by William Brown and Reuben Cohen
What does the future hold for John Boehner?
At the relatively young age of 66, the former Republican House Speaker decided to hang up his political spurs after more than 30 years of public service. In retiring from politics, Boehner went from one of the most recognizable political faces in the United States, and one of the leading Republican voices in one of the most volatile periods of federal politics, to an experienced sideline commentator for the 2016 election.
Boehner has publicly noted that he is not sure exactly what to do with himself now that he has left the crucible of party politics. “It’s weird,” the former Ohio representative told Politico in late 2015. “I’m used to going all the time. Then you’re not going all the time. It’s different.”
Boehner is not alone. The same challenge is being faced by none other than President Barack Obama. In just a few weeks, the two-term commander in chief will hand over the title of “leader of the free world” to President-elect Donald Trump.
So, what lies ahead for the soon-to-be-former president?
“I don’t mind being America’s pitchman… I’ll be on the job market,” Obama said during a keynote address in June to the SelectUSA Investment Summit. “I’m gonna get on LinkedIn and, you know, see what comes up.”
In this election year, there will be hundreds of politicians leaving the front lines of politics. Some, like Boehner, on their own terms and others at the hand of voters. From local government, all the way up to the White House, change is coming for men and women of political power. And in some ways, it will be the biggest challenge of their entire professional lives.
We know this because senior business leaders face this kind of uncertainty and stress all the time.
For politicians, elections can be the seismic events that lead to fundamental change on a societal level as well as transition for the leaders on an individual level. For business leaders, transition can result from a myriad of scenarios, including retirement, downsizing, or a reorganization resulting from a merger or acquisition. The end result, however, is the same: powerful leaders that serve often as the final decision makers in large and complex organizations suddenly find themselves without an office, a title and a clear purpose in life.
As Boehner noted above, this can mean a profound change in the tempo of life. Boehner was, by his own admission, “going all the time.” He spent more than two-thirds of each year travelling the country on political business, living out of a suitcase and a hotel room, surrounded by security and driven everywhere by a chauffeur. Now, all of that is gone, and it creates some stress.
“I need a car,” Boehner said in his interview. “So do I get a car in Ohio? Do I get a car here? Do I get a car in D.C.? I don’t know. Much less try to figure out what I’m actually going to do.”
This is a reaction we hear all the time from senior business leaders. Along with the power inherent in occupying a position atop a corporate structure come certain benefits and privileges. When those things are gone, some leaders have trouble figuring out how to make their lives work.
How exactly will Boehner and other political leaders find their way in a post-politics world?
Having worked with thousands of top business leaders in transition, the parallels with politicians cannot be ignored. Fortunately for the ranks of the former political leaders, the solutions we have used to help business leaders can be applied in both spheres.
What really makes you happy? The first step is getting the political or business leader to stop and take stock of what they would really like to do with their lives.
At the International Center for Executive Options, we have heard over and over again from business leaders that they have been so busy, so engaged in their jobs, that they never found the time to even consider a life doing something else. When they are forced into a transition, they have trouble imagining other roles or purposes.
We see senior business executives who have spent a long time in careers that were not as fully satisfying as they might have liked. Many drifted into senior leadership roles not because of a burning desire to lead, but to serve something or someone else. These leaders spent their lives constantly putting the needs of the company, the party or the government ahead of their own.
The end result is a leader that has lost touch with his or her personal hopes and dreams. In transition, it is extremely important to get back in touch with those aspirational goals and really focus on the things that make them happy and fulfilled, both professionally and personally.
Remember that networking is not a thing, it’s a skill. A common fear among many senior business leaders in transition is that their network of colleagues and other contacts will somehow disappear once they leave a leadership position. Although there may be a bit of erosion, those networks are generally far more robust than these executives appreciate.
The important thing to remember is that executives will always retain the skills that led to them being top performers and well networked in their former roles. You don’t suddenly lose all of the skills that served you as a business or political leader and made you appealing to your networks.
There are always opportunities for people who were successful leaders. Although it may seem hard to believe, many senior business leaders in transition simply don’t believe there are opportunities awaiting them in the post-transition period of their lives. The reality is that leaders have more options than they often realize. There is a huge breadth of opportunity awaiting them as they begin the next stage of their careers. The key is to not get bogged down looking for the exact same role in a similar organization; in reality, leaders that allow themselves the room to consider different roles and with different types of organizations will see the fullest range of opportunities revealed.
There is no getting around the fact that being forced to confront a transition can be a disquieting, life-altering experience. It is profound change, brought down to a very personal and intimate level. So, it’s necessary to develop a mindset that is fully prepared for the journey and all that it has to offer.
That having been said, senior business leaders can get derailed in transition by focusing solely on the stress and change. So much so that they simply cannot see the full range of opportunities that exist for them.
In our extensive experience working with business leaders, it does not take long before a broad and exciting array of new career options become available. Options that may not have been apparent before, but which can be just as interesting, challenging, and satisfying as anything these leaders were doing before.
All it takes is a fresh perspective, a willingness to question the status quo and a sense of purpose to explore all options.