Going Out On Your Terms

I spend most of my time thinking about how to prepare people to reinvent themselves every few years. Conventional wisdom is that market change is accelerating, that disruption is everywhere, that jobs are fleeting and that to get ahead, you have to change rapidly. Forget working for the same company for your entire career. Heck, forget about having one career. Embrace change, because it’s coming whether you like it or not.

Saturday was different. I attended Joe Melbourne’s retirement party. Joe has lead CFE Credit Union for 20 years. He has been with them for 23 years. His board wanted to extend his contract another five years. Joe’s response was that nobody wanted to be dealing with him when he’s 81. If that’s not a textbook example of going out on your own terms, I don’t know what is. Joe has been a great friend and supporter of UCF and the college. So a number of people from UCF were in attendance, including Dr. Hitt –another guy who is going to get to leave on his terms one day.

With two leaders of such unusual longevity in the same room, I couldn’t help but speculate about whether they shared some traits that account for their amazing runs leading their organization’s. Both of them have overseen enormous growth, and let’s be honest, they don’t keep you if you’re not winning. Both of them are very genuine and are loved by their employees. Heck, both of them have been around so long that they have essentially hired everyone in their organizations, and people tend to be the most loyal to the person who hired them. But I think a key to both their longevity may be their emphasis on partnership.

There is a view that as CEO tenure lengthens, internal harmony improves because everyone learns to better coordinate with each other, build trust and align. Yet over time this familiarity tends to make the CEO more insular, more risk-averse and more likely to favor the status quo. They become less attuned to external market changes and performance declines. But an emphasis on partnership might mitigate the tendency to be insular. It requires you to be out and about and in tune with your partner’s needs. Joe’s heavy involvement with UCF might help explain why a leader in his 70s made it a strategic priority to understand and meet the needs of his youngest customers. Or maybe the causality works the other way around. Either way, I think the partnership link mattered to Joe’s success in much the same way it does for Dr. Hitt.

Maybe my theory is driven by my hope that Joe benefitted from our partnership as much as we did. He has been a great friend. Joe, when that New York weather gets old, come visit us in the college and share your insights into how we can all go out on our own terms. Or better yet, maybe we could do a Dean’s Speaker Series together on the subject down at the Citrus Club. That would be great fun and give you the opportunity to tell me my theory is a bunch of crap. We both know you can’t pass that opportunity up…lol.