When Is The Right Time To Hang Up Your Boots ?

Earlier this month, in a zoom conversation with friends who are senior leaders in the Industry and also serve as Independent Directors on Boards, the topic was whether to retire early and pursue a full-time career being an Independent Director with various companies. Before the pandemic set on us, I was having lunch with a friend and an ex-colleague from Wipro, who used to work with a FinTech start up in Bangalore, he mentioned that he has put in his papers at his existing company and in about a year from now he wants to ‘stop working’. Last year I was in Gurgaon and catching up with a friend and ex-colleague from Eicher who now works with a leading MNC FMCG company, he too mentioned that he is keen to stop working sometime soon. All these friends would be in the age of 45 – 55 years and now working in C Suite roles. The term ‘I want to stop working’ seems to be getting more prevalent with many senior professionals I interact with in a CXO role and in their early fifties. The first thing I clarify with them is ‘you mean you want to stop working for a commercial consideration or do you want to stop working ?’. The question inevitably receives a few seconds of silence, followed by a rather unclear answer.  

So what could be reasons why this sentiment of ‘wanting to stop working’ is spreading in professionals much ahead of the standard retirement age of 58 or 60 years? Some of the reasons I could sense are :

1.    Escaping a toxic & high stress work culture : Akin to when you are climbing a hill or a mountain, the air becomes purer as you climb higher – which you enjoy and beyond a point the air becomes thinner – which makes it difficult to breathe due to lack of oxygen at high altitudes. As professionals climb the corporate ladder, initially the allure of a C Suite role is enticing, but once they get there, realization hits home that it is not all flowers and fragrance at that level, but thorns and poison ivy which they need to manoeuvre around. Political agendas, scoring brownie points with the boss, fight for resources, and dealing with the complexities of a matrix reporting are not uncommon in many C Suite teams and beyond a point it does take a toll. Not all C Suites are as terrible as I have described, but it would be naïve to expect that all C Suites are an epitome of great back slapping and trustworthy teams.

So is there a way to deal with toxic & high stress work cultures, so that you are not driven to want to hang up your boots ? To begin with, we need to differentiate toxic vis-à-vis high stress. Surviving in a high stress work culture is a function of your own resilience to stress and your ability to leverage the stress to bring out your best. While on the one hand each of us has the ability to build up our stress tolerance levels, each of us also needs to know our personal threshold line on managing stress, so that we are mindful when we are getting too close to that threshold line. By the time a professional reaches a CXO role, the assumption is that she would be able to tackle the elements of work stress. Yet, the reality is that the triggers for stress can be very different in a CXO role and the quantum of stress can be exponentially higher. Rather than deciding to hang up your boots, work with a friend or an executive coach to make a customized stress management plan for yourself, which would help you to pace yourself appropriately.

Dealing with toxic work cultures is different ball game all together. If like me, you neither have the capability to survive in toxic work cultures nor do you enjoy a toxic work culture (yes, there are professionals who actually enjoy a toxic work culture – possibly because they are the masters of making it toxic in the first place), then you are in the wrong game (being in a corporate organization structure). The catchment of organisations which pro-actively discourage a toxic work culture is small and the bad news is that this catchment is shrinking. You would do well by finding an organsiation which painstakingly nurtures an apolitical & healthy work cultures (yes, such organisations do exist!) and make a career shift, even if it means a lesser compensation or responsibilities. Even better would be if you can create a career option where you can create a commercially viable self-owned independent firm. I made that choice many years back and I can assure you, I am breathing much better oxygen !

2.    Lack of meaning in a job : A couple of years back I was working with the leadership team of a MNC start up based in Gurgaon and during my diagnostics I asked each of them why did they leave their previous organization (which were some pretty premier companies) and the response by most of them was similar ‘In this organization, I have the opportunity to change the world’.

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me & change the world ?” – Steve Jobs(Apple) to John Sculley(Pepsi)

Now that response was amazing and refreshing, though not unfamiliar. We are acquainted with Steve Jobs famous question to John Sculley of Pepsi “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”. Not all of us are destined to change the world, but we are all entitled to seek meaning from the work we do and enable the same for our teams. 

Too often, I find C Suite leaders stating ‘lack of meaning’ from their job and shirking their own lack of imagination and contribution to make their job’s more meaningful. Most of the times it is a helpless shrug of the shoulders indicating “it is my organisation’s fault or my CEO’s fault that I do not find meaning in my job”. I would be more accepting of such an attitude from someone at a mid-management level, but definitely not from someone at a C-Suite level. I shudder to think what energy such a leader would be exuding to his own team if the Leader himself does not create meaning in his job role. If you are plagued by ‘lack of meaning’ in your role as a C Suite leader, the answer is not to think of hanging up your boots. Create some inspiration for yourself by meeting some exciting people, read something exciting, hire an executive coach to push your thinking, travel to new places, go on study missions – to create meaning in your job is primarily your own responsibility and your organization at best can only play the role of being a catalyst.

