Monday, June 15, 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.