You’re in the left-hand seat in the cockpit now. “Your role is different,” the board member told me. “As the leader, don’t tell people what to do—instead, tell them what to think about.”

Gary Burnison

You’re in the left-hand seat in the cockpit now. “Your role is different,” the board member told me. “As the leader, don’t tell people what to do—instead, tell them what to think about.”

Gary Burnison

When I began this interview with Marsh, now 80, the first thing he said is “I flunked retirement twice.” We both agreed the word retirement doesn’t work anymore. Version 3.0 of ourselves, even version 4.0, is not about endings, it’s about beginnings. Discovering the content of the new beginning is both the hard part and the reward of the journey.

Marsh began his career in the military, following his father into West Point and ultimately into the Marines. When the Vietnam War ended, he realized two things, 1) without a war, his military leadership options were limited. 2) if he wanted to change his career, he needed to control it. In the military, you went where you got assigned. With a wife and two children, this idea no longer appealed to Marsh. 

So at the age of 35, Marsh decided to enter the corporate world. He sent letters to 85 companies and got zero interviews. When I asked him why, he said, “In those days if you were a Vietnam vet, you were viewed as some crazy person. At 35, no one wanted to touch me; no one was willing to give me a second chance.” 

Fortunately, he had a friend at Chase Manhattan Bank who got him an interview for a job for which his military experience was a plus. Soon thereafter, he was offered a job that no-one wanted, corporate budget director. While his colleagues viewed this job as too hard and too much work, it was ideal for a military trained guy. It had the side benefit of regular briefings with the bank’s chairman, which provided him with broad strategic exposure and, ultimately, opportunities.

In retrospect, Marsh describes the transition from the military to corporate life as his most challenging transition. Learning the lingo was hard enough, e.g., the executive dining room was just that, not the mess hall. The hardest part was learning how to create and inspire teams. Teamwork is essential to getting the job done in the military and therefore happens naturally. There is a common enemy to fight, and without a team to deploy it, an 85-pound machine gun is worthless. On the other hand, while teamwork certainly maximizes the result in a company, people are more likely to compete within the company and work in silos.  

Once he got the hang of building teams in the corporate world, he enjoyed it and wanted to lead people as he had done in the military. He navigated his way to a regional management job, his first P/L responsibility, and ultimately to head a growing business called global custody. It was in this role that he was tapped to take over as CEO of State Street Bank and Trust. From SVP of a money center bank, several levels below any C-Suite role, to CEO of a regional bank. He transformed this bank into the worldwide leader of global custody, and then after ten years, he retired at the age of 61. 

When I asked how he and they decided he should retire, he replied, “This was planned from day one. The board had been caught short by his predecessor deciding six months before he retired that the person he was grooming to replace him was not the guy. The board had to scramble to find a replacement (Marsh). They were determined not to have this happen again. So, before I started, they asked me, “what are your plans?” I said 8-10 years is about right in the CEO role (today, I think it more like 4-5, he added), and my wife and I want time in our early 60’s to enjoy life. From there, we agreed on how we would proceed. We began a management resource review for candidates four years before I left.”

After Marsh “retired” from State Street, he followed his father once again, this time into teaching, a seemingly ideal retirement job. For two years, he taught full-time at the Kennedy School at Harvard, only to discover he was bored teaching the same subject a second time.  

As luck would have it, about this time, the New York Stock Exchange imploded in scandal. The CEO was fired, a new board was created, and the chairman asked Marsh to take the helm.  

So much for retirement. Marsh led the New York Stock Exchange for ten years, and then at 74, he retired for real. He still gives lectures at MIT Sloan and consults a bit with business leaders. 

What advice does Marsh have for other CEOs who want to pivot?

  • Be strategic about your current role AND the next versions of yourself.
  • Find a coach – being a CEO is a lonely job; you can’t share your musings and life questions with your team. While you can seek your own counsel, an outside perspective is better. 
  • Have another passion. If your whole life is around being a CEO and your family, any transition will be hard. Roosevelt had his stamp collection; I learned to fly. 
  • Forget about retirement. Think more in terms of redirecting. 
  • Experience space before you fill it and discover what is calling your attention.
  • And one more…it’s a big transition when your inbox isn’t full every day!!!

