Over the last couple of years I have read about a number of retiring CEOs who were asked by various newspapers whether they have had any regrets. All of them, every one, said they had none. My initial reaction was to roll my eyes, because I found their wholly positive assessments of their careers a bit much. In my career, I have had many regrets.
I mentioned this to a friend who recently retired from a management post at Standard Life here in Montreal. He too said he had no regrets at the end of his 35-year career. Then I asked another friend, Bob Brown, who retired this month as CEO of CAE, whether he had any regrets, and even he felt he’d had a good and satisfying career — with no regrets.
In forgiving others, we can also learn to forgive ourselves. For the sake of Christ, God has already forgiven all our sins. Our regrets are there to motivate us.
This made me stop and think. I respect both these men too much not to pay attention to what they said. The conclusion I came to was that the difference between the retiring executives and me, and the reason why I feel regrets and they don’t, is that I still have a number of years to go before I retire (at least I hope so). They are at the end of the matter, looking back and summarizing their careers. They were all CEOs, so they are an admittedly biased sample. But the point is that they have come to peace with their failures, setbacks and mistakes. They feel that, overall, they provided for their families and did some good in the world. Their lives had meaning and significance, so they could retire in peace, moving on to the next phase of life.
But I am not there yet. With an 11- and a 13-year-old at home, I still have 15 years or so of career life ahead of me, particularly if our youngest goes on to graduate school. That leaves a lot of room for regrets.
I believe that is a good thing, Frank Sinatra’s "My Way" notwithstanding. That’s because I still have sufficient runway ahead of me to make up for mistakes. Time to turn things around or to choose a different path. In other words, I can still change. I’m not at the end, but in the middle of it, and that makes all the difference.
Those of us still in the middle of the game, still in the arena, are still willing to see our errors and shortcomings. We still have time do something about them, to rectify at least some of our regrets. Opportunities to improve, to learn, to strive to do better, to be better, still lie ahead. I believe it is healthy for us, those in the middle, to not be content, to not be fully satisfied, to continue to strive for excellence.
Top 10 List
At age 52, President Theodore Roosevelt gave one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. He spoke at the Sorbonne, one of the world’s great universities. To this august academic audience, he spoke about the "average man, the average woman." Contrasting them to the critic (a frequent and largely appropriate role for academics) he spoke movingly of the "man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…who errs, comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming." This resonates with me. Evidently Roosevelt was someone all too well acquainted with mistakes, someone who did have a few regrets in his exceptional and productive life!
That is, for better or worse, where I am today. Not at the end. Perhaps, dimly, I can see the end from where I am, but there is of necessity a long haul ahead. Our children look to my wife and me to provide. And God willing, and health allowing, we will.
Each year I can and do have regrets. A sample few of mine from this year: getting overly upset with a colleague in a way that was unfair to that person, turning down an opportunity to write with a colleague (I let the "urgent" crowd out the important), missing an emerging business segment in my consulting activities, traveling too much for too little return and thereby missing out on never-to-occur-again moments with the children, trying to get on big company boards to no avail, not making enough progress on learning French, getting low ratings on an executive program at Duke, not taking a family vacation because of time and money.
Some of these are specific to my life, a mid-level academic; others are more generic, and would resonate with most executives. In the sidebar I have provided, with help of a survey of more than 100 C-Suite executives, a "top 10" list of possible CEO regrets. These are all things I would have done differently and will do differently.
And this is healthy, because having faced my regrets, I can then face the next year with lessons learned, mistakes to be apologized for and different approaches to be adopted. To me, this is exciting. I can be better and do better. I can become more like that person who, in Roosevelt’s terms, "actually strives to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause." Having regrets doesn’t require great angst and feelings of guilt. If we handle them well, regrets are useful management tools.
The apostle Paul wrote some 2000 years ago, "Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you have a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Colossians 3:13) In forgiving others, we can also learn to forgive ourselves. For the sake of Christ, God has already forgiven all our sins. But in our weakness we still sin, so God 1) reminds us in the Scriptures that we are forgiven, and 2) helps us through the Spirit to get up, dust ourselves off, and get back into the arena of life. In the same way, our regrets are not there to torture us, but to motivate us.
If I do handle my regrets well, perhaps in 15 or so years at my retirement party at the Faculty Club at McGill, as I reflect back on my career, I will feel that I can honestly deserve to finish my career with the rest of Roosevelt’s famous quotation, "who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." Then I too perhaps can say, "All in all, I have no regrets." And with that, move on.
Karl Moore is an Associate Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University. He researches and writes on executive leadership and does a weekly videocast for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s National Newspaper, where he interviews leading CEOs. He is co-director with Henry Mintzberg of McGill University’s Advanced Leadership Program.