PROFILE: HER CLIMB UP WAS STEEP… PLANNED AND CALM ON THE WAY DOWN
You know that there are some people who seem to just get it right…you watch them with admiration wondering how they instinctively know where to be and how to do it. Well, Martha fits that bill. From what she calls a humble background…up to THE most senior levels in banking…and now moving from her first quasi (but not really) retirement and into a new phase. All through that accomplished path, it’s seems she’s been fulfilled and comfortable with her decisions and place in life.
She calls herself an “accidental tourist” in banking, where she ended up by a stroke of luck on the way to a teaching career after being the first in her family to attend college. At her career pinnacle at a major money center bank, she was a member of the Bank’s Senior Management Committee (those are the big boys, by the way) heading up businesses that operated in 62 countries, generating revenues in excess of $2 billion, with 6000 people reporting to her. The demands of a job like this are enormous. When you’re the CEO of a global business, you’re on a plane to somewhere every other day and have virtually no free time. That’s called the C-Suite…and that’s what she achieved.
And then in her mid-50s…the bank was acquired and she had no desire to move to Europe, the home of the acquiring bank and its senior management. Given her stature in the industry, offers of high powered positions came her way. She didn’t sign on, however. And I’d venture to say that her reasoning was more likely to have been followed by a woman than a man: Her father became ill and she didn’t want the conflict of the herculean business responsibility getting in the way of caring for him. At the same time, she had recently remarried…another motivating factor that led into her first transition out of the C Suite.
She was justifiably fortunate in this first chapter out of the full-time corporate banking world—she already sat on 3 major corporate Boards of Directors—the kind that people dream about. Admittedly, she would have not been as happy going cold turkey off the banking mountain– “Once you’re out of the company…you are out of the company….” Martha summarizes. “The Queen is dead. Long live the new Queen.” Your power comes from your position and you just have to accept that, she advises.
Her Board positions were a big deal and kept her relevant…maybe not quite a Queen…but certainly a Duchess! Having done business with CEOs who knew her capabilities, she was a sought after Board member during and after her banking career. She even calls her second career/first retirement “public company director”. (How many people would be jealous of that one…..). In this new “career” she had the freedom to spend time with her parents and her new husband, while also being in the game. Did she miss her day job and have a burning desire to climb back up? “I didn’t miss the constant pressure or the constant global travel demands,” she admits. At the same time, she had found a great outlet for her talents, still did business with interesting and smart people while gaining the flexibility that she never had.
I’d be naïve if I thought that this option or path was available to many people and you may be wondering why I’d even write this story. After all, most of us can’t turn to Corporate Board seats as our first retirement chapter—that’s for sure. What’s instructive, I do think, is the backstop that these positions provided. Perhaps that’s the point… that built in interests and responsibilities you build along the way can provide a buffer between Point A and Point B if your career does get derailed by external forces.
Back to Martha as she approaches 70: she’s ready to transition from that second career/first retirement to the next phase—whatever you want to call that. Admittedly, she admits that she’s a less viable Director candidate at her age, but her real reason—“Personal time is more important to me now. My life was so defined by the things I did”, she explains, adding that “I really liked that other person and that jazzed feeling of getting things done. But now I want the time to invest in personal relationships and things I care about. I want to go through a summer where I don’t have to leave for a Board meeting. I’ve earned that. I have to give myself the permission to relax, which I’ve never done before. I always did what was required of me and now it’s time to listen to ME.” She certainly sounded like someone ready to get off that high performance treadmill and move on to another life.
But that doesn’t mean spending all of her time on bridge, golf and canasta– “I’d shoot my brains out”, she confesses. And so right now is another transition time to a next chapter for Martha, who is in a sort of exploring mode as she prepares to go off the last Board in about a year. She waxes philosophical when she speaks wistfully about feeling the press of time marching on without the knowledge of how much is actually left on her plate. So, she says, “I really want to think about how I want to spend this valuable time and for sure”, she jokes, “it’s NOT on a plane for business—it’s on a plane going somewhere fun with my husband and friends I care about.”
As we talk about this next retirement chapter, I hear two messages from her. The first is “giving back.” She remains so grateful to the mentors, advisers and door openers who helped her along the way from her non-business and non-privileged beginnings and she wants to do the same for others. She’s on the Board of her College who helped her take her first steps toward her career and she wants to mentor people like her younger self or help young people get into the arts—another of her passions. (Did I forget to mention that in addition to her corporate boards, she was the Board Chair of a repertory theatre company.) She wants to continue supporting and working in the Arts as well. And her second path… is just giving herself the freedom to enjoy life. “I don’t have enough time to do all the things I want to do” she laments—and most of these are things that just couldn’t have been part of her high-pressured-work dominated life. Things like hearing children laughing in a pool, spending a day on the golf course with her husband or appreciating a sunset… that’s wonderful and definitely ok with her. Her jury on this life is still out, she admits, and if she’s bored or unfulfilled in a year, she will revisit her plans. Sounds like an excellent plan…from a woman who never had one that wasn’t.