I Am My Biggest Project: New Horizons For Executives - Chapter 3

When we reach the summit of our career, we feel a sense of completeness and accomplishment. It dawns on us that we’ve finally achieved everything we aspired to. The air suddenly and magically feels oxygenated, clearer. It’s as if we have become lighter, floating on the top of a mountain.

New Mindset, New Beginnings

And then it hits us. Nothing stops. The frenzy goes on: other people invade our territory with fresh ideas and solutions. Our newfound stardom, achievement and recognition, evaporate before we’ve had time to drink it all in.

It’s probably time to move on. But that, too, is a tough call. In my experience the descent from the summit of a career to its final phase is almost always abrupt. If achieving upward objectives takes time, ingenuity and resilience, the downward slope can be as dizzying as it is rapid.

Maybe, as a rule, we could view the approach to the end of a career as just one more change in our lives. I have seen executives who adapt, or better still, prepare their retreat in a balanced and measured way. The common thread between the latter seems to be that they have reached a point they personally intended to reach. They have achieved it on their own terms.

But there is a difference between this, and trying to hurry events along. It’s disheartening to watch some executives ticking off the days like prisoners waiting for release, or teenagers waiting for the school year to end.

Keep Calm and Carry On

The skill is to calmly balance an active professional life with a quiet anticipation of its closure. Looking at executives I have met professionally and personally, the end-of-career vacuum can be shrunk, or even completely controlled, if three factors are combined:

1 - They withdraw at the right moment.

2 - During their working lives, they practice other interests. Among the most common are sports, (particularly golf). However, as Fredy Hausammann, Managing Partner of Amrop Switzerland puts it:“Together with family, [sport] is one of our fundamental needs, like breathing, eating and drinking. It is highly recommended to cultivate other deep personal interests or passions that can fascinate our intellects and psyches all our lives, no matter how physically fit we may be… This way we can substitute interests, creating a palette that has as much flexibility and variety as possible.”

They also hold functions in non-governmental organizations, and which involve an engagement in social and community service.*

*See Amrop - Personal Governance 7 – Personal Interests and Passions

3 - They invest in further personal development, education or training. So they transform long-held dreams into reality, even opening new avenues for self-expression - for example via the arts.

Knowing When To Stop

João Manuel had a successful career in a Fortune 500 company. Once he became director of the Portuguese division, João Manuel was assigned global responsibilities, rising to one level below the global board. Yet he began to think of radically changing his life. True, he had more than 20 corporate years under his belt, and relished having reached an enviable position with a global management role in his sights. However, being plucked out of the market to a role that mostly involved coordination, innovation and strategy didn’t suit him. Furthermore, joining corporate headquarters meant relocating to the US - not the best move on the family front. His motivation began to weaken. So he shared his reflections with a board member and secured the board’s support to leave with a golden parachute.

João Manuel no longer had to work. He could have a new way of life. He would still get his pension. He could also continue professional activity, as long as he didn’t work for the competition. He had chosen to change his life before the age of 50.

He started his new chapter by recapturing a childhood dream: sailing. He took out a charter, bought a small boat, and entered the sailing world. He dedicated himself to an NGO. Here, he has a Board-level educational mission with an interesting social impact. He has a directorship with a major professional association, with weight and influence.

João Manuel is happy and accomplished personally and socially, given his early retirement from active professional life.

Learning Is a Lifelong Flow

Whatever stage we’re at (and however we got there), everything is worth adjusting and optimizing. Recent learning theories assume a continuous process of knowledge assimilation and consolidation. In this era of change, (technology, knowledge, civilization as a whole, right down to our own lives), it would be unthinkable to put the brakes on our learning process. Change is fluid, immersive, and engages all areas of our life and work. It is continuous, creating flow between different knowledge domains.

Evolving and adapting means being open to doing anything for yourself, and as a consequence, for others: if you can bring out the best in yourself, you will not only be investing in you, but bringing out the best in everyone around you.

  • Strive for improvement.
  • Seek knowledge.
  • Keep informed, learn, absorb.
  • Adapt to new circumstances and needs.
  • Bring out the best in yourself.

As I emphasized in my first article, it’s important not to allow ourselves to be polluted by prejudices. I often hear: “That’s not something you do at my age.” Wrong. When it comes to refining, improving, evolving, any age is the right age. Allowing ourselves to be held back by age, (or by gender, ethnicity or any other reason) is a sign of negative discrimination towards ourselves, and a society that will take longer to be fair and prosperous if we allow such limiting beliefs to control it. The more we participate in building a better world, the sooner we will get there.

A Journey of Many Paths

We can achieve our objectives in very different ways; it all depends on what we already are, and what we want to become. Any one of us can draw on a diverse range of options to get more learning under our belts, and find the stepping stones to the next phase of our development. These differ enormously depending on each person. The important thing is to know that it is practically impossible not to find something that is right for us to make the change: from learning a new language, to acquiring specific technical expertise, especially if cutting-edge and innovative.

The only real constraint I can see holding us back is physical. Past a certain age, there’s little point in pinning our hopes on competing in high-level athletics, for example. Everything else, in principle, may be within our reach, as long as we are capable, determined, hardworking - and brave.

There’s No Such Thing As Impersonal Fulfilment

Personal fulfilment. What a sublime concept. But to get in tune with it, we first need to find out if we are in the right frame of mind.