3.    Enough wealth creation : Those of us who commenced our careers in the mid-eighties or early nineties, have gained from the economic upswing in India and the World since the early nineties. This has resulted in reasonable wealth creation by the time we turned 50. The silver lining of wanting to stop working for a commercial consideration is that you are one of the rare class of professionals who is not afflicted by the sentiment of ‘greed’. It’s nice to have the courage to say ‘you know, I think I have sufficient wealth and I do not need to work to earn more money’. Honestly, the world needs more of this breed.

While I have zero expertise in advising on matters of personal finance and wealth, I encourage friends to recalculate their assumptions on how much money they would need for another 35 – 40 years. Research is indicating that we are going to live longer than our parents and longer life spans are a reality. Returns on investments in next 2 decades (in any class of investments) may not be as lucrative as we have seen in last 2 decades. Hence even if you have paid for you kids’ education and you have set aside decent funds for your kids marriage, re-calculate your assumption if you have a sufficient corpus to last you for another 35 – 40 years. Do not underestimate the possibility of a decade long economic famine.

If you have created enough wealth, which will allow you to lead a quality of life you desire in your sunset years, you surely need to feel good about it. Yet, does this trigger in having to hang up your boots and stop working ? Possibly not, as you could explore options of using your talent to continue to create wealth, which you can then decide to distribute for a worthy cause. I continue to admire my ex-super boss Mr. Azim Premji, who continues to pursue wealth creation through his work in Wipro and then pursues his wealth distribution for a cause through his Foundation. Alternately you can seek a completely different line of work, which you always wanted to try out but could never get yourself to explore it further. One of my friends in the tech industry, having created sufficient wealth, decided to quit his tech career, bought some farm land on the outskirts of Pune and ventured into organic farming along with his wife – mind you, he quit his tech career, but he did not stop working.

I received very sound practical advise from 2 of my mentors in recent years on this subject. In a conversation with an ex-boss who is now the CEO of a well-known not for profit institution, I shared that soon, I am keen to devote my talent and time to the under-privileged.

“…do not stop completely earning, of what you earn if you do not need it, give it back to the community….”

He told me ‘do not stop completely earning, of what you earn if you do not need it, give it back to the community, but always devote some part of your time which enables you to earn’. Another was from a client who is the owner CEO of a large apparel group headquartered in Sri Lanka. I was sharing with him that I wanted to take time off to write a book. He told me ‘these are your prime years, use them to create wealth for yourself, there will be enough time to write a book later – your wisdom and experience is not going to evaporate’.

There may be more reasons than these to think of stop working, but rather than delve more in reasons for causing that sentiment, let me offer some alternative perspectives.

1.    The Giving Strategy : Some years back as I was sipping coffee at Taj Residency in a chat with Azim Jamal author of the best seller ‘Power of Giving’, he shared with me his immense giving experience in a project in Afghanistan. It made me wonder, how many of us successful professionals have a ‘Giving Strategy’. Many professionals do donate funds for charity and surely that is a noble responsibility fulfilled, but is that enough. Is it enough to just donate a part of your wealth or can each of us do more in devoting also our talent and time to causes which resonate with our soul. Maybe the sentiment of wanting to hang up your boots may be arising due to a lack of ‘Giving Strategy’ in your life. Each of us who are able to provide a better life to our children than what we experienced ourselves, owe a payback to the community and society in which we thrived and built a financially secure future. Giving can be gratifying and help us find the meaning which fills the void we sometimes feel.

2.    Move from ‘Retire’ to ‘Rejuvenate : I picked up this term coined by my CEO and boss at one of my previous consulting companies where I worked. Honestly, look at the term ‘Re-tire’ – it seems to indicate, I am going to tire myself again, but this time by doing nothing. Instead the term ‘Rejuvenate’ indicates that I will try to ‘juvenate’ myself again and again. A friend (who is much senior to me) who is ex-Unilever and fellow Executive Coach, learnt ‘Magic’ and he now conducts Magic Shows with his wife as his assistant for slum children in Bangalore. Now that is a completely different kind of rejuvenation, which I am sure is extremely gratifying for him as it is for the slum kids who watch his performances. The ex-wipro friend of mine who I met for lunch before the pandemic, mentioned that he wants to start working and have a plan to learn about music, start travelling, cultivate hobbies which he never could try out, now that again is a strong plan for rejuvenation.

I was inspired by an interview of the late painter M F Hussain, he must have been in his early nineties when he was asked what his plans were and he described his plans for making paintings on a series of themes which surely looked like a 10 year plan – that was pure passion which transcended the boundaries of mortality. It was equally inspiring to see the late Dr A.P.J.Abdul Kalam, being active on the speaker circuit in his sunset years, giving talks to different audiences, spreading his messages and he took his last breath while delivering such a talk. Now that’s a great way to meet your Creator, which I would like to experience.

So the moot point here is not to think of hanging up your boots, but rather designing new boots for yourself, which will take you to new fields of gratification and happiness, keeping you busy and making your life even more satisfying. If you haven’t yet found your passion in life – it is never too late, you can still explore & experiment with new themes and strike gold in one of them.

So when is the right time to hang up your boots – my answer is ‘Never’ ! What’s your answer ?

Shabbir Merchant