Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Knowing when and how to go

Timing is everything in life. The same act at one point in time is glorious; at another shameful. Leaving or retiring from a company or a job, is all about timing. Get it right and you can be remembered with fondness and respect. Get it wrong and all the good things you have done are forgotten and you are vilified.

I was prompted to write this post seeing the messy saga of the lawsuit by AIG against Hank Greenberg. AIG is well known these days for the wrong reasons. But before its financial products division landed it in this mess, it was a solid insurance company – the largest in the world. It was largely brought there by one man – Hank Greenberg. He was CEO of the company for 37 years – from 1968 to 2005.

Hank Greenberg is no saint. But it is an undeniable fact that AIG would not have become the largest insurance company in the world , but for him. It is easy to heap scorn on AIG these days. But they were an immensely successful company until the financial crisis hit them. Large parts of AIG are still superbly run businesses. Hank Greenberg brought them there The company, and all its shareholders and all the people who made money trading on AIG shares upto 2005, owe a lot to him. It may also be remembered that Hank left AIG in 2005. The crisis hit them in 2008.

The problem with Hank Greenberg was that he did not know when and how to go. In fact, he did not want to go at all. So finally he was dragged kicking and screaming and deposited on the front door. A thoroughly undignified way for a titan to go. Now his own company that he largely built, is suing him and the messy soap opera is going on in public. He is , and will be, a bitter angry man. What a way to end a glorious career.

There are , of course, many stories like this. Very few people know when and how to go with dignity. This is true not only for CEOs or famous people. It applies to each and every one of us in every job. Choosing when to move on is a personal choice. I have known many people who stick on for far too long until they are forced to go. I also know many people who run at the first hint of opportunity or trouble. Very few people leave a legacy that is respected and honoured. But isn’t that what everyone would wish for ?

Jack Fingleton was arguably, one of the finest cricket journalists. When Sir Donald Bradman, retired , at the peak of his career after the 1948 tour, he wrote a moving book – Brightly fades the Don. It’s a masterpiece in cricket writing. We remember Don Bradman, even today as the greatest cricketer of all time. He was a great cricketer no doubt. But he became a legend because he chose the perfect moment to leave.

15 comments:

  1. ohh how well written.. it truly is about timing.. i have thought about this so many times..when one is at the peak of their career, with all going great guns for them, it takes a very mature mind to look beyond all this to take the call to leave (to make a graceful exit).. i guess for most people, it becomes difficult to make that call..
    its all about being at the right place at the right time and very few people have the knack for this..

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  2. It all depends on what you choose between 'loyalty to company' n 'blowing self-trumpet'...either way I don't think a person will do it until he gets some benefit out of it...it is indeed a personal choice...but in cases like Hank's I can only say it was fate.

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  3. No easy decision. Even an onlooker may not 'see most of the game' before the departure.

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  4. @AJCL - Yes you need a knack to make a graceful exit ; I've seen some people do it brilliantly. Remember Gavaskar's last innings at Bangalore against Pakistan - Masterpiece. He left as he came in, the only Indian batsman who was world class. He went and never looked back.

    @ Rads - Yews, its a personal choice. Hank was not fate - he just refused to go at all. Isn't 37 years enough ??

    @ Hang - Yes, not an easy decision at all.

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  5. A thought provoking post ... Back home, there is a little company owned by some elite people. The then CEO was some 70 odd years and despite hints from the top to resign, the man chose to be thick headed (the perks from the job were awesome). After several attempts, the higher-ups were forced to read the message loud and clear to his face. No left with no choice, he had to leave. He worked all his life for the company but his exit makes him memorable for just that - his exit. Its difficult to quit when everything is going great guns. Thanks for a beautiful write-up!

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  6. Thanks thoughtful train - its a nice story and illustrates the pitfalls of hanging on for too long. You are remembered for the manner of your going rather than all the good work you have done.

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  7. Lovely post Ramesh .. it is so significant at all stages of life ..not only for CEO's but for all ...it is always the best idea to leave when you are at the top...as far as selections of your topics ..they go from "Good to Great"...(cleverly stole the adjective from the title of the book I love)....kudos !!

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  8. Lovely post Ramesh. Couldn't agree with you more. There's a quote from the movie "American Gangster" too along the same lines - "but quitting while you're ahead, is not the same as quitting".
    However, there's another side to this too. Take, for example, Michael Jordan. After winning the NBA title for Chicago for three consecutive years when he was already 30, he came back to the sport after being in retirement for almsot 2 years. The comeback season was a disaster for him and Chicago. However, the next year onwards he won 3 consecutive titles again for Chicago. And this is what made him go down in history. Although in all honesty he too couldn't tell when to hang up his boots. As after this feat, he came back to the sport, playing for Washington for one season. Which was again a disaster. However, most people remember him for his second three-peat (hattrick) for Chicago.

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  9. Point is - he came back at the age of 33 and got a second three-peat for Chicago. Which many would have thought unachievable after his performance in the '95 season. So essentially, one should exit when one has got nothing more to give to the cause or otherwise, noting left to prove. We can learn from Lance Armstrong's example too who could have easily given up when he got cancer. He had already won the world championship then. But he went on to win 7 Tour De France's afterwards

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  10. @ Ajay. Thanks. Both Jordan adn Armstrong proved that coming back and succeeding wildly was possible. But still,Jordan coming back to the Wizards was a disaster. Ditto Armstrong now. Last season we had the sorry spectacle of Brett Favre. Sportsmen are particularly bad at going with grace.

    You are absolutely right - Qutting while ahead is a lot different from quitting.

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  11. kiwibloke17/6/09

    On the same sports line, the difference between Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, icons in thier own rights, timing of exit is some thing unforgettable. For the great SMG, it was "Why" and for Kapil Paaji, it was "why not". I guess the "why' reaction is probably true of my favorite and the all time great Adam Craig Gilchrist, the one Aussie any kiwi will grudgingly accept as a hero!

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  12. There is a saying in Malayalam, which has been handed down the generations--loosle tranlsated it means "You have to stop singing while your voice is still good."
    Shiney Abraham & Anju Bobby George are two cases in point(s).The thing is it is very hard to know when to stop. Some get it right. Some sadly get lampooned.
    You have been tagged in my latest post. In case you do it I am certain it would make a very interesting post.
    Cheers
    preeti

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  13. @kiwi - Shhh. I'll delete your comment quietly. A Kiwi acknowledging that an Aussie is a hero .... What has the world come to :)

    @Preeti - Thanks for the tag. Will definitely pick it up over the weekend.

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  14. Hats off to our very own Don!

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  15. @ Aashish - Amen !

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