We must think: how can we shape our own existence, going forward? The basic idea is simple: we have to be all that we can be. Not only must we be able to take advantage of all our different areas of potential as they currently stand, we must be able to cultivate them.

To do this, we must center ourselves.

We should not let trends, (often arbitrary) or their followers, drag us into ‘realities’ that have little or nothing to do with our true essence. Integrity is fundamental; the ability to think by and for ourselves. Each of us is an ocean of singular experiences, experiences and connections.

Personal fulfilment is exactly that: personal. It is individualized, it cannot be compared, replicated, normed, or subordinated to a general ranking or target. It can never be said that one person has performed better than another, or that s/he has a ‘similar’ type of achievement to any given benchmark group. This is a matter of personal evaluation. Everything is measured and guided by each one of us.

Critical is to obtain accurate information about the world around us and the ways in which we can achieve our goals - and our personal fulfillment.

Time For a Meeting With Ourselves

We will considerably enhance our ability to achieve personal fulfillment if we hold meetings with ourselves – to reach the self-knowledge that will reveal our path. Getting to know ourselves - authentically and truthfully. Only then can we move on to self-development, obtaining the tools to build our personal fulfillment. We will know what we need to learn, adapt, or fundamentally change, so that we are prepared to be the very best version of ourselves.

But how and where to hold these meetings? Deep reflection and meditation were traditionally considered the prerogative of the religious and transcendental dimension of life. Nowadays, this practice is being more valued and democratized, and I consider it very important to maintain introspection, inside or outside a religious framework. Moments of introspection give us the opportunity to become more aware of ourselves and others, to realize who we are and where we want to go. To maintain a constant and rich capacity to be with ourselves.

We all have very tight, pre-conditioned schedules, but it is key to make better use of the time we have. So do try to set aside time for yourself, to think of all the things that stimulate and arouse your attention. This, instead of sacrificing almost all of the little free space you have to inactivity and particularly the absorption of mediatized stimuli, (other people’s stories, often fantasies, childish and an assault on our intelligence), think. Think of yourself, think for yourself.

We Want To Decide Who We Are

Self-Determination Theory was developed at the turn of the millennium by researchers Deci et Ryan, and is worth a visit.

It states that every human being is on a quest for ‘self-determination’ and will strive to implement, together with his/her environment, a form of self-regulation that will help them achieve it.

Self-determination is linked to three fundamental needs:

  1. Competence (feeling effective, able to face stimulating challenges);
  2. Autonomy, (organize our own experiences, feel we are the initiator of our own actions);
  3. Relatedness (social interactions based on mutual respect and trust).*

Self-determination is linked to our ‘locus of control’ - the extent to which we believe we can internally control events and outcomes (internal locus of control) or that outside forces govern these (external locus of control). According to Self-Determination theory, locus of control translates into behavior that cannot be attributed to external factors alone.

Work environments which facilitate the satisfaction of the three fundamental human needs (competence, autonomy and relatedness) nourish our feeling of being self-determined.*

This sense of self-determination, in turn, increases our (self-regulated) motivation.

This all strongly suggests that we can - and do - change over time. Not only that, we seek to do so. And the seeds of these three critical factors: competence, autonomy and relateness, need to be planted in our professional lives, fed and watered, even after we have left the field.

**Arnaud, 2008

New Beginnings | 13 Tips

  1. Do it on your terms: Your transition out of corporate life will be smoother if you define a point you personally intend to reach and achieve it on your own terms (and don’t rush).
  2. Don’t be a prisoner: In the run-up to the final countdown, focus on constructing an active life. If you’re ticking off the days on the walls of your cell, feeling empty and demotivated, stop and regroup.
  3. Balance now and what’s next: invest in active professional life with a quiet anticipation of its closure.
  4. Timing, interests, and personal development, keep turning the three keys: Shrinking or or controlling the end-of-career vacuum involves 1) withdrawing at the right moment, 2) nourishing a palette of extra-curricular interests and 3) investing in further personal development.
  5. Keep the learning taps open: recent learning theories are based on a continuous process of knowledge assimilation and consolidation.
  6. Be selflessly selfish: Remain open to bringing out the best in yourself, knowing the benefits will extend to those around you.
  7. Resist dogma and limiting beliefs: stay clear of polluting prejudices related to age, gender, ethnicity or any other reason. The more we participate in building a better world, the sooner we’ll get there.
  8. Stay optimistic: Remember that it is practically impossible not to find something that is right for you.
  9. Forge your own fulfilment: Personal fulfilment is our property and should not be compared, replicated or normed. It means tracing our own path and finding a way to follow it, thinking by and for ourselves.
  10. Stay informed: Obtain accurate information about the world that surrounds you and the multiple avenues via which you can achieve personal fulfilment.
  11. Have meetings with yourself: with self-knowledge on the agenda, practice deep reflection and meditation irrespective of any religious or spiritual framework. Maintain a constant capacity to be with yourself.
  12. Beware the binge watch: Your free time is precious, use it for the things that stimulate you, instead of sacrificing it to consuming mediatized stimuli.
  13. Be self-determined: Remember that people want to, can, and do change over time. Plant the three seeds of competence, autonomy and relatedness, and keep feeding and watering them even after you have left the field.

Read the full article here.