Leadership Competencies

How CEOs stay relevant in retirement

How to stay relevant in retirement

A position like CEO, president, or business owner comes with built-in relevance. You’re steering an organization with a purpose, and the people on the team look to you for guidance and support. Or as Shaun Bradley, former head of the nation’s top military recruitment firm, explains, “When you’re a CEO or a founder like me, you are in the game.”

Step away from a full-time leadership role, on the other hand, and it can feel like you’re walking off the field. Many former CEOs wake up and wonder if what they have planned for the day matters to anyone.

Retirement doesn’t have to mean sitting on the sidelines. There is a myriad of ways to remain relevant, but the quest for fulfillment is a personal one. Here are stories from five high-achieving executives who each faced the relevance question and found perspective that can help others find meaning in their world beyond traditional work.

A hard retirement

Bradley confesses to a tough transition after selling his company at age 51.

“I retired hard,” he says.

Initially coasting through post-exit life, Bradley didn’t miss what he calls the “paper cuts” that come with day-to-day leadership, but he did miss his people. Drawing on sports as a metaphor, as he often does, Bradley explains that “professional athletes, when they leave, they don’t miss the game, they miss the team. I think people need to find a team to be part of.”

Fortunately, even while entrenched in the C-suite, Bradley had spent significant time coaching youth sports and was still part of his local high school football program. Through these activities, he says, “I had camaraderie. I had a mission that mattered. I wasn’t expecting that to be as important as it was for me.”

Coming to understand that he greatly valued teams, Bradley became a Vistage Chair, a position that gives him an opportunity to coach in a different way. Today, Bradley is committed to supporting the executives in his peer advisory group whenever they face critical challenges. “If you want a definition of relevance when someone reaches out to you in a time of crisis, that’s about as validating and relevant as it gets,” he says.

From visibility to appreciation

If anyone was going to suffer a crisis of relevance in retirement, it was Chuck Alvey. Not only had he enjoyed a long career in television where he was often on air, he also held a high-profile position as CEO of a large economic development council.

He jokes about his then-teenage kids’ constant complaint that “we can’t go anywhere you don’t know anybody.” Then he found himself on the cusp of retiring and fell out of public sight. “I went from being everywhere, doing everything, to this world where it’s just me,” he says.

The transition, as it turns out, served as a transformation. “I learned over the first few years that what I’m doing is serving people. Relevance now is not my visibility but the appreciation I receive when I help people discover themselves by asking questions no one else will ask them.”

Centered on service

Speaking with former executives, the topic of serving others comes up again and again. Allan Fried left a decades-long career in the music industry to become an executive coach. He says of his role far from the limelight, “I love having an impact on people who are building a business.”

Barbara Zerfoss was once a full-time executive for a $5 billion global corporation. Her gift of service takes many forms, from mentoring others to simply having coffee with someone in need of advice. “And help writing resumes — they come to me for that a lot, and I’m happy to offer guidance.”

Becky Tolnay also enjoyed a high-flying career, in her case shaping the guest experience for a premium hotel brand. Leaving that position didn’t immediately turn out as she’d expected so she had to adapt. Among the things that keep her going is a dedication to her beloved city of Tallahassee, Florida.

Working with Leadership Tallahassee, a Chamber of Commerce initiative, Tolnay helps emerging leaders deepen their awareness. “It exposes leaders to the community in a way that changes your perceptions and makes you think about how you can give back,” she says.

Although Tolnay enjoys her roles with several notable organizations, she is quick to underscore that serving others needn’t be a formal engagement. “If you give someone your time, you never know when it might come back and pay off. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. If you shared something with them that helped them have a better day or do something better, then it was worth the time and effort.”

The first step is easier than you think

To hear stories from retired executives after they’ve rediscovered their relevance can make the process sound more straightforward than it really is. What if you’re stuck, don’t know where to start, or have no idea where you’re trying to go?

“Then what you do is fill your day with conversations,” says Alvey reassuringly. “Everything you need is in the next conversation. If you can just be present and listen, it’s amazing what will come out of that.”

In fact, Alvey has made conversation a focused practice in his life. “Every week I look up a friend I haven’t seen for at least three years and I call them. It’s fun. And sometimes it leads to things.”

Bradley would likely approve of this tactic. Speaking to the retired executive who is still sitting around, waiting for an opportunity to contribute their talents, he issues this reminder: “Somebody who is a senior executive or a CEO has skills the world needs. But they’ve got to make themselves available and , in some ways, take the first step. Let people know you want to help.”

Putting yourself out there can be intimidating at first but the payoff is substantial. “You talk about being relevant, when I get questions from younger people, I like it. It feels good,” says Bradley.

It’s okay to take your time and mold retirement life or an encore career to your own purpose, values, interests and personality. “What makes you relevant is what matters to you,” says Alvey.

True to his own mission of continual inquiry, he suggests asking yourself two questions, both of which are tougher than they may appear: “What do you care about? What does retiring make possible?”

Find those answers and relevance will emerge.

Related resources

Help! I’m failing at retirement

5 paths CEOs consider once they retire

Life After the Sale [Vistage Perspectives]

Category: Leadership Competencies

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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 2…

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