Over the past few years there's been a lot of talk about succession plans and transfer of institutional memory and so forth. And the part that isn't about the potential for new hires and upward mobility is usually about how to preserve the institutional memory, how not to lose what was in that person's head when they leave a job they held for 30 years.
[delete rant about information professionals who don't document their institutional knowledge for those that follow here since it's not fair to a lot of them who make a point of doing this.]
But there's a flip side that I'm not sure is getting much discussion, or at least not in professional venues. Perhaps over drinks, late at night, in darkened bars where there's not much chance of being overheard...
What to do with the retiree that just won't let go?
I'm seeing this happen a lot in a lot of institutions around me of late. And since I don't know what to tell the people at those institutions, I've instead I'm writing my future self a letter of advice as to what I will do when I leave this institution. I think I've been pretty successful at following this advice when leaving other jobs, but the memory is going, so getting it documented as a personal reminder isn't such a bad thing.
Dear Attila of Retirement Age:
The times, they are a-changing. It's not necessarily a personal attack on your career if your successor mixes things up, can't continue things the same way. Your career and achievements exist whether or not the product of them still does.
You may not be privy to the discussions where their boss tells them that "hey, guess what, the mission of the institution just changed and you need to spend more time doing this thing over there." It's arrogant of you to assume that things can never change, that the way you did it was perfect and not to be improved upon. Remember that time when, well, no details necessary... Remember how long it took to fix that mistake? What a pain that was? Yeah, you didn't do everything perfect at every step. Everybody should be allowed to make their own mistakes: it might have sucked fixing it, but wasn't that about the best learning experience ever?
You may not be aware that their budget just got cut by a huge percentage and in order to survive at all, they're having to rethink absolutely every process in the place.
And guess what? Maybe some of it is a personal attack on the way you did things. Maybe they weren't the right things to do, but you were blind to certain needs of your organization and now your successor has to do things very differently. Maybe that grandiose structure, that cadre of processes, that perfect program that you built wasn't really what anybody around you wanted and wasn't sustainable. If it is a rejection of your work, even more reason to walk away before your successor pulls out the staple gun and aims it your way.
Here's some quick affirmations you will repeat til they are engraved into your brain, Attila:
- If I can't say anything nice publicly about my successor, I won't say anything at all. (Reserving, of course, the right to provide warnings directly to employees in case the building is about to explode and people are about to be physically injured.)
- I will be available to anybody from the institution who needs whatever information I might be able to provide.
- This institution allowed me to have the fun and fulfilling career I've had, to meet many of the friends I have, to develop whatever modicum of professional respect my career has engendered. Those wonderful consulting jobs I can take now that I'm retired? They're built on my employment at this institution.
- No matter how right I am about my predictions of doom and gloom, nobody around me really wants to hear them and maybe, just maybe, they might start wondering if I have a personal problem that behind this witchhunt, rather than a valid cause. Do I really want to be that jerk? Nobody likes a Cassandra.
- What if you are WRONG? How embarrassing would that be?
- And what if you are right? Why inflict the self-harm of watching the play-by-play? Is this good for your mental health? Your karma?
- Rest on your laurels, Attila baby. If they really are going off the rails, think of it this way: your legacy will be the rose-colored glasses, good-old-days when things were actually done well and done right. Living well is the best revenge. (how many more cliches can I fit in a sentence?)
Best wishes on a fun-filled retirement: hope those plans to travel the world and write a few novels come true.
Attila of Not-Anywhere-Near-Retirement-Age
Back at the beginning when I said I was blessed in this regard? I wasn't kidding. My predecessor built this program from scratch. Against significant odds. For nearly 30 years he ran it, often with very limited assistance. And when he retired and I took over? He let go. He's available to me whenever I say "hey, do you remember this donor/collection/item/event and what can you tell me about it?" He's even called me a few times to get the off-the-record gossip about some event, just because he's curious. And I can promise you, he really (really, really, really) doesn't agree with many of the decisions I've made, the changes I've made. But he isn't calling me up and complaining about them. He isn't calling my boss up and trying to do undercut me that way. He's NOT running around the community trying to drum up bad blood amongst our constituencies and trying to build resentment, anger, opposition.
I'm seeing other retirees do that. Badmouthing the institution, including their successors, at which they built a long and successful career. Taking newbies out to lunch in an attempt to inculcate them into their way of thinking and if that doesn't work, making veiled or not-so-veiled threats about their own personal ability to bring things to a screeching halt. Deliberately seeking out stakeholders and trying to poison relationships. What is UP with that? Why don't people understand that basic fact of human nature that when the successors face that level of blatant opposition from their predecessors, it puts them on the defensive, makes them dismiss everything, even the good things, that came from before. It's so sad. So unnecessary. So unhelpful.
Want to be helpful? Do the best job you can while you still have the job. Keep current on professional changes and implement them smartly, with planning, as you go, leaving no undone legacy work for your successors to fix. Leave copious documentation of what you did and why you did it so if something needs to be undone, it can be. Make a point of learning the larger environment, the changing trends, the financial needs, and do what you can to participate, accommodate, and educate. And when you pack up the box(es) from your office that last day and eat all the brownies and chocolate chip cookies your co-workers were nice enough to bake for your retirement party, let people know you're there as a sounding board, provide contact info, and let them remember you as the person who threw themselves into their retirement with gusto and interest in the wider world about, all those things you didn't have time to do when you were working those 60-80 hour weeks at your job.
Good luck with that.