Letting Go Gracefully
Jennifer Wilson

How Successful Would Jay Leno Have Been If Johnny Carson Had Never Really Let Go?

I coach a lot of successful, powerful people as they prepare to retire from important positions like CEO, Managing Partner, Practice Leader and more.  There are important strategies and tactics to ensure a successful transition, including choosing a successor, documenting the clients, people, processes and duties that the successor will inherit and training the successor to ensure their readiness for their new role. 

More important than all of these, though, is the mental preparation of the retiring party and the development of their steely commitment to let go with grace. 

After all, retiring is hard.  For many, they picture mall walking, being under-foot at home, endless hours with grandchildren (which for some sounds heavenly, while others are not as amused), and a life that has less meaning.  Sadly, these stereotypical images of retirement haunt many that I encounter and their fears of living a life-less-useful keep them from preparing for retirement properly, setting up their successors for true and lasting success, and ultimately jeopardizing their long-term legacy because they don’t ensure the perpetuation of their organization without them.

Letting go is hard.  Retirees must face the “death” of their career and pass through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s (http://tinyurl.com/7pahq) five stages of grief including denial (where many get stuck and never progress), anger, bargaining, depression or sadness and finally, acceptance.   Most retirees do not want to admit their fears, feelings of vulnerability or their sadness at the loss of their work identity.  As a result, they hang on well past the point of what’s best for their successor, their organization or themselves.

One of the best ways to combat the fears of retirement is to ensure that they don’t come true.  If you’re facing retirement, you can create and then cause an exciting new possibility for your life after work that can include travel, golf or other exercise, volunteer work, a new unrelated vocation, going to school, reading all the books you’ve had to pass up, catching up on movies, researching topics or hobbies you’ve wanted to learn, having leisurely lunch with friends and family and more.  Life after “the old job” can be exciting, fulfilling and transformative.  You can continue to learn, contribute and grow after retirement.  The decision is entirely yours.

I’ve been bothered by the Leno-O’Brien story (http://tinyurl.com/yjf97lm).  This is mostly because I keep encountering equally-harmful iterations of this story in firms across America.  On occasion, I plan to write about strategies to help retirees let go with grace in this blog.  In the meantime, if you have some ideas or experiences on this subject, please post them so others can benefit.   We’re all ears! 




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9 Responses
  • Kelly Nizzer Bates on February 10, 2010

    I thought of your blog as I was watching the super bowl half time show!!
    Groups, artists, CEO’s, managers, etc. lose credibility when they stay too long.
    I don’t know about you, but I’ve been preparing a list since my thirties of – “Things I will do when I retire”.
    Succession planning is clearly the key to ensure MP’s don’t stay longer than they should, but also transition out of the role satisfying their own needs and the firm needs. A consultant should counsel the departing manager and make him/her aware of the value they can still bring to the profession/community/etc. and perhaps have more fun than they have in the past!
    Back to the Super Bowl – I’m not a football fan, but I take one for the ‘team’ when I have to (pardon the pun). The Who was an amazing group in their time, but they didn’t do themselves any favors by performing. Clearly the leaders and managers were responsible for this poor decision.
    I think we’d have a very long list if we thought of all the people who should have retired by now….
    Rolling Stones
    Barbara Walters
    Bret Favre (again)
    Our local weather man…..etc

  • Jennifer Wilson
    Jennifer Wilson on February 10, 2010

    Thanks for your comment, Kelly and for your insights into the subject. I have to say that I loved seeing the Who (sans Pete’s stomach) and introducing them to my girls in that forum. I hear you, though, about trying to “relive” the past instead of live into our future. That’s my biggest message to those who are nearing retirement and those who are supporting them. There are SO many magnificent things ahead for us if we generate our list and begin to envision all the possibility we have coming after retirement.

