Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Swan Song: A Gen X Perspective on Retirement

Tonight, those of us at CPH celebrated the retirement of a venerable member of our team. In his early 70s, this gentleman is happily moving into a new chapter of life; retiring without apology to sunny Southern California (near his grandchildren).

Watching him perform the final act of a long and successful career has been an interesting experience these past few weeks. And it's been pretty impossible (if you are a person prone to any degree of reflection and introspection) not to consider what the end of a career must mean, should mean, will mean someday.

I've found myself appreciating the incredible good humor, relaxed attitude, and startling clarity and insight that this co-worker has provided since he announced that his time was – at long last – almost up. And while I (like many at the office) have speculated that it shouldn't take a person until the very end to behave with such freedom – in the end I think that perhaps that's precisely how it must be. After all, when else in your career can you perform so totally unfettered from the worries, politics, and expectations of the workplace? There should be something really unique about the last chapter of a person's professional life.

Long time employees and leaders who are preparing to retire are an
incredible asset to an organization.
The last parting shots they choose to lob your way are replete with wisdom and perspective – because the 40-year veteran of an organization is a dying breed in and of themselves. So listen up. I did, and here’s what I discovered:

Primarily, the lesson I discovered in Larry’s enthusiastic exit wasn't that we should all conduct ourselves like we are on the way out throughout all of our job-focused days. The lesson is that we should conduct ourselves with such passion, integrity, and no-regrets-ethic that when our last chapter comes, people are drawn to the energy we are still giving, the insight we are still sharing, the unique perspective we are still lending - right up until we walk out the door on that last 5 o'clock afternoon.

You don’t ever, ever check out. And you always exit with grace and passion. After all, it’s the final chorus of what you’ve spent the majority of your waking hours doing for 40plus years of your life. Make the conclusion a fulfilling end to the story, eh?

Here’s what I’ve learned from Larry:

1. Old-fashioned business sense matters, and provides a necessary balance to our new approaches for solving time-worn marketplace struggles masked in contemporary skin.

2. A solid handshake and a direct look in the eye cannot be undervalued, and means a tremendous amount in a world of fast paced, touchless communication.

3. If you want to impress a person, you better work at it. Contrary to what I hear a lot these days, you do have to earn the respect of the older crowd – not because you “have to”, but because you should want to.

4. If you are impressed by every somewhat talented person who stumbles across your path, you aren’t really too bright. Be on the watch for the real gems, and push them to excel.

5. Sometimes business is hard. Actually, often time business is hard – and you don’t do anyone (or any organization) any favors by curbing demands for performance.

6. Good leaders aren’t there to blow sunshine at you – and if you don’t like that, well … that’s sort of the point. Go work harder.

Taken alone these lessons don’t equal organizational success, and in fact in a new order marketplace they definitely don’t equal success. But they are necessary, and bring balance to the “new” mode of relating in business, and applying them (or at least acknowledging them) is useful.

When I met Larry, I was prepared to really not like him too much. He was gruff. Abrupt. His emails never more than about 10 words. And he absolutely didn’t fall all over himself in love with all (or any) of my ideas just because I presented them professionally and with energy. He actually made me cry (not at work, but on the long commute home) on more than one occasion. Frustration was there.

I had to work – really, really hard – to impress Larry. At the end of the day, it paid off. And he gave me some of the best, most valuable, and most meaningful praise I’ve ever received. He also left me with some pretty straightforward marching orders about my future in business. And that’s given me plenty to mull over.

So here’s to you, Larry. Thanks for being hard, old-school, and infinitely difficult. I’ve learned an incredible lot from your example.

Go enjoy that sunshine. And please leave us a number where we can track you down once in awhile.