AIPM Living Leadership

How do we end a long term relationship? 

It's early morning, I am searching for coffee with a friend.  We’re the first customers of the day, he’s in uniform so we discretely slip into the back of the café.  He’s full of ideas, energy and opinions. He can see how the organisation needs to change, where the quick wins are, where they can do better. He looks at his watch.  He keeps our conversation in the present – there’s this project, those things which are getting sorted, and wouldn’t it be great to get on that gig.  The more he talks about his organisation to more he looks at his watch.  I can sense his anguish, but can't quite grasp its nature.
Later I’m on a training paddle, listening to my playlist.  The 1980's ABBA's hit "The winner takes it all" comes on. The lyrics are sad, but the real life story is even sadder.  It’s a scouring song about the divorce of the songwriter, Bjorn Ulvaeus (no beard) and the lead singer, Agnetha Faltskog (the blonde). I quietly think to myself, who sends their ex-wife out on stage with the opening line “I don’t wanna talk…”?  Surely this was borderline spousal abuse - making your ex-wife sing your song, about your divorce which paints you as the winner over her.
As I listen, I slip my friend into the song.  Since he was eighteen or nineteen he’s been a police officer and, apart from his wife and family, it’s probably been his deepest long term relationship across his adult life. This relationship has given him belonging and identity, built him a home and given him fences and rules in which to play his game.
So here is my friend at the end of his career, still deeply mentally, physically and emotionally engaged in a relationship with his organisation.  He talks as if it’s perpetual.  When I challenge him, there’s a flicker of doubt.  He depersonalises, he distances himself - he talks about work as if a game, describing himself as a spectator, of staying low.  But he’s not fooling me.
Retirement, after 30 to 40 years of service, must seem like a divorce.  Some pre-empt it by leaving early, while others discreetly build for the life to come.  Others seem oblivious. Divorce always seems more painful for the person left behind. You never want to be the one saying "I didn't see it coming".

If retirement is like a divorce, how can you go out a winner?  Money, the payout or superannuation - for many is the definition of going out a winner.  Granted money is important, but after 30 years of working passionately in public safety, I wonder if money is a shallow victory.  Just because you get the house in the settlement doesn't mean you win.
For some, being a winner is sipping on the never ending glass of schadenfreude, drawing enjoyment from the imagined hole left upon your departure. Each glass is accompanied by a nibble of those stories of how things were all better when you were in command. After all, you spend most of your career believing, as individuals, you are personally making a difference.  Surely your departure is their loss!
Many public safety organisations are experiencing very low separation rates.  Their average age of employee sits well above 40 years of age.  They’re weighing heavy in experience, especially in their middle to senior leadership. Without senior officers leaving, promotion systems grind to a halt, recruitment reduces to a trickle and the system atrophies.

The army does it better. Senior leaders are told regularly when their time is over.  For every officer promoted up the ladder, others are knocked off the ladder.  No one is left to linger, no holding on for another five years, just the heavy boot of expedience breaking their final grip.  What remains is a lean pipeline of leadership renewal.

Without such a pipeline, our bad marriages remain. One partner refuses to leave, either because of money or because they can’t imagine where else to go. Meanwhile the other partner remains trapped and unhappy. Others hang around indefinitely, spending their time professing their passion and telling their stories, all the while their partner looks longingly for others.
I don't know what my friend will do.  He doesn't want to move on. I suspect sooner or later the job will simply leave him.  He will have his money and his schadenfreude as comfort, but there will be a deeper hurt. I can't help but think a pre-emptive mutually agreeable divorce would be best for both.

And as for all our organisations, you carry some of the blame.  In those crazy days of summer, you made all sorts of promises in exchange for passion.  Now in autumn, it is you who is the first to forget. Wouldn't it be easier to them tell them right at this beginning, this is never going to be forever.

Regards ... Andy

Source: Singh, A. (2017). AIPM Living Leadership.