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The Work of Retiring From Pathology 

Part 2: The Retirement Process

In part two of this three-part series, Paul Valenstein, MD, FCAP, shares what he has learned on the other side of the microscope as a retired pathologist. In this part, Dr. Valenstein addresses getting organized, making public declarations, economic transitions, electronic transitions, unwinding officially, saying goodbye, and planning for retired life.


Getting Organized

Getting organized is the first step to take in the retirement process, but not the first step I took. I started by taking the second step -- making a public declaration about my retirement date. Once I made my declaration, news spread quickly and perhaps a dozen people came up to me and asked about details -- which of my many activities I would be leaving and how the transition process for each role would work. I wasn’t prepared to answer their questions.

It turned out that my work life was more complicated than I had appreciated. I needed to take a step back and get myself organized. I started with making a list of all the jobs and roles and activities I would be retiring from, as well as those I intended to keep. My list included paid employment, the boards and committees on which I served, and my volunteer activities that had something to do with medicine. While looking over the list of my larger roles, I had an insight: Everything on my list that I was going to drop didn’t need to go at once. Some paid jobs could be shed before others. I could even work at some tasks on a part-time contractual basis. Some activities that were part of paid jobs could be continued on a volunteer basis. Activities that positioned me as a link in an organizational hierarchy and that came with some official authority required a commitment and accountability appropriate to a paid employee and not a volunteer. I could not, for example, continue as the managing partner of my pathology practice when I was no longer an employee. (Good news: I didn’t want to.) But I could continue with some other activities in my multispecialty medical group on a volunteer basis.

I looked at each job, role, and activity on my list, and decided whether I would stop doing it or transform part of it from paid work to volunteer work. I also decided when I would make each change. I wanted to have significantly more “free” time in my retired life, but didn’t want to overreact and shed everything all at once. Further rebalancing could take place later.

I decided to discontinue being the secretary/treasurer of the College of American Pathologists after my first term ended and did not seek reelection. I shed almost all of my roles with my primary employer – a multispecialty medical practice -- on what I call my retirement date, including all clinical work. I continued to serve as a volunteer on a committee involved with patient access, because the committee was working on a project important to me and I wanted to see the project through. I also continued to provide my former employer with contracting advice after my retirement and was paid for four hours of contracting work a week. I cut that payment off six months after my retirement date -- for reasons I will go into subsequently. I am still doing the contracting work, but am no longer paid to do it. I picked up a new volunteer role as a mentor but chose to hold off on taking up other new volunteer activities for at least six months. I needed time to feel the cadence of retired life before making new commitments.

Making Public Declarations

A great deal of high-quality research supports the conclusion that individuals who make a public commitment to achieve a goal are more likely to be successful than individuals who only make a private commitment to themselves. The effect is strongest among people who are most susceptible to social influence and social norms but can be demonstrated in a wide variety of individuals.

I believed my making a public declaration to retire would serve two purposes: (1) A public commitment would increase the probability I would follow through and not chicken out, and (2) advanced notice would provide others with an opportunity to prepare for my departure. Accordingly, I told colleagues that I planned to retire 18 months before my retirement date.

Since I like to work on complex initiatives that require a multi-year commitment, giving advanced warning served to signal to others (and myself) that I would not be taking on any new, large, long-term projects as a leader. In my pathology practice, it can take up to 18 months to identify and recruit top-quality pathologists, so providing 18 months’ notice also made it easier for my group to commit to hiring, and to finding good candidates.

My public declaration was initially made to my practice partners -- the pathologist colleagues with whom I worked. Of course, I had discussed it with my wife first. I made my announcement in person, face-to-face, and followed up in writing (email). As I organized my own thinking about what retirement meant and what roles I would shed, I announced my intentions to others with whom I worked in different capacities, again starting out with a face-to-face or phone conversation and following up with email. I also let people know what roles I planned to continue to perform as a volunteer after I retired from paid work, since news of my retirement circulated quickly and created some uncertainty.

A number of people with significant administrative responsibilities have told me that if they provided 18 months’ advanced warning of their departure, they would become a “lame duck” and be unable to wield the same level of influence as before. Different management styles and different work environments make giving early notice of retirement more or less of a risk. Many leaders do a lot of negotiating that involves accumulation of “goodwill” and cultivation of “relationships.” Goodwill and good relationships both carry an implicit commitment to reciprocate in the future for favors received in the present. Where the cultivation of goodwill and relationships is important, an early announcement of retirement can reduce a leader’s room to maneuver: How can I ask for a concession today if I won’t be here to repay you in the future? Why should I make a concession today if I won’t be here to ask for a favor in return at a later date?

