What I want to be


‘It doesn’t matter what you were before, David, it’s what you want to be now.’ A friend of mine, not usually one for philosophical observations, stopped my thinking in its tracks with this one. We were on the well-thrashed out topic of retirement—I am entering year two of it—with me peddling my usual stories of feeling less relevant, of missing the action and influence I had at work. This cut-through one-liner is beginning to reframe all of that.

I have been talking and thinking about replacing something lost, rather than doing what did in my later working life, which was to re-invent my career now and again. As a CEO, when I began to lose the thrill of innovation and managing real change for the better, I just moved on, on average about every four years. There was a fairly predictable cycle that went something like this:

First 12 to 18 months—me given carte blanche to create something new or turn around a struggling organisation. Lots of conflict to manage, hard decisions to make, constant opportunities to be a leader, new political, cultural and technical realities to learn about every day. And, more often than not, pats on the back from people I respected, which was nicer than I liked to admit.

Second 12 to 18 months–a new team, some I’ve inherited, some I have head-hunted, begins to gel into a committed, productive bunch who, like me, are having fun doing worthwhile things. Budget problems are solved, old ways are re-tooled with input from the bottom up, new outputs are created that deliver more for the same money, conflicts that have been sapping energy and enjoyment are resolved. Systems, strategic plans, arrangements and partnerships that didn’t seem possible before are begin to emerge with much less friction.

Third 12-18 months—consolidation. We are now a ‘go-to’ organisation, with good people and new funding much easier to find. The few die-hard resistors from the old days are leaving, going quiet, or even having epiphanies and personal re-inventions. The budget is predictable. The new forward plan is well under way and referred to in virtually every meeting in every department. And I am starting to get restless. I know from experience that the next three years or so need to be about doing what we have decided to do well, with less focus on re-thinking the basics. Quality control. Standard procedures. Essential work I feel a deep urge to delegate. I know other people will be better suited to lead through this stage, and it is time to plan my next move.

It was often seen by colleagues as a risky change, preferably to a job referred to as potential career suicide, because I was drawn to the situation of ‘anything would be better than this’ rather than ‘this excellent outfit is ready to go to the next level’. Rightly or wrongly, I always felt, for me, there was actually more job satisfaction to be had with the almost-basket-case organisation. Occasionally things ended badly. I’ve been sacked once or twice when outside forces prevailed, but I always knew the direction had been more or less the right one. And usually, after about four years, the cycle would begin again. I’m lucky to be able to say now that I have no regrets about my professional life.

With all this experience of making a fresh start, what’s so different about retirement? Well, for one, it’s time to stop looking for the pats on the back. ‘High performing retiree’ is not a sensible objective. From now on it’s how I feel I am going about my daily affairs that matters. And the four-year cycle—how relevant is that to the next stage of my life? Assuming good health, I have at least ten, maybe twenty years to go, and it seems a novel idea to plan for several changes of direction in the golden years. But it does make sense—why expect to change the habits of a lifetime? So, to return to my philosophical friend, what do I want to be now?

Advice abounds. One friend said I must get four life domains working well: look after your family ties, maintain good health and fitness, do stuff just for you, and contribute to community welfare. OK, that’s something to hang on the wall, points for the mental whiteboard. Maybe that’s where I can go with my writing for a few days. One domain per jotting outing. I will try my hand with the first one, looking after family ties, in the next couple of days. I sense already the limits of self-disclosure and possible affront to others who might read this. It could end up being safe and bland–let’s see.

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