Knowing when it’s time to retire

David Butler, 59, was thinking of heading for the fairways of retirement in 1998.

At the time, he was wrapping up a 31-year tenure with Dow Chemical Co. But when he was offered a job as corporate vice-president and CIO of Whirlpool, his R&R reveries quickly turned into visions of his company’s products in more than 80 million homes. Thus, he postponed his retirement plans for another five years.

Today, Butler’s right on schedule. His last day of work with the US$11 billion manufacturer was Sept. 30, 2003. And he has no plans to become a strategic adviser or join a corporate board, though he has discussed it. “A number of my friends have done that, (retired and then gone on to take up advisory positions,) and it turns out you lose control of your time pretty quickly. Even though you can pick the assignments, you’re working hard and living in a hotel room somewhere,” he said.

So what made this time different from the last time Butler considered retirement? Three factors sealed it. There’s enough money. Butler, whose kids are grown, can afford to retire. It may seem obvious, but one’s financial situation is the most important factor in determining retirement timing. Set up an appointment with your financial planner to see if you can afford to relax on the beach.

The time feels right. “CIOs considering retirement should ask themselves if that’s something they really want to do, or if they’re only considering it because they’re exhausted and just need some time off,” said Kelvin Thompson, an executive recruiter with Heidrick & Struggles. For his part, Butler is in the right frame of mind.

Speaking shortly before he left Whirlpool, he said, “I’m at a point where retirement isn’t about leaving something but is something you go to.”

Missions accomplished. Butler put off retirement because the Whirlpool job offered him the chance to fill a void in his career. Now he’s content that he’s done it all — Y2K conversion, the advent of e-commerce and a particularly challenging global ERP rollout. Butler says Whirlpool “had to work hard to pull that (ERP project) along, but we got through it. It has given us a terrific platform for managing a very complex business going forward. I wouldn’t wish to go through that six-month period again, but I’m glad we got it behind us.”

It’s better to finish with big jobs done, said Thompson: “Handing over a major project (in progress) to a successor is a route for disaster. If a project is coming to a close, that’s a good time to move on.” Butler adds: “I don’t know that I would retire if I felt we were in the middle of a mess.”

And indeed, Butler feels he’s leaving Whirlpool’s IT department in good shape with his successor, Esat Sezer, who’s worked for the Benton Harbor, Mich.-based manufacturer since August 2001.

Sezer said the 25-month transition gave him “incremental responsibilities, exposure to different parts of the organization and leadership mentoring and coaching.”

“When a person can do a job as well or even better than me, it’s clear that this is the time for me to retire,” Butler said.

Don’t Wait to Groom a Successor

Soon after he joined Whirlpool, David Butler said he began thinking about succession planning. “One of the key responsibilities of a leader is to make sure they are building an organization of leaders,” he said.

Butler learned the importance of succession planning in one of his first supervisory roles at Dow Chemical. His manager at the time told him: “To continue to grow in this organization, you’ve got to be able to assume the next job, and you’ve got to have someone clearly ready to do your job.”

What follows are Butler’s tips for finding and grooming successors, based on Whirlpool’s own succession planning process.

1. Start looking early on.

2. Identify people who are risk-takers, but who also demonstrate integrity, interpersonal skills and a desire to learn and grow.

3. Zero in on what further development potential successors would need to assume the CIO role.

4. Inform potential successors that they are candidates, and that if they continue their development, they would be considered for the job.

5. Share your recommendations on potential successors with the executive committee.

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