Life After Being CEO: 5 Tips for Helping to Decide What to Do Next

Former Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett found himself in exactly this position last year. His solution: coach football. As a college student, he played football under legendary University of Michigan coach Bo Schembechler. And after a stellar 20-year career leading Steelcase, Hackett made a high-profile move to give back to his alma mater last fall by becoming the interim athletic director.

Why was Hackett thinking he could help in this role? “I’ve been trained” for demands that stress bold leadership, he told a press conference. “As a CEO, I’ve been trained in understanding at a really deep level what motivates people and makes them proud to serve—and what it is for business to compete at the highest level.”

“CEOs need to think about, what do you care about most, and how do you want to make a difference in the world?”

For CEOs and company owners who are pondering their next or perhaps final move, here are five pointers for getting as much out of the experience as Hackett seems to be.

1. Locate your passion points. “What do you care most about?” said Leslie Pine, senior partner of Boston-based consulting group The Philanthropic Initiative. And, “how do you want to make a difference in the world?” The possibilities range from arousing your entrepreneurial spirit and building something from the ground up to giving back, perhaps for a cause that “goes back to your childhood, maybe even the community you grew up in.”

2. Be strategic. This is something business chiefs are good at. “If they’re clear about a cause they want to tackle,” Pine said, “are they just as clear about how, with their time and talent, they can really move the needle? Typically they don’t know what the answer to that is. So they need to go through the process of what’s out there and what others are doing … where’s the opportunity to do something significant?

3. Decide whether you want to change it up or stick with what’s familiar. This is one of the biggest questions for retiring CEOs. Keep risk low and go after something that fits your demonstrated competence—or throw caution to the wind and pursue something completely different.

“We’ve seen great examples of it working both ways,” Pine said. “If they don’t figure out how to build on things they’re already involved with, it might be a little tough for them. But for others that’s not the case—they want to figure out something that’s really new and different and create something that hadn’t existed.”

4. Be realistic about your time commitment. The more time you’re willing to invest, “the more impact you might have on the work and on your satisfaction,” said Ellen Remmer, interim managing partner for the consulting firm. But instead of deciding how much time it might take you to do the things you might want to do after you [step down], “turn the question around: How much time do you have to give?”

5. Consider not being in charge. Fulfilling your post-retirement vocational desires can often mean not being in charge, which in itself can be problematic for some ex-chiefs. “Those people have to figure out how to shift gears,” Remmer said. “But for others, the transition comes naturally. They’re used to collaborating with others in business, so for some it’s not as much of a leap.”

Pine and Remmer remind CEOs that there are other considerations when entering your post-career “career,” including involving family members in your planning as much as possible, since this phase of your life could involve tremendous changes for them as well.

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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