corner office-Life After the Corner Office-September 2011

corner office-Life After the Corner Office-September 2011

The job is part of the journey, not the end game.

“What can you do with a general
When he stops being a general?
Oh, what can you do with a
general who retires?
Who’s got a job for a general
When he stops being a general?
They all get a job, but a general
no one hires.”

—Lyrics from Irving Berlin for the
movie musical
White Christmas

Years ago, I learned a valuable lesson on the turf of the University of Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium. I was a sophomore playing football with a Big Ten varsity team. I had some talent and was willing to push myself harder than most. I thought that if I totally dedicated myself to improving, I might have a shot at my dream of someday playing for Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers.

Being a professional athlete would mean following in my father’s footsteps. He had played baseball with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1940s. During World War II, pro athletes were drafted to entertain the troops, so he had played in the Philippines. I was proud of his military service, and respected him a great deal as he worked to support our family. After his baseball career, and in the days before disability benefits, he battled a crippling bone disease. He was my mentor, hero, and best friend.

And he was on my mind that day on the field, as he had died just a few months earlier at 45. I had always thought he would be there, helping me navigate an athlete’s life. His loss was the most difficult blow I had experienced in my life up to that point—and since.

At that moment, however, I was a linebacker focused on football and pursuing my dream. Then a running back from Northwestern University altered my future forever. I saw him run to the right and pursued him. I tackled him and felt a burning sensation down my arms and legs. He got up . . . I didn’t. 

In the space of a few seconds, my football career was over as a result of shattered cervical discs. 

I was a lost soul. I dropped out of school and tried different jobs. Eventually, the shock wore off and I understood that football was one path I had taken, but it was not my life’s destination. I also understood that my father’s experience of depending on a company to support a family was not going to be mine. I would bet on me instead.

That’s when I realized that the college education I had been getting was not incidental. It was preparing me for what became a fulfilling business career. I also realized that I missed and valued the friendships I had made on the football field; many of my teammates remain close friends to this day. 

In short, I gained a better yardstick for measuring my self-worth and what I valued in life. That’s probably what my father would have wanted for me, even more than playing football.

What’s Your Yardstick?

Sadly, many executives don’t learn to measure their lives with the right yardstick until it’s too late.  

Need proof? I can show you the hundreds of resumés I receive every year from CEOs and executives who’ve retired, either by choice or unexpectedly due to a company sale or merger. They feel bored and unfulfilled. Many have sacrificed everything for their careers, to the detriment of relationships with their spouses, children, and friends. 

As one ex-CEO said to me, “I just want to make enough money so that my wife doesn’t know how much money I’m spending on golf.”

Many CEOs don’t know what to do when suddenly their self-worth isn’t fed by reaching quarterly revenue goals or getting feedback from investors and corporate directors. CEOs are goal driven and need to achieve measurable results. But if your career is your only yardstick, when that season in your life is over, what is left to measure?

It’s ironic that executives and directors are great at creating company strategies, but neglect to develop a strategy for living a fulfilling life. We excel at managing company resources, but overlook managing our personal resources, primarily our time, which we take away from the people who matter most in our lives. We build company cultures based on corporate values, and somehow aren’t embarrassed that we’ve abandoned our responsibility to create a family culture of love and respect.

Do A Risk Analysis

Calculate the risk you take by putting 90 percent of your mental energy and time into a career that will end someday—perhaps sooner than you think due to circumstances out of your control. That would be a poor business strategy, and is an even poorer life strategy.

Examine the balance in your life honestly. Does it allow you to be happy in your career and in your personal relationships? Are you making choices for short-term gain that will hurt you in the long term? 

Then think about life after the corner office. What do you enjoy doing? What experience and wisdom that you’ve gained in your job can you apply to something else later on?

Perhaps you’ll work with charities, which I’ve found very rewarding. Although I am not retired, I’ve started working with Partnering for Youth, an organization that pairs business and community leaders with schools to help teach ethics to young people.

Or maybe you’ll serve the business community as a director. Having served on more than 40 boards, I’ve gained more satisfaction by helping younger, less experienced directors and executives than from anything else I’ve done. 

Or maybe your life plan is to spend more time with loved ones, fine-tune your golf game or tennis swing, learn a new hobby, or get more involved in faith organizations. Whatever your plan, prepare yourself for the day when you won’t have a business card and won’t introduce yourself with an “elevator pitch” for your company in the next breath. It will all end eventually—maybe sooner than you think—and the adjustment will be easier if you learn now to measure your self-worth with a life-sized yardstick.

Related Stories