Approaching 70, he would talk about retirement, but he wouldn’t do it. Business was becoming less fun and more frustrating as his industry underwent total transformation. Rather than building his business against the current, he had played an end game from the beginning. He had constantly taken chips off the table, cashed them in and put the money in conservative investments. So, personal financial security was not a problem. But he still didn’t retire. Questions plagued his mind: What will I do with my time? What do I say when people ask what I do? Can my son, who has worked with me for 25 years, make it without me?
His wife of 45 years wanted to travel more. She also wanted her son to have the chance to make it on his own. She understood the tension and frustration that both her beloved men felt, and hoped to move on. She was receptive when another son came up with an idea. “Let’s throw Dad a surprise retirement party. He keeps saying he wants to retire, but he never does it. Maybe a big celebration will make it all more real.”
So they made plans. They concocted a plausible story to get him to dinner at the club on Saturday night. They invited family, friends and key employees and swore them to secrecy. They even included his pastor. Everyone knew that he took pride in the fact that he’d never been surprised by a celebration in his entire life.
But this time, it worked. Since he really couldn’t conceive of retirement, he hadn’t thought of the possibility of a retirement party—so he was completely stunned. As they walked into the room, he saw an elderly woman and said: “That looks like my mother.” It was his mother, in town for the occasion. As friends and family surrounded him with congratulations and good wishes, he looked confused.
“This is your retirement party, Dad. Are you surprised?” An emotional man, he struggled with his tears. As the night went on, poignant, tear-generated floods were a constant hazard.
Dinner was served. Music was played. “My Way” was a popular selection. And then it was time for the speeches. Lifelong friends and business associates praised his tenacity, his dedication, his business sense, and his commitment to his family. He showed his love through his work, said his daughter—the business was the fourth sibling in the family. Memories poured forth and hope for the future. Things were said in public that had never before been said—even in private. This was not a man who easily spoke or heard about emotions. Emotions engulfed him that night.
And by the end of the evening, his attitudes had softened. While some questions remained, the answers seemed clearer or less important. Accomplishment was achieved and appreciated . . . he no longer had to prove himself every day. His children really could take responsibility for themselves, and his son in the business needed the chance to win or lose on his own. There really was life after retirement, and freedom could be embraced as an adventure. All those tears softened the rock. The celebration confirmed a reality that was hard to accept. It also recognized and soothed the fears of the future.
On Monday morning, he got up as usual and went to work. But when he got there, his first words were, “Well, I’m retired.” His attitude had changed. He had let go. He and his wife began to plan other activities during the week. And soon, he was visiting the office less and less. He still enjoyed talking business with his son, but now the purpose was pleasure rather than control or instruction. The tensions between father and son slipped away and mutual appreciation—always buried by frustration in the past C could now shine through.
The son made changes in the business. New products and different ways of coming to market appealed to different customers—and after a short while, the father knew that it really wasn’t his business anymore. And that was okay…and he accepted too, that it was okay to be retired.
Transitions are always hard. Recognition, celebration, appreciation make them easier— even when it all comes as a big surprise.