I didn’t work that way myself, and my work environment didn’t require that sort of interaction. I preferred to have each negotiation and business arrangement stand on its own, containing mutual concessions that achieved internal balance. An enduring reputation for integrity was important for my effectiveness, but I didn’t operate with a long list of favors that I owed to others or were owed to me. In short, I wasn’t worried about being a “lame duck.”

Planning for Succession

Capable individuals have told me they feel they cannot leave a job until their successor is identified. My wife had these concerns about her own retirement from the University of Michigan, and spent time finding successors for her major roles.

When considering succession planning, it is helpful to be clear about the respective responsibilities of the person who is retiring and the entity or organization she is leaving.

In my view, all workers -- paid or volunteer -- have an obligation to give reasonable notice before leaving work, if circumstances allow. This obligation extends to a board member resigning from a board, or a committee member departing a committee. There is no longer involuntary servitude in this country as the 13th amendment to the US constitution took care of that in 1865, but anyone doing work nowadays ought to care at least a little about the success of the organization they are leaving and give some notice to facilitate transitions. A “duty to care” is a legal obligation for members of a fiduciary board, and physicians also have legal obligations not to precipitously abandon their patients.

The more complex the role being left, the more notice should be provided, again if circumstances allow. Complex roles often involve difficult recruitments, more training of replacements, and sometimes significant role redesign. These take time.

However, as a general rule it is the organization -- not the departing employee -- that is responsible for finding a successor. And for good reason. The organization may have learned over time it needs a different sort of individual in the role than the person who is departing. In my case, some of the roles I held for a long period of time had come to be defined around my particular skills. My employer needed to redefine the job I was leaving, to make recruitment easier, rather than spend time looking for someone just like me. I also tried to keep in mind the possibility that some of the roles I held were no longer necessary at all, but had been retained because no one wanted to eliminate the job while I was still occupying it. I believed this was the case in one of my leadership roles, and I pointed this out when announcing my retirement from that position.

For two of the roles I left, I was asked by others in the organization to recommend a successor. I did not. I took the position that departures create an opportunity for organizational reflection, and the organization needed to “own” its succession decisions. I shared information about what I did in my role, but I didn’t recommend anyone in particular to replace me.

The process of training successors (or helping successors grow into new roles) can be a responsibility shared by an employer and a departing employee. In my case, since I had given advance notice of my departure, successors for my key roles were identified before I departed. In one case the successor was placed in the role half a year before I left, and I had the opportunity to work with her for a number of months. I considered educating my successors to be part of the work for which I was paid, and found the process enjoyable. In the case of a role I was leaving that was going to be eliminated, I worked with someone in a related role who would be picking up most of the work that needed to continue.

Educating successors taught me that the work I had been doing could be accomplished in different, sometimes better ways. I described to my successors the needs I was trying to fulfill as well as the approaches I took to fulfilling those needs; sometimes I ended up learning about a better way to meet a need, or my understanding of the need evolved.

In two cases, the process of training successors developed into ongoing mentoring relationships, which I describe later.

Making Economic Transitions

Retiring from paid work involves a number of economic transitions that need to be managed.

My wife's and my retirement savings are invested. I set up an automatic monthly transfer of funds from retirement savings to our joint checking account. This was the “salary” we were going to pay ourselves during retirement.

I didn’t create a budget for my retired life. I didn’t know enough about retirement to do this in advance. Since I was leaving paid work in the middle of the calendar year, I thought I would start tracking how my wife and I spent our money in January of the following year, six months after my retirement date, when our expenses had stabilized and our new rhythms were established.

My wife and I made an appointment with our accountant. Truth be told, I had never met our accountant. Every year I emailed her tax documents, she prepared our tax returns, emailed them back, and my wife and I reviewed and signed the forms. Our economic life during our work years wasn’t particularly complicated. Since I had never retired before, and wasn’t sure what needed to be done, I wanted a face-to-face meeting with my accountant so I could ask questions, receive instructions, and learn about options. I felt capable of completing tasks on my own, but wasn’t sure which tasks I needed to complete.

We decided to apply for social security at age 66 (higher monthly payments) rather than immediately (at age 62, lower monthly payments).

