THE INC. LIFE

Why This Retired CEO Decided to Go Back to Work

I learned how much I miss being on the playing field

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BY John Taft - 12 Feb 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

After a year and a half of retirement, I am going back to full-time work.

After retiring as CEO of RBC Wealth Management, I have been offered one of the most exciting opportunities of my 35-year career in financial services: to become Vice Chairman of Robert W. Baird & Co., an international wealth management, capital markets, asset management, and private equity firm.

I can't think of a better fit. Yet this isn't the outcome I expected when I mapped out a transition plan for navigating from a 35-year career in financial services into quasi-retirement.

My plan was to put together a portfolio of activities that would sustain me through the rest of my professional life. I was selected to join the Board of the Columbia Threadneedle Funds as an independent director. I became a Senior Advisor to Deloitte & Touche, LLP. I was slated to join a high-profile public company board in January.

In short, I achieved what I set out to do. But I wasn't fulfilled. I developed a hypothesis about what my life could look like following retirement. I tested that hypothesis. I found it didn't hold up.

But I consider the process a success, not a failure.

I have the opportunity I have today -- and, just as importantly, I have conviction around the fact that it is the right opportunity for me -- because I didn't lie on a lounge chair in my backyard after retiring. Well... at least not for very long. After a three-month summer vacation, I got busy creating something out of nothing.

I wrote down a statement of purpose, articulating what was important for me in this next stage of life. I asked myself questions like: Where do I go from here? What do I really want? What kind of person do I want to be? What will success look like in this next segment of my life? How will I measure it?

I developed and reached out to a list of old and new contacts, including executive search firms active in board placements, private equity firms, former colleagues in the wealth management, asset management and investment banking industries.

I talked to close to one hundred people about my career and life opportunities, people I admired and respected, who had walked the path of retirement and second or third careers before me.

I "tried on" numerous and varied roles to see how they might feel, from service on corporate boards and consulting work, to advisory work for private equity firms, to buying a specialty finance company, to teaching at a business school, to starting a socially responsible investment advisor, to running a not for profit organization and a governmental agency. To speaking and writing another book. To running for political office. Even buying into and managing an art gallery.

I have always been a "flow" person, doing my best work and coming up with my best ideas while talking to people, rubbing up against possibilities, bumping into things. And, in my case, I can definitely say that held true when it came to navigating this transition.

While I was out stirring the pot, I watched a former colleague almost completely withdraw from the working world to relax and focus on his family. It took only a short time -- less than a year -- for his contacts in business and his reputation to degrade. Now he is having real difficulty getting back into the game.

As I explored opportunities, I did my best to "be emergent," as Harvard Business School Clayton Christensen puts it, paying attention to how I felt as I explored new career possibilities.

What I found is that all the questions I was asking about purpose and meaning were continuously interrupted or drowned out by a persistent refrain, repeating itself over and over again in my head: "I'm not done yet. I'm just not done."

I discovered that I really missed working.

To use a sport analogy, serving on boards and in advisory roles is like sitting atop a football stadium, in a booth with the team owners, watching the game through a plate glass window.

I missed being actively in the game. I missed wearing a jersey. I missed being part of a team. I missed being on the field.

I didn't know that was how I'd feel when I started this transition process. But now that I do know, I feel focused and energized. I feel at peace.

And I can't wait to get down to the field again and help my new team win.