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I remember a very, very experienced professional who’d had some big corporate jobs and as he got older and more elderly, I would meet with him regularly. He told me that now, as he moved into his mid-seventies, all he believe he should do was watch and pray. To acknowledge this, he had a lapel badge with a heron. This is a bird that stands very still watching and then goes in and makes a brief intervention to catch a fish.
This was how he felt he could best exercise any remaining responsibility. He only wanted to have responsibility to his Maker and, for him, this was his remaining life’s work.
What kind of responsibility is going to suit you best after seventy? Even if you’re only sixty now, perhaps you need to start thinking about the trajectory that’s going to take you there.
You are probably not going to want to have execution responsibility for anything. Perhaps you will have less of a need to get things done or to direct others to get things done. This doesn’t mean you can’t lead. There are lots of powerful ways that you can lead through direction, influence, championing governance, helping set strategy, reinforcing the values and cultures. In all these different ways, you can offer leadership without taking execution responsibility.
Understanding your options
So, what kinds of activities could this be? Well, the classic portfolio roles are non-executive director, board chairman, trustee, school governor, magistrate which have no executive responsibilities. You may still carry substantial responsibility in some of those roles and you may want to be careful to select posts that suit you best. If you’re a magistrate, then you have a huge amount of responsibility but once you’ve left the bench your job is done. On the other hand, as chairperson of an organization, then outside board and committee meetings, you will also be working very closely with other stakeholders, particularly the chief executive. If things start to go wrong, then there may be a huge amount of additional work required to support your fellow directors/trustees resolve the crisis.
An alternative is to focus on coaching, mentoring or advisory roles. You’re very much engaging with people on a take it or leave it basis. You bring them challenge, experience, advice and they can choose whether to take it or not. In fact, to be fully effective in these roles you must let go of the outcome.
Other attractive options include working as a senior member of the professional body that backed your career and hands-on volunteering. I met with a couple who are in their early eighties and they took responsibility for cooking meals for the homeless on a regular basis. This was physically and mentally demanding, but they chose to do that cooking in their own homes and then arranged delivery rather than going out and being on the front line.
By way of contrast, I was talking to a former colleague in their early seventies, who decided that, “now is the time for me to start my next business”. He committed to taking a huge amount of responsibility and building an organization from scratch, leading it, developing it, and then handing it over to a CEO. Five years later he stepped back to be the executive chairman and only finally relinquishing any responsibility in his mid-eighties.
For many, when you become seventy, you will not be elderly. You will be older, but you will not be frail. You may be physically, relatively fit. You may be mentally acute. You can do most of the things that you used to do, but perhaps not with the same intensity.
The question about how much responsibility you want so that you can enjoy your work after seventy is crucial. If you sign up for more responsibility than suits you, you may find that you disappoint your colleagues and end up stressed, tired and not enjoying your work after seventy.
Planning for your future now is key to ‘Making your Future Work’.
Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.