Why CEOs consider unretirement
What do executives look for in retirement? Endless days on the golf course or in the garden? Plenty of time for family? Bucket list-level travel ambitions?
There are stereotypes about what comprises the ideal retirement. But our imaginations often paint an idealized picture of this potential future. The afternoons on the links are always sunny, the grandkids are never whiny, and the quick dash overseas is always dominated by amazing food and wine.
A “bigger picture” challenge is that many former CEOs find that even a nearly blissful life of leisure can leave them wanting. Within weeks, months, or sometimes years of departing the C-suite, they are yearning for more. They start considering what it would be like to unretire.
What’s often missing in retirement?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one in four Americans between ages 64 and 75 is employed and nearly one in ten senior citizens over 75 still have jobs. Often, many find themselves volunteering or performing some unpaid work.
It’s more difficult to tease out unretirement trends among those who sell a business or walk away from a corporate career earlier. Suffice it to say, a significant proportion of the U.S. population isn’t retiring or staying retired.
What’s behind this compulsion to be in the labor force? Financial factors cannot be excluded, but according to Vistage Chairs who have experienced unretirement and coached clients through unretirement transitions, there is much more to the story than money.
CEOs and top executives reached peaks in their careers with hard work. Chair Barbara Zerfoss explains that when she left her leadership role within a $5 billion global corporation, “I didn’t mind leaving the stress behind and all the international and U.S. travel. But I missed the interaction, the engagement and the celebration when we achieved and surpassed goals. I missed working with a team of people, asking them questions, setting strategy and directing the execution of plans that create results.”
Longtime executive coach Allan Fried offers a similar perspective. In his opinion, what’s lacking for many retirees is “a sense of purpose, interacting with people, helping people.”
What benefits are unretires looking for, then? “I think what brings them in is the ability to give back,” says CEO coach Niels Lameijer.
Being engaged is healthier
There is also an overlooked dark side to retirement. “Some people die too young,” says Zerfoss. “Without a clear direction in life, people who once led others and generated new ideas simply give up. Others grow old ahead of their time.”
Why would a relaxed life have this effect? Allan Fried cites research demonstrating the mortality effects of retirement, which begin at age 62. The fact this age coincides with the first opportunity to collect Social Security is no coincidence.
“It’s an age when a lot of people retire and become dormant,” says Fried. He intends to heed the message in these studies by staying active — physically, mentally, and spiritually — through retirement age and beyond.
Reconnecting with purpose
The easiest part of unretirement may be brainstorming the types of work former executives can pursue. With their expertise and leadership skills, unretiring CEOs are sought after as consultants, mentors and coaches. They’re needed by non-profit organizations and corporate boards. Local colleges may employ them as adjunct faculty. Volunteer opportunities abound.
The tougher question can be, “Which direction resonates most?” Perhaps surprisingly, former CEOs in particular may have difficulty deciding. After years in which their personal mission was subsumed by the demands of the business, it’s common for a retired executive to feel out of touch with what truly inspires and drives them now.
This is where the real work lies, according to Zerfoss, and inward exploration should begin as soon as possible. “A critical aspect to success in your next chapter is knowing your life’s purpose,” she says.
Some CEOs may look for roles that are similar to those they previously inhabited. “They can use their expertise from running, scaling, and growing their own business,” suggests Fried. Others may find that different passions, such as mentoring or teaching, call to them.
Zerfoss, for one, navigates based on her purpose of transforming leaders. Lameijer is motivated “to make a difference, to work with the few to influence the many,” a mission he can achieve as a coach.
What does it take to restart?
Zerfoss never fully retired, in part because she had a front-row seat when her husband, David, stepped away from a high-pressure corporate position. “I knew he wouldn’t last,” she says. That’s why she advocated that he pursue an encore career with Vistage, ultimately following that course as well. Today, they co-facilitate four highly successful peer advisory groups in North Carolina.
As a master coach of executive coaches, Lameijer acknowledges that coming back to the workforce after a break can present issues. “Mindset is really important,” he says. The unretiree will need to “find joy in doing the work and be open to relearning some things they haven’t done in a long time.”
CEOs accustomed to being in charge may be frustrated early on, but by embracing an attitude of lifelong learning, most come to find the new challenges invigorating. Compared with the all-too-easy retired life they left behind, even a bumpy unretirement can quickly rank among the best experiences of a lifetime.