Day 818

Lessons from the CEOs


A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at a dinner.

I wasn’t really sure of the details, just that it was at M restaurant, only 16 people and relatively informal. I’m not one to turn down a free meal at one of the nicest restaurants in London, besides the invitation had been extended by ‘Wings For Life’ an amazing charity who are funding groundbreaking research into spinal cord injuries.

As I surveyed the long private dining room from the head of the table it started to occur to me that I might be in quite esteemed company. I wasn’t wrong. One by one everyone introduced themselves and offered up an interesting fact about themselves. CEO’s, Founders and Presidents of huge organisations. Shit, I really should have prepared a speech. ‘Hi I’m Ed and I um, well I’m just crap at diving and now i’m sat here with you lot.’

The event was hosted to give a chance for some of the countries great business minds to get together, discuss current affairs, personal endeavours and just generally put the world to rights. I sat quietly and listened as they covered managing change, managing people and the keys to their successes and failures. It was fascinating. Not because I was discovering revolutionary insight but because it was reaffirming. These people weren’t robots, they weren’t invulnerable or flawless. Sure they were on the most part articulate and confident but they had the same worries and drivers as you and I.

Two things stood out for me…

The first was that almost without exception it was said that the greatest success’s in their business careers weren’t financial but to see individuals flourish. To create an environment where someone can grow and change their lives for the better was more rewarding than any bottom line. For me this stems back to altruism and the reward mechanisms engrained in us for doing good for others. There is a reason why eventually all billionaires turn to philanthropy. There comes a point where they realise that more money isn’t going to make them happier, but giving it away will. It taps in to a primeval instinct. We are sociable creatures, we’ve always had to be. Alone in the wild we are effectively lunch for any sizeable predator. Humans aren’t particularly strong or fast, we don’t have giant teeth, thick skin or claws. We are intelligent but I’m not sure that any level of verbal reasoning is going to persuade a hungry lion to turn vegetarian. Our strength has always been collaboration. Tribes, clans, hunting parties, there is strength in numbers and if you found yourself on the outside, roaming the planes by yourself, forced out for being selfish, snoring or just generally being a knob then it wouldn’t be long before you were on the menu. This led us to evolve reward mechanisms for doing good for others. The best way to remain part of the clan is to be useful to those around you, whether that’s in a practical sense by utilising the skills you posses on their behalf or just simply making them feel good by being kind. It’s engrained in our DNA to the point that when we perform these selfless acts we are rewarded with endorphins, not because of any in built moral compass but because we are simply improving our chance of survival…evolution 101.

 

The second came down to identity.

We got on to the topic of retirement and how difficult that transition had proven for many of them. Its an issue that i’m very well aware of having had to retire recently myself however you would have imagined that optional retirement and forced retirement were two different beasts. Apparently not necessarily.

In sport the issues with depression following retirement are not to be taken lightly. I now work closely with Restart (charity that supports professional rugby players in England) and I see the amount of mental health cases coming through. It’s quite shocking although not that surprising. I believe one of the major issues effecting players who leave the game whether it be through injury, choice or the inability to secure another contract is a loss of identity.

Most sportsmen and women start at a young age and to make it to elite levels have to commit themselves fully to that discipline. They live and breathe their sport and naturally it steadily becomes their identity. This seems to happen to anyone at the top of their field, they begin to be identified by what they do and not who they are. The danger lies in embracing an identity that is ultimately temporary…like a job. The only thing that a professional sportsperson can be certain of is that their sporting career will end and at a relatively young age. The only thing you’ve ever really identified with will disappear.

If your entire identity is wrapped up in being that sportsperson, be it Ed the rugby player, or Tom the cricketer then you’re about to get a big shock. You would be amazed how quickly people move on and how little they care once you are no longer relevant in that field. They have been looked up to their whole career and now, all of a sudden, they feel irrelevant. Irrelevant and unprepared for life. This of course isn’t true in itself. Many skills learnt in professional sport set you in very good stead for the ‘real world’ and the feeling of irrelevance stems from a warped sense of self created by public adoration. You spend a lot of time signing autographs when really the kids don’t have a clue who you are….

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Well evidently it’s not just sport.

I sat and listened intently as a conversation ensued about this exact same identity crisis when retiring from a long successful business career. In one case, a former owner of a large conglomerate, despite making millions and looking forward to retirement for a long time, survived less than a year before returning to work fo the same company he once owned, aged 70.

In another case a very successful entrepreneur retired in his early forties and it wasn’t long before he was suffering from depression. He talked about losing a sense of purpose, how he was used to being ‘important’, valued, even revered. Over time he had embodied his title within the organisation. He was the founder, the CEO, and he acted that way. Interestingly he found solace in therapy and mindfulness. He readjusted his perspective and came to understand what was important in life to him again. He focussed on being a good husband, father and friend, now spending his time with his family, mentoring others and doing charity work. He’s happy again.

My advice is to hold your identity in your core values, in the things that cant be taken from you. Honesty, work ethic, kindness, let those be the things that define you. People who don’t know you will still pigeon hole you, especially if you are renowned for being good at ’something’, but as long as you stay true to yourself and pride yourself on your actions and not your accomplishments then you effectively become invincible.

Let it be something you do, not who you are.

A fascinating evening.

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