Former CEO John Bell gives his take on life after ditching the corner office for good and the search for fulfillment beyond business success.
By John Bell, contributor
Eighty-six proof anesthetic crutches brought you to the top
Where the smiles are all synthetic and the ulcers never stop
When they take that final inventory, yours will be the same sad story
Everywhere — no one will really care,
No one more lonely than this rich important man
Let’s have your autograph, endorse your epitaph.
— Ray Stevens, Mr. Businessman.
Ray Steven’s musical damnation of the CEO was released in 1968, the year I graduated from business school to follow the ambitious path shaped by my professors and my father’s generation. They urged me to pursue employment in a big company where I was to bust my butt and climb the rungs of the corporate ladder to the hall of the mountain king. Mr. Businessman’s lyrical forewarnings could not dissuade me. The only question in my mind was how long it would take before I’d sit upon the throne.
Masking fear and insecurity with a game face, I convinced the Bristol-Myers Company (BMY) to hire me as a sales representative. ‘I planned my work, worked my plan’ and within two years I ascended the next rung as a brand manager. When I became marketing director of Jacobs Suchard (now Kraft) I realized the monarchy was within reach. I wanted the crown badly, for what seemed the most obvious of reasons — the paycheck, an ‘A’ on the scorecard of accomplishment, peer recognition and power. Ah yes, power — the partner of glory. CEOs do not realize how much they love power until they lose it. Mine was gone after 10 years on the throne. I stepped down on my own accord with more money than I needed (or deserved), thanks to a friendly take-over.
Within a month of exit, the euphoria of the golden parachute was ancient history; my thoughts were on descent rather than transition. On the outside looking in, I felt an overwhelming sense of emptiness, an ominous and inexplicable separation from the world.
I should have been ecstatic. I was not. Instead of continuing with Kraft (KFT), I’d taken the money and headed for the hills. Defining myself by the job, yet ignoring the fact that I’d struggled to balance the essential needs of human happiness in the job, I contemplated another kingdom to comfort a shattered ego, my sense of worthiness.
Financial and intellectual fulfillment came with the CEO territory. As for physical, emotional and spiritual gratification, the hard-working folks in my factories could have taught me a thing or two.
Almost 50, I was too young to retire. Nabisco offered me the chance to recapture the throne, but I opted to consult while I tried to figure out the rest of my life. A year of strategy and marketing consulting became 12. I’d advised an impressive list of blue-chippers the likes of Campbell’s (CPB), InBev, Pfizer (PFE) and Starbucks (SBUX). Add to that, a loving family, university lecturing, taking up golf and building a summer house on the shores of the Pacific, life was good. Beneath the façade, a void lingered. It wasn’t that I missed my role as a CEO. I had grown out of that. The truth was this: I had not nurtured my soul with the passion associated with the corner office.
Unknowingly, the seeds of passion had begun to germinate in me as I filled the downtime of long flights and lonely hotels penning a biography of my 90-year old father-in-law, a good guy forced to pilot a Luftwaffe bomber over Russia in 1941. With words, I painted vivid pictures of conflict and human emotion rather than explain market share dips or justify multi-million dollar investments. Cognizant that the biography was of interest to no one but family, I self-published a dozen copies, thinking that was the end of my writing.
A year passed. Then, on a transatlantic flight from London, I was struck by the notion of fictionalizing my father-in-law’s trials and tribulations. The thought of writing for commercial publication infused a rush of excitement similar to the one that engulfed that frightened, determined kid of 1968. Reborn, I devoured books on plot, characters, dialogue, romance, voice and viewpoint. Those readings prepared me for the story’s plot arc, the summation of which resembles a McKinsey or BCG flow chart.
Most retiring CEOs jump from the corporate ladder to the top rung of a new one by leveraging their knowhow to spearhead philanthropic causes or aid up-and-coming entrepreneurs with investment and advice. Others, like me, make their way to the bottom rung where past stature, influence and connections have no bearing on success.
We embark on foreign treks for the thrill of creating something new, something meaningful. The ladder I am climbing is as high as the clouds. I’m striving to become a novelist; however, apart from a few articles published in business periodicals, I’m as green as a tree frog.
Writing and publishing fiction is a hundred times more difficult than my greatest crisis in business. (For the record, that was a national recall of tainted coffee that caused nausea). The publishing industry is tough. The big houses don’t want to hear from new writers. They insist we be represented by literary agents. The agents don’t want us either because they know that the publishers are wary of the investment risk the debut writer poses. One cannot fault agents for devoting their time to clients with books in circulation. Yet, in a declining market where publishers are suffering the onslaught of digital competition, submissions to literary agents are escalating.
So, why do I do this?
There are two answers to that question. First, I love writing. Second, I enjoy the rush of contesting the odds. In my mind, a contract with a big publisher is analogous to reaching the corner office, a personal measure of success.
On the job or in the afterlife, CEOs cannot live without a scorecard. To those nearing the end of corporate life, I say, “not to worry.” There is a world of challenge and discovery filling the souls of your retired brethren.
From a business perspective, my world of words makes little sense. I couldn’t care less about the ROI or ROE (return on effort). In front of me is a mountain. I must climb it. Though far from the summit, I am operating as a CEO, creating, editing and orchestrating the vision that one of my novels will make the best sellers list. Wishful thinking or not, ‘when they take that final inventory, mine will not be the same sad story implied by Ray Stevens all those years ago.
John Bell is a former CEO of Jacobs Suchard (Kraft, Nabob). He keeps a blog called In the CEO Afterlife.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story implied incorrectly that Bell was CEO of Kraft as a whole. Bell served as CEO of Jacobs Suchard, which was acquired by Kraft. He then served as a divisional CEO at Kraft before leaving the company.
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