A CEO recently spoke to me about his impending retirement. He felt he couldn’t leave the company when it was at such a fragile stage, that without his leadership it might falter and crumble, leaving everything he had worked towards for so many years a ruin. He spoke about not knowing what to do next, of many ideas for doing voluntary work, of sitting on committees, of doing useful and important work, but there was no enthusiasm in his speech. His wife was looking forward to his retirement as they had always spoken of travel and spending time together. I inquired how he felt about this and how it might fit with his plans for contributing to society. He wanted to travel, it was what they had always dreamed of and it would make his wife happy. But he felt he needed to give to the community. To use his expertise to be useful.
As we worked together he was able to realize that his fears for the company, his need to be doing and working after retirement were his fears for himself. The company would be fine, there would be new leadership that he had trained. But who was he without work?
For his whole career he had had to be so focused, work so hard and sacrifice so many other aspects of life to succeed and get to where he was that his whole identity had become bound up in being a CEO.
Losing this label, this identity left him in a no-mans land where he was unsure who he was. The need for useful work, to be seen to be contributing, to be seen as an important member of society was about retaining his identity. If he went travelling who was he?
Along the way he had lost or given little importance to the other aspects of his identity and this is where we focused. Rediscovering the husband, the father, the friend. Regaining the excitement for the adventurer who had in times past been the one planning future travel and who his wife had always retained a knowledge of, waiting for him to have time to fully dive into this part of himself on hold for his career.
He found himself excited about the future. His anxiety dissipated as he renewed his contact with all the other parts of his identity, becoming whole and renewed with enthusiasm for life, work and travel.
This story is about retirement which brings to the fore these issues of identity and value. But these issues exist throughout our careers. How many high achieving individuals set aside aspects of themselves, sacrificing them in order to concentrate on success, on achievement, on power or working for the greater good?
It is inevitable that if we balance our entire identity on one facet of our lives then hitting a roadblock is precarious. The obstacle can be lack of promotion, conflict with colleagues, the corporate culture, management, anything. The relevance is that it forces us to stop. It causes frustration, dissatisfaction, disillusionment because who are we if we cannot achieve what we set out to do? Have we failed? Are we not strong enough to overcome these issues?
Those with the most insight realize that the obstacle cannot always be resolved through a battle with the external situation. That seeking support and looking inward to find new perspectives and fresh insights can be valuable in creating change in both their internal world and the environment around them. This is when they seek out a mentor or coach skilled in enabling them to gain insight and create change using the skills and expertise they already possess.
As in the story above, discovering the issues under the frustration and anxiety can lead to an incredible awakening to the enthusiasm and motivation that was present in your early career. It can bring dramatic changes in your experience even if, as for the CEO, nothing changes in the external environment. Often a shift in the way you view the circumstances transforms your behavior, and this impacts on people and systems around you and change occurs throughout the system in many ways.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Kate Price is an Executive Coach and Business Consultant with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She has 20 years’ experience working with individuals, groups and organizations enabling them to overcome difficulties and develop skills in life and leadership. Contact her at email@example.com.
Originally published at drkateprice.com on July 7, 2016.