They all came back fine. She then told him that one way to treat his symptoms was with antidepressants. This took him by surprise. But he started taking the medication and eventually began to feel like his old self, he says.

“What I didn’t want to admit—or, actually, I didn’t think a thing about—was being depressed after leaving a company. But that’s what had happened to me,” the retired CEO says. “Even though I was totally happy about the decision I made, and I would do it exactly the same way … it happened to me, and it probably happens to a lot of guys who retire, I don’t know.”

It does.

Research by gerontologist Robert C. Atchley shows that nearly a third of people experience emotional doldrums in retirement, even when the transition is voluntary.

Now, no one is going to grieve for the stereotypical ex-CEO who can’t find contentment between a ski chalet in Aspen and a villa on Antigua. Especially in this economy, when many people don’t enjoy the luxury of choosing the circumstances of their departure from the working world.

But one thing is clear from conversations with Mendoza’s executive coaches and senior executives who are facing retirement or already retired: Adjusting to life after the high-pressure, high-power role of CEO is harder than it looks. Harder than many CEOs anticipate. And wealth is no helium to float you over the emotional stumbling blocks.

“Maybe it’s because you go from 100 miles an hour to zero, there’s no gradual downshifting,” speculates Duncan. But he had plenty of time to gear down, nearly 11 months from when he officially notified the company’s board of his decision to go home to Portland until he actually went.

No, Duncan’s biggest mistake, say psychologists and executive coaches, was in not having a plan for what his life would be about after it ceased being mostly about running a $7 billion company.

It’s not enough to retire from something, the experts say. You have to retire to something, or you risk being left without a reason to live longer.

Jim Anderson is an executive coach with Mendoza’s weeklong Executive Integral Leadership programs, which help senior executives develop a greater understanding of their values and gain a sense of purpose. He says most people regard retirement as some future utopia that will be much better than whatever they’re doing now. The only entrance requirement is to work hard and save money.

He laughs when reminded of ads for investment companies in which people eagerly follow a green line to retirement or carry around numbers reminding them how much money they need to save to get to the promised land. Anderson says the message is, “If I hit my number, everything else will be just peachy.”

But if that were the case, retired CEOs would all be happy all of the time.

They aren’t, because it turns out there really is more to life than money. For most people, Anderson says, work serves an essential role beyond paying the bills. It’s the outlet for one’s creativity. Lose that and you’re likely to feel unfulfilled, he says. Give it away expecting life to be better, and you’re certain to be depressed.

For that reason, he says, any retirement plan needs to include a replacement outlet for your creativity. That could mean taking up painting. Or it could be something more along the lines of “paying it forward” by setting up a foundation to fund a cause or individuals you believe in.

It could mean helping your former organization in a different role. Mel Dowdy, a fellow faculty member in Notre Dame’s Executive Education programs, says one of the first CEOs he ever coached headed a large hospital. In retirement, the boss joined the ranks of the hospital’s volunteers, humbly wheeling patients between rooms and handing out newspapers.

Bill Stavropoulos served as CEO of The Dow Chemical Company twice before retiring for good as chairman in 2006. In retirement, he says, his priorities were to stay healthy, spend time with family, remain involved in business, and give back to the community.

On the business side, his activities have included joining the private-equity investment firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, where he uses his experience to evaluate investment opportunities. That led to his being named chairman of Univar USA, a chemical distributor.

To give back to the community of Dow Chemical’s hometown of Midland, Mich., he helped organize the nonprofit Michigan Baseball Foundation, which in 2007 built a stadium and relocated the minor-league Great Lakes Loons to town. The foundation provided not only family friendly entertainment and support for downtown redevelopment, it also recycled profits back into the community to the tune of more than a million dollars.

There’s more to a successful transition from CEO to retirement than filling one’s calendar, however, executives and psychologists say.

Anderson says some retired executives quickly try to get on as many boards of directors as possible, to get back that feeling of being in the game. But their former sense of purpose eludes them. The problem is they haven’t been able to separate themselves from their former identity. They aren’t what they were. They don’t know what they are.

Notre Dame alum Pat Finneran (’67) has been down that road.

After a 20-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, he went to work in the aviation industry, eventually rising to president of Boeing’s support systems division. During his four years at the helm, the division’s revenues more than doubled to $7 billion. At 63, however, he was facing mandatory retirement in two years because of a company policy that applies to vice presidents and above. Assigned to a new role for the duration of his tenure, he decided to become a consultant instead. That led to a job as CEO of a privately owned aviation-services company—a position he resigned after just two years.

Finneran says he didn’t do enough due diligence or understand the cultural differences between public and small private companies. What was supposed to be a 10-day a month consulting gig turned into what the former Marine calls “an 80-hour-a-week nightmare.” He says he did consult “at least a dozen” people from similar positions before accepting the job leading the private company. They all warned about the difficulty of making the transition from a public-company culture to a privately held company.

His ego would hear none of it.

“It was all driven by this need to have a leadership role. My identity was way too closely linked to my position and title. Subconsciously, for me to feel good about myself, I had to take this position,” Finneran says. “And, boy, I’ll tell you what, the last six months, I have gone through a lot of soul-searching about false images of yourself versus your authentic self, and understanding that you’re not your job, you’re who you are. You’re not your resume, that’s just a list of achievements.”

