Rethinking, reimagining, and redefining programs to better transition leaders to post-career runway

A program of 'pre-tirement' could help empower senior leaders navigate a stressful inflection point

Rethinking, reimagining, and redefining programs to better transition leaders to post-career runway

When considering retirement benefits for your senior leaders, the topic of pensions, extended health plans, and other financial tools are likely top of mind. As important as these are, should they be at the top of the list?

Consider ‘pre-tirement’ assistance.

Often companies offer coaching and career transition services after people have left. Why not offer services or support earlier, as a corporate benefit, maybe even before they leave?

Key Inflection Point

The truth is, for many senior executives ‘retirement’ isn’t about a life of leisure. Instead, it is a key inflection point in one’s life and career. Whether that separation occurs suddenly or with a long runway or materializes because of age requirements, merger and acquisition activity, or mutual agreement, retirement should be redefined as a process not an event.

This process should not be without support. If you are a corporate leader with responsibility for managing retirement matters for senior leaders, you might start the process with a conversation that includes some important questions:

  • Do you have a sense of the potential range of options for you?
  • How open are you to exploration and discovery?
  • Are you prepared to embark on a process that might be filled with ambiguity and uncertainty?
  • What are your goals for the next stage?
  • What are some critical, but not obvious, things for someone coming into your role to know?
  • Have you talked to your direct reports/department about what comes next?

Such a conversation can help set the stage for a smooth transition. It can also serve as an icebreaker, showing that you are cognizant of the issues that they – and the company – need to address.

For one, just as businesses too often think about ‘retirement planning’ in terms of only addressing financial and practical implications (i.e. healthcare needs), individuals do likewise. For most executives, their sense of satisfaction comes from accomplishment, commitment, and hard work. While money matters, purpose is more powerful and the changes and uncertainty that retirement brings can be daunting and threatening to fulfillment and self-worth. Supporting executives as they approach retirement begins with understanding their specific needs, goals, and fears.

Fears and Stresses

These fears and stresses can also lead to less-than-optimal performance. This will have a ripple effect: more work for others; uncertainty among their direct reports; lower morale in their department; and confusion with clients, vendors, and other key stakeholders. And if their performance is sup-optimal, it affects the organization more broadly in terms of knowledge transfer, their ability to help with the transition, and a smooth hand-off of responsibilities. Both individuals (those leaving and those remaining) and the organization benefit when there is a concerted effort made to help executives through this transition.

So how can you best show support for those who will be retiring and make the transition more successful for everyone?

  • Be Candid

Companies we have engaged with ICEO have shared that they have been hesitant to offer support because the subject can be emotionally charged. One executive likened it to people’s reluctance to talk about life insurance. “But avoiding talking about the inevitable doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen,” he acknowledged. By talking about it, you normalize it.

  • Empathize

After some 30 to 40 years of knowing what they are going to do every day, work can become a central component of one’s identity and uncertainty can be deeply unsettling. For the most senior executives who have worked their way up the ladder, the direction they were going in was obvious: upward. Now it’s about onward.

  • Make it official

A formalized process or program, offered either through your HR department or an external resource, allows people a set aside time for a regular cadence where they can compartmentalize and give voice to their fears, hopes, and questions in a safe space. It also can give them a sense of control and helps them think beyond retirement being an event, but rather a continuing part of their career and life journey.

While it might at first seem counter- intuitive to offer executives the opportunity to think about what’s next before they must confront it head-on, doing so enables them to give their best and maximize their contributions while supporting succession management priorities.

  • Be practical

The help that people need may be of a very nuts-and-bolts nature. Whether it’s offered from internal or external sources, assistance with such things as updating a CV or LinkedIn profile, getting people up to speed with trends, opening their aperture to the wide array of options available to them, or examining how their skills and knowledge can transfer can be invaluable but easily overlooked as being too basic.

  • Help them see possibilities

The intense focus in one area or at one company can leave them feeling out of touch with the overall business landscape and ill-prepared for making a change. One way to counter that is to put them in touch with company alumni and other relevant networks beyond that. Retirees often don’t realize the options that are open to them or may even have expectations that need testing. Talking with others who have been through it can open their eyes.

Supporting leaders in pre-tirement empowers them during a time that can be filled with stress. It enables them to still be strong contributors while assisting with the transition to new leadership. By helping your senior people prepare mentally and professionally for retirement, you’re not only doing right by people who have added value to your company, but you’re helping to ensure a smoother transition and sending a powerful message to other employees.


Reuben Cohen is the Managing Director, LHH North America at the International Center for Executive Options (ICEO).