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The Last Waltz: Leadership Transition

by Richard McGourty on

We are regularly reminded that 10,000 baby-boomer Americans are turning 65 every day. Many people are retiring from full-time work. For some that means saying good-bye to a major life commitment and putting a final flourish on the signature of their career whatever it has been.  For others the end is not so well-defined. Most people know of individuals whose last day at work is marked by a celebration and fond words and others who last act is to quietly punch out. Some are offered a celebration but prefer the quiet exit. There are so many variations on this experience it is risky to generalize. But, there is one part of the experience that is nearly universal – certain questions, some practical and some more personal.

The practical questions are obvious enough, “What will I do now to remain useful?”,  ”What can I do to earn money to supplement whatever I can count upon in retirement?” and,  “What will constitute a balance in life – the right amount of leisure and the right amount of other activities?” Fair enough.

Those questions may or may not be easy to answer but they are not a surprise to most people.

There are other questions, deeper questions, questions that prompt reflection.

  • Have I made a contribution commensurate with my talents?
  • What about the dreams I had as a younger person?
  • Am I at peace with the career decisions I made along the way?
  • What regrets do I have and how am I to understand them in the context of my life?

Psychologists have written about this stage of life. Among the best known is Erik Erikson. He recognized that the end of life posed a challenge: each person must  come to terms with what his or her life path has been. Those who succeed in accepting their lives, even if there have been major regrets, achieve “integrity”. For these people the hard times can be seen as critical learning and losses seen as an inescapable part of life. These people tend to be content and can peacefully construct the next years or decades with a sense of being okay. In contrast are those who have a sense that their life has been disappointing. The frustration or blame may be directed toward others or it can be directed inward but whatever the direction of what Erickson called “despair”, it is a toxic brew that tends to create a life narrative that offers neither joy nor peace.

Three Recommendations:

Leaders in thoughtful organizations see the final years of a person’s work life as a rich opportunity.

  1. Look for Mentoring Opportunities: There is a powerful win-win dynamic available in arranging for senior employees to mentor younger employees or in some other way hand on their experience. A senior administrator at a National Laboratory carefully groomed his successor over three years.  When the hand-off came it was not just an effective and efficient transfer of responsibilities, it represented how his many years of work would be sustained and honored going forward.
  2. Look for Capstone Projects: Senior people often have a great interest in “capstone projects” that both add value and hold personal meaning for them as a way to go out on a high note. A Golden Apple award winning math teacher was given half his time in his last year of teaching to compile his techniques into a manual.
  3. Story telling: Provide opportunities for people to tell their story. There are many ways to do this ranging from an informal get together that invites reminiscing to written reflection. Utilities are well-known for the “war stories” that emerge from floods, blizzards and tornadoes. These stories do much more than related events, they communicate values. One utility invited veteran employees to address new employees during their orientation and tell the stories that defined the company. The veteran employees often were asked to do this in groups of three and afterward had lunch with a senior leader of the company.

Sometimes people tell their stories in writing. Recently, David Brooks, the NYTimes columnist, asked his readers, 70 or older, to write about their lives. He received remarkable letters. They are worth reading to get a feel for how people can unblinkingly look at their lives and find a sense of wholeness or integrity. For those who are approaching the end of their work lives this is valuable reading. For those who wish to learn about this stage of life to better understand their co-workers, these stories are enlightening and soulful. Do yourself a favor and read a few: http://brooks.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/life-report/?ref=opinion.  These “life reports” are not limited to what happened at work but many include work-related thoughts and they are arrestingly honest.

The last waltz is important not only for those who are in the spotlight but for those who have the opportunity to see how work, with all its ups and downs, enriches life.

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