Finneran now teaches part time in the Notre Dame Executive Education programs and has Jim Anderson for a life coach. He’s also begun seeing a psychologist. That was a tough step for a former Marine to take, he says, but it opened his eyes to why he made the decision to leave Boeing as well as other unhealthy choices in his personal life, while hardly ever erring when it came to business decisions. He now focuses on sharing the benefit of his experience on several for-profit and not-for-profit boards, teaching and mentoring several rising executives. He says he is a much happier person and delighted with the opportunity to help others.

Some CEOs are well aware of the potential emotional pitfalls that await them in retirement and go to great lengths to avoid them.

From 2003 to 2010, Norwegian Ingar Skaug headed the global maritime shipping concern Wilh. Wilhelmsen. Based in Lysaker, Norway, the company has more than 450 offices in 75 countries and specializes in shipping cars and other heavy equipment.

Skaug joined the firm in 1990 as president and CEO of one of the company’s divisions after that division’s entire leadership team perished in a plane crash on the way to a ship-building ceremony. So he knows something about emotional issues and work.

As he looked ahead to retirement, he says, he dreaded repeating the experience of his father, who was purchasing manager for Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS). Skaug says that after retiring at age 67, his father fell into a depression.

“He hadn’t prepared himself at all. He hadn’t thought about, ‘What the heck am I going to do when I retire?’ He was just sitting there. He didn’t have anything to do, and that was not good,” says Ingar Skaug.

Adding to the younger Skaug’s worries, he had a friend who headed a Norwegian fertilizer company who experienced problems after retiring and dropped out of society for a long time.

To keep that from happening to him, in 2008—two years before his planned retirement—Skaug began meeting with a Swedish organizational psychologist, Maximilian Tropé, who had worked with Skaug’s company. He specialized in helping teams of employees cope with change.

In sessions that often included hypnosis, Tropé says he helped Skaug visualize what his life would be like in the future as a retiree. He probed Skaug’s conscious and subconscious. What was it about his present life as a CEO that had so much meaning for him? What parts were draining him of energy and felt more like a burden? What scared him most about losing his identity as CEO?

The insights helped map out a new life routine for the 64-year-old Skaug that includes serving on several corporate and other organizational boards, such as the Board of Governors of the Center for Creative Leadership, considered the world’s largest institution devoted exclusively to leadership research and education. He also lectures and mentors, and allocates time to exercise and be with his children and grandchildren. To stay in touch with business interests, he keeps an office in the city.

Tropé says many of these activities allow Skaug to continue to use his intellect to help find new ways of doing things without the responsibility of having to execute plans, as a CEO would.

“I enjoy my new existence tremendously well,” says the retiree.

Notre Dame alum Paul Charron (’64) is the unusual retiree in that he stepped down as CEO of a large company only to become chairman of the board of a larger one.

After 11 years of success leading the fashion apparel company Liz Claiborne—including 40 consecutive quarters of earnings gains—Charron retired in 2006 at age 64. In 2009, he became non-executive chairman of the Campbell Soup Company board, which he had joined as an outside director in 2003.

“It’s been a fascinating job. I will probably do it till I reach the mandatory retirement at 72,” says Charron, who turned 69 last August. He also serves on the U.S. State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy.

Charron says he stepped down as CEO at Liz Claiborne because he wanted to do other things while he was still young and healthy enough to make a contribution. But he didn’t have any definite plans. The one-year non-compete clause in his contract gave him time to explore his options.

He kept an office in New York City (he lives in Connecticut) to stay connected to the industry. Eventually he settled on an offer to serve as a senior advisor with the private equity firm Warburg Pincus.

Charron says he found his former CEO role “incredibly fulfilling and gratifying,” but he was happy to escape the intensity of the job (“my 2 o’clock headaches I would get at 9 in the morning.”) He didn’t need the ego boost of further adulation over his performance, he says. “If I wanted to be a CEO, I would have stayed at Liz.”

“I like it here,” he says of his work two days a week at Warburg. “The people are low key, and the deal was that unless there were some kind of disaster, I didn’t have to run a company.”

It’s understandable why executives such as Boys & Girls Clubs of America President and CEO Roxanne Spillett face separation anxiety when it comes to retirement.

The celebrated CEO, who teaches part time in Notre Dame’s Master of Nonprofit Administration degree program, planned to step down as leader of the Atlanta-based nonprofit at the end of 2011. At that point, she would have been with the organization 35 years, the past 16 as CEO.

Under her leadership, the number of clubs grew from 1,800 to 4,000 and revenues more than tripled to $1.5 billion. Boys & Girls Clubs now serve some 4 million children in the United States and, thanks to a partnership she forged, on 356 U.S. military bases in Europe and Asia.

“It’s been my life,” she says, “not only my life, but my family. … The mission of this organization is like a religion to me. It’s real, it’s tangible. It’s what motivates me.”

For that reason, she says, her biggest challenge is going to be separating from the organization, not from the role of CEO. But her retirement plans might raise concerns among executive coaches like Jim Anderson.

Although she informed her board of directors of her timetable for stepping down six years ago, now, with less than six months to go, the only definite commitments she has made are to work alongside the new CEO for the first three months of 2012 and serve on one organization’s board.

“I’m kind of window shopping,” Spillett, 62, said last summer. “I am definitely not going to retire, I’m just not made of that stuff. I can’t do nothing.”

As many executive coaches or retired CEOs would tell her, it would be a bad idea to try.