Exit Planning

Why unretirement works for many CEOs

a vistage chair in unretirement

Contrary to popular belief, retiring CEOs want to do more than golf, rest and travel. Fun and rest are great, but executives are some of the world’s most purpose-driven people. For most, a life without purpose, even after retirement, is out of the question. There’s a realistic, meaningful option for retiring executives who still have more to give: Unretirement.


What is unretirement?

In unretirement, executives open the next chapter of their lives by finding a new way to contribute to society.

When talking to 50 Fortune 500 CEOs, Ron Williams and Marc Feigen found that all wanted to continue contributing to the U.S. economy and societal well-being. In fact, they noted that “giving back to society” was the No. 1 theme they heard from CEOs.

And giving back is at the heart of unretirement.

You want to pass the torch

For some, like former Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly, giving back in unretirement means passing on what you’ve learned.

A year after being named as one of the best CEOs in the world by Barron’s and Harvard Business Review, Joly stepped down as CEO. He became the company’s executive chairman for a year, then retired.

In his unretirement, Joly stayed on as an advisor to the board, but also became a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and wrote a bestseller on leadership principles.

“The purpose is not the money,” Joly said in an interview. “It’s about helping people grow. It’s about doing something good in the world.”

Many retired executives feel similarly. They’ve made money, they’ve made their mark, and they’ve learned a lifetime of lessons. Now, they want to give back to the next generation.

Executives who feel this way can take their knowledge into teaching, consulting, mentoring, or coaching.

You are wired to win

Often, CEOs choose unretirement because they’re wired to win. They’re lifelong competitors who find satisfaction in helping others thrive. For them, the victories of others become personal.

The CEOs and business owners in my peer advisory groups know I will do anything to help them, says Robin Stanaland, who became an executive coach after leaving the C-Suite. She describes the role as “the most rewarding and meaningful” work she’s ever done. “It is a privilege to play on the 50-yard line of their lives.”

Kevin Trout took a similar route. He founded Grandview Medical Resource in 1996, then sold the company 15 years later. He won in his career and decided to teach others his winning attitude to others as an executive coach.

Now, Trout serves as a mentor to CEOs. He loves talking with executives about their businesses just as much as he loved developing his own employees. He’s launched a small business group, as well as groups for chief executives and key executives.

“Owning and successfully selling a business is a great ride that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Trout said. “But now I get to share everything I learned along the way — and that’s pretty fantastic, too.”

Retirement doesn’t mean that executives must stop feeling relevant, motivated, or goal-oriented. They can take these attributes into unretirement and teach others how to foster a winning spirit.

You want a flexible schedule

Rather than whiling the day away, unretired executives can keep a flexible, purposeful schedule.

After Carla Corkern stepped down as CEO of Talyst, she became a CEO coach. Immediately, her schedule opened up—she saw that she could help the executives in her group and spend more time with her family. She could spend time making breakfast for her son, but still help her group members figure out their own unique paths to success.

Corkern was even able to spend four months in San Diego with family amid the pandemic. She’s still busy—she owns three hair salon franchises and sits on four boards, in addition to her duty as a Chair—but she was able to work virtually.

“At this point in my life, I want to make more of a positive impact on the lives of others, and that’s what I’ve been able to do in recent years,” Corkern said.

You have a desire to keep learning

Many people consider retirement to be a developmental dead-zone. Not so, says Bob Dabic, an executive coach.

Executives are typically lifelong learners who love surrounding themselves with like-minded people. Dabic said that self-development—as well as being around others who are trying to develop themselves—is one of the bonuses of becoming a mentor.

“The best way to learn something is to teach it, coach it, and mentor it,” Dabic said.

Unretired executives can take this philosophy of learning into any post-career arc. For example, what is consulting if not mentoring and coaching at an organizational level? Same with becoming a speaker, teacher, or executive coach —unretired executives in these roles teach and can’t help but learn.

Each route toward unretirement allows executives to use their powers as life-long learners to help themselves and others grow.

Important questions to ask yourself

Perhaps the best way for executives figure out their own retirement is to ask clarifying questions. These questions include:

  • What do I have that I can give back to others?
  • What path would give me a feeling of meaning and purpose?
  • Can I earn money without needing to continue working as an executive?
  • How can I keep my entrepreneurial spirit while gaining more flexibility in my schedule?

These questions can help executives plan for the next chapter of their career, ensuring that their unretirement isn’t pointless, but purpose-driven.


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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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