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!!!
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