For me, the Thanksgiving holiday is a time to pause and consider the gifts that life has given me and ask myself how and where I can pay those gifts forward.   

More than any other year, 2020 is the year to pay it forward. More than any other disaster, the impact of COVID-19 has been unequal. And it is unequal in ways that will have a lasting effect. People are hurting like never before, and sadly the agencies that support them are devasted as well. People who had jobs, and were barely able to support their families up til now, are without a safety net and are hungry. 

As Thanks-Giving approaches, its time for all of us who have the gift of privilege to pause and ask ourselves these questions:

  • What can I do to support the businesses in my community so they too can pay it forward and continue to employ people?
  • What can I do to support my neighbors who may be struggling with housing, food insecurity, and other unmet basic needs? 
  • What can I do to support the agencies, including the arts, that fill the gaps in these unmet needs and bring hope and beauty to our community? 

Last week I featured the familiar unreliable narrator story, the one where we judge ourselves harshly and thus tell an unreliable story of our accomplishments.

As I reflected on this story in conversations with readers, I was reminded of an unreliable narrator of a different sort that can be equally misleading. In this version, the narrator tells a story of accomplishments that may also be lies, i.e., the flip side.

As a reminder, the unreliable narrator is a storyteller who withholds information, lies to, or misleads the reader, casting doubt on the narrative. Authors use this device to engage readers on a deeper level, forcing them to come to their own conclusions when the narrator’s point of view can’t be trusted.

In the flip side story, the narrator has convinced himself (or herself) that s/he is bulletproof.

A while back, I watched two documentaries, both of which chronicled storytellers who were later indicted for fraud, Billy McFarland, founder of Fyre Media, and the Fyre Festival creator and Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos. Perhaps because I watched them back to back, I was struck by the common themes.

Both founders passionately believed in their stories and told them well, so well, that investors and buyers flocked to them. Except their stories were lies. These two founders were unreliable narrators that were so good at their craft that the observer didn’t see that the narrator’s view could not be trusted.

One can easily dismiss these dramatic stories as intentional fraud. I wonder, though, whether these storytellers and others like them set out to commit fraud or believed so passionately in their stories that they were blind to the facts.

Less dramatically, there are the people we know who confidently share their successes, which seem real, until we look behind the curtain.

Regardless of the type of lies, the unreliable narrator holds us back and keeps us from telling our real story.

Last week I wrote about the importance of telling your today story before answering the question, What is Your Tomorrow Story?

One of the challenges I observe in my work as an executive life coach is we are often an unreliable narrator of our own story. Successful people tend to focus on what is next. They become accustomed to asking themselves, “what could I do better?” “What could my company do better?”  

While this approach is perceived to drive results, it also leads to negative feelings and perceptions, judging ourselves, others, and our circumstances. This judgment then shows up when we tell our story.

I recently began work with a CEO who had spent the last seven years transforming a founder-led, founder-dependent company into a steady, stable, independent profitable growth company—the result: a company that couldn’t find a buyer, sold for multiples of EBITDA.

Yet, when I asked him to tell me his story as he prepares for his next gig, I heard a story that went something like this. “I am good at team building and creating order out of chaos, but I am not a charismatic leader. I expanded a local company and turned it into a national company, but it wasn’t growing at 10x multiples of earnings. The company had up and down years before I took over, and under my leadership, results were consistent, but not double-digit.” 

With all these “buts,” he was an unreliable narrator of his own story.

The unreliable narrator is a storyteller who withholds information, lies to, or misleads the reader, casting doubt on the narrative. Authors use this device to engage readers on a deeper level, forcing them to come to their own conclusions when the narrator’s point of view can’t be trusted. 

While this is a useful device to keep our attention in a novel, when we tell the story of our lives and our career, it can send us down a rabbit hole of self-doubt and lies we tell ourselves.

What to do? Here are two approaches that I have found helpful:

  • Try telling your today story and your tomorrow story in the third person; write it as though you are talking about someone else.
  • Find a friend, a family member, a coach, someone that either knows you well, or is good at asking questions to draw out the real story. In short, find an editor to become the reliable narrator of your real story.