  • Howard Wolosky on February 10, 2010

    I wrote this below column on the subject and beleive more firms and retiring individuals will be adjusting their thinking on retirement and succession. Just recently, there was a managing partner transition at Malone & Bailey which showed in my mind how progressive firms are thinking on this subject.
    “Desperately Needed: Prolonged Professional Life Expectancy
    (FEBRUARY 26, 2008)
    The many Boomers partners of firms who are planning to retire or slow down is being viewed as generating firm succession and staffing issues. Similarly, another expressed concern is the declining number of Ph.Ds. in accounting, which hurts the pipeline of incoming accounting graduates to the profession. A partner in a national firm also commented that he was alarmed by the many college professors teaching accounting who don’t have a familiarity with U.S. businesses.
    These concerns always seem to be talked about and the fixes seem to be to encourage more individuals to enter the profession or go for Ph.Ds. It is a solution, but a rather long-range one.
    The drain of senior talent might actually have some immediate opportunities. Yes, many of these CPA Boomers want to be paid out for the equity they have built up in firms over the years, but a good number don’t want to stop working. They like and see value in what they do, they want to remain professionally active, and they expect, because of longer life expectancies, to enjoy many years ahead and want to ensure their financial security.
    So firms should look favorably and actively provide for partner’s continued participation, in a reduced role in different capacities. This will open up more partnership positions at firms without losing expertise acquired over the years. It should also lengthen and reduce many of the buyouts. Those Boomers could also be encouraged to teach accounting at the college level, perhaps as adjunct professors. They would be stimulated professionally, accounting college students would get a real-world education, and firms would benefit.
    Firms and the AICPA in the last few years have invested tremendous time, money, and resources into improving retention and recruitment efforts, and the AICPA is also actively ensuring that the pipeline for future accounting graduates is flowing. Perhaps the attention and resources of both should also be focused on taking continued advantage, in a new way, of all these CPA Baby Boomers. This requires looking on these Boomers’ changing roles as just another step, although a more relaxed one, in their professional lives. Why can’t a longer life expectancy also mean a longer professional life expectancy?”

  • Jennifer Wilson
    Jennifer Wilson on February 10, 2010

    Howard, thanks for sharing! We appreciate hearing from you and our readers do, too! I agree that there is so much value and potential in the abilities, talents and experience of those retiring. I am certainly not trying to “shoo” people out the door prematurely in the discussion of letting go, but instead, helping each of us let go with grace and move on to the next phase with hope and enthusiasm when the time comes!

  • Howard Wolosky on February 11, 2010

    Agree with what you wrote. My intent was to showcase as many options as possible.

  • Patrick J. McKenna on February 17, 2010

    I enjoyed your post here. It reminded me of what one recently retired managing partner confided (tongue in cheek):
    “You should know: I was ‘indispensable’ even though the Firm has not ‘stumbled’’ under my successor’s leadership; that I don’t like it one bit but the Firm is ‘thriving’ without me; that I have been very positive about my successor and his new leadership team and believe me it has not been easy! I never agree with the probably hundreds of my partners that constantly complain about the new leadership team and want me to start a coup. Can’t you tell – I have moved on!”
    As this is an area that I have spent some considerable time researching and consulting in your readers may find the following selection of articles and advisories of some value. These are all available on my web site (www.patrickmckenna.com) and designed to provide pragmatic advice for navigating through the transition into leading a professional services firm as well as for handling some of the more common challenges.

  • Jennifer Wilson
    Jennifer Wilson on February 17, 2010

    Thanks for your kind post and sharing the story of the retired MP whose firm went on without him or her and how that feels — good and bad. Good to know of your resources on the subject and your experience in the area of professional services leadership transition!

  • Stephen Allen on August 12, 2010

    Jen, Really good blog on a difficult times of transition in life. I have encouraged many clients to get involved with an organization that once did a presentation at a conference I attended called Half Time. Whose mission is to help people continue to use their professioal skills and infulence in new and exciting ways. They can be checked out at http://www.halftime.org.

  • Jennifer Wilson
    Jennifer Wilson on August 12, 2010

    Thanks, Stephen, for your kind comments and the generous sharing of what sounds like a cool resource. We’ll check it out and share it in our teaching and writing when appropriate. We appreciate you chiming in!

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