Defend Truth


Life starts at 60, and not only for Alan Knott-Craig

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

When it was announced that Alan Knott-Craig is to be the next CEO of Cell C, we were all somewhat bemused. Not that the owners of Cell C had made a bad decision. Quite opposite.

In fact, bringing his high level of credibility and substantial track record to the business, Knott-Craig’s appointment seems to have been a master-stroke for an ailing cellular business. The confusion and surprise are caused by Knott-Craig’s decision. Why would a man, not short of cash, we presume, and pushing 60, want to go through the inevitable rigours of a turnaround? Why take on a business in opposition to your alma mater?

The answer may not be as complex or obscure as one may imagine. What does a man do when he retires from a high-profile job, where his whole identity, lifestyle and public persona have been integrated into a company and its brand? When the warm flush of the farewell accolades and the pleasurable anticipation of “free time” have been spent, what lies ahead when you get up in the morning? Travel, wild-life photography and golf can only take you so far. And then there are the charitable causes and perhaps some non-executive directorships. But it’s not quite the same, is it?

The truth is we do not work just to make a living. We like to complain sometimes about how busy we are and how we long for more time to do “other things”, but the fact is that a top-end executive life, especially that of a listed company CEO, is hugely exciting and very rewarding, way beyond the financial compensation of it. The sense of engagement in a competitive, virile life is addictive. No matter how people brag when they have retired about being “busier now than when I had a full-time job”, there is not much of a substitute for being the “Boss”. The pleasure of making decisions and having a whole infrastructure to see to your every need is mightily intoxicating. The full realisation of this often only hits people when they no longer have it.

We live in a society which attaches great value to occupation. What one does defines one’s life. When people meet and try to find the measure of each other the first question they want to ask is “what do you do?” “What line of business are you in?” Corporate functions help us by handing name tags at the door giving your name and your company. That allows us to get over the potential awkwardness. Watch people who are between jobs, or women who have not been working outside the family. The question either causes a mumbled embarrassment or an overly rehearsed slick response. We need the anchor of a job in our lives.  Or at least something which says that you are meaningfully engaged in the real world. Why, when someone says that they are “retired” is there a  sense of sympathy or even a little pity? Why is there not envy? It is because in our action-orientated universe everyone is meant to be doing something. Fading into doing nothing is no cause for celebration.

Think of politicians who don’t know when it’s time to go. Holding on to the perks and the glory is one side of it, but it may also be that they simply don’t know what else to do. A retired president of the US builds a library and gives speeches. And raises money for his favourite charities. But isn’t there a sense of anti-climax and waste? What about rock stars and entertainers who are forever making comebacks?

We often speak to people who are about to retire, and ask them what they would like to be doing in their retirement. Senior executives and CEOs usually say that they would like to include “one or two” board appointments. When we ask: “Why?” considering the massive exposure and responsibility of a non-executive appointment these days, they tend to have a look which says “What else..?”

It’s not that everyone enjoys sitting on a board and being removed from the real action of the business. In fact, the switch from hands-on management to hands-off governance is more difficult than retiring CEOs imagine. Taking a non-executive directorship or two and giving some time to a charity just seems to be the decent thing to do.

There’s another thing. We are living longer. To stop a man in his tracks around 60 is not only bad for a productive economy, it robs him of what for many may be their most fruitful years of contribution. The actuaries tell us that, barring anything untoward, a reasonably healthy man of about 60 now, is likely to live beyond 90. The distance form 60 to 90 is the same as from 30 to 60. It’s time we think of moving the markers. Creating “things to do” and diversions for a retirement which could last for 30 years no longer seem sustainable.
Forget about the fact that in most mature, first-world economies too few young people are going to have the liability of maintaining the increasing cost of those retired for such a long time. The systems were designed for a working population of people who lived until they were in their 60s. Now suddenly another 20 or 30 years of health- and frail-care have to be factored into the equation. Also forget that when prospective retirees do their numbers they come to realise that they cannot afford to retire. With all this in mind, it is not surprising that much “retirement counselling” is focussed on financial issues and ensuring one has a sufficient income to live on in the “golden years”. Few counsellors are focussing on a man’s need for on-going significance and influence. Especially for those who, like Alan Knott-Craig, have had so much of it. DM


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