BRETT & ME: Lessons in Leaving What You Love

Brett Favre’s 18-year streak of never missing a game as a pro football quarterback ended last Monday night.  But his place as a Green Bay Packers icon has been taking a severe beating for three years, ever since he “unretired” in 2008 to play for the New York Jets, and then “unretired” in 2009 and 2010 to lead the Minnesota Vikings, each time dragging the “drama” well into the summer.  This year he compounded his image problems by not playing very well and by getting caught up in a sexual harassment incident.

Why do so many leaders – in all walks of life, including business – refuse to leave the limelight when the time is right for them to do so?

This question is of more than academic interest to me because I stepped down in April as the principal of the PR firm I founded in 1975 and saw grow from two employees to 35.  There is no question that a lot of my self esteem is tied up in the company.   That’s par for the course for entrepreneurs.  But I also knew I didn’t want to go the Brett Favre route – leaving and hoping people would beg me to come back.

Some of the steps I took to prevent that may be of interest to readers of this post.  They are applicable to a wide range of situations in which people are making fundamental changes in their lives.

  1. Figure out “life after football.”  A recent Sports Illustrated profile basically said that football was Favre’s only passion.  In my case, I satisfy my business “needs” with a two-day work week spent serving on the board of the marketing services company that bought our firm and by teaching training courses to our PR firm’s staff.  I’ll spend the balance of the time on not-for-profit work and maybe do some consulting with my wife when she retires.
  2. Pick a “leave date” and stick to it.  I made it clear that March 31 was my last day in my old position and took 10 days of vacation at the beginning of April.  I was gone in body which hopefully hastened the process of making me gone in spirit.
  3. Get rid of the trappings of office.  I did this literally by leaving the office I had occupied for 15 years on March 31 and moving into a much smaller one at the other end of our space.  Symbols are important and can speak volumes.
  4. Don’t criticize your successor(s).  In this case, silence speaks volumes.  You are no longer in charge – they are.  Even if you don’t agree with their decisions – and there were some (though not many) that fell in that category – it was no longer my place to offer an opinion unless it was asked for.

For people in professional services in my position, there are probably a few more specific pieces of advice:

  1. Start weaning yourself off account responsibilities well in advance of your retirement (or life change) date.  If you don’t do that, you’re trying to tell people that you’re indispensable (see Favre above).
  2. By the same token, take yourself out of the new business loop.  That was hard for me because new business is fun and it gets the competitive juices flowing.  But eventually I got it right and started to refer new business calls that came in to me to others.

I hope these personal thoughts are helpful.  If not, as one of my old editors said, they “can always be used to wrap fish in.”  I’d love to hear your thoughts in this regard.  Are there other ways to “leave the table when the food tastes best,” as my mother used to say?

To reach John:

Phone:  212.840.0444
LinkedIn:  John Bliss