My wife and I were too young to receive Medicare when we retired. We reviewed the retiree health insurance options offered by our respective employers and selected the least expensive option.

I had two small investments related to my work that I decided to unwind. These investment vehicles allowed me to retain shares in two companies for a number of years after retirement, but I am not a big fan of “absentee owners” for work-related investments. I felt a clean break would allow the companies to be run by those most affected by their success, and would help me to psychologically separate from work. It turns out I would have been better off financially if I had kept the two investments, but I am glad I didn’t.

All of the above seemed to me to be complicated at the time, because I had never done it before. But it wasn’t.

Making Electronic Transitions

Officially departing from work means loss of access to company computer systems. I made arrangements to retain access to systems I needed for my continuing volunteer work, but also ensured I would be locked out of all information systems with clinical, patient-specific information. Many individuals lose access to electronic literature searches through their work when they retire; arranging for alternatives will be important to some.

Several years before retiring, I had migrated my email activity to a personal email account but used my work email as a backup address. I ended up creating my own separate backup email account using a commercial email provider for this purpose.

Since my work email would remain active to support volunteer activity with my former employer, I knew I would continue to receive group email messages from my employer that were no longer relevant to my new life. I tried to get myself removed from most mailing groups, but was only partially successful. I ended up creating “rules” in my work email system that automatically deleted most of the remaining group messages, so I wouldn’t have to see them.

Unwinding Officially

I wrote formal resignation letters to a board I was leaving, my employer, and the medical staffs at hospitals where I had clinical privileges. These were short, one sentence letters that the organizations could file. I sent the letters about two months before my departure.

I didn’t write formal letters to committees I was leaving; my face-to-face discussions and follow-up emails sufficed. I also didn’t write formal letters related to roles I would be retaining on a volunteer basis.

Like many physicians, I decided to retain my state medical license until it expired. Some physicians keep their medical license active for many years after retirement so they can do volunteer work, and perhaps to maintain an important identity. I doubt I will volunteer as a physician caregiver, although there are opportunities for pathologists to do so.

Saying Goodbye

There were retirement parties and goodbye parties and moments reserved during meetings to reflect about my contribution or recount humorous stories that revealed some of my many idiosyncrasies. During some events I was asked to “say a few words.” I didn’t prepare remarks in advance, but did try to think about each group I would be leaving and say something relevant. In retrospect, I should have put more work into crafting what I would say to each group and made the effort to write down my thoughts before I spoke. Endings matter.

Public expressions at retirement events can be wildly laudatory. Undiluted praise is toxic; don’t take it seriously! I tried to keep an ear open for comments that described how I was valued, rather than how much. When a colleague thanked me at a retirement event by mentioning something specific I did at work, I carried his words into my retirement, and I hope to repeat the behavior he reinforced in my new life.

My wife, facing her own retirement, was so distressed about the prospect of sitting through retirement speeches about her contributions that she refused to participate in any work-organized retirement gatherings. Instead, she hosted a huge “retirement” party in our backyard and invited hundreds of her associates to come. There were no speeches, and the party was a blast.

I decided to write personal thank-you notes to some of the people with whom I worked. I highly recommend it.

For each role in which I served, I wrote down the names of people I worked with who left me with a warm feeling -- people who have taught me something or extended some other kindness. I went through my entire digital contact list and added the names of anyone I had worked with recently who wasn’t already targeted for a letter, and whom I also felt warmly toward. (Pathologists do have feelings, contrary to popular misconception; we simply don’t tell others about them.) In total, I decided to write to 160 people. It took me two weeks to write thank-you letters to everyone on my list -- a few personal paragraphs to each recipient. This turned out to be a meaningful activity for me. Endings matter.

The final part of saying goodbye, for me, was helping a few people who thought they would have a hard time adjusting to my departure. This involved one-on-one conversations with each person who was troubled. Usually, a series of two or three conversations with each person was required. These talks weren’t difficult to hold, because my replacements were capable. All of us need to be reminded now and then that change can seem worse than it turns out to be.

Planning for Retired Life

I didn’t read any articles or books about retirement before I retired, although I do plan to get around to it. I imagine retirement authors tell their readers to cultivate hobbies before they retire, and to spend as much time thinking about their new life as the life they are leaving behind. This may be sound advice, but I didn’t do it. While I was being paid to work at a job, I figured I ought to spend my time working at that job.

I did, however, do a little preparatory reading of a more philosophical sort. I re-read Viktor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning. I also read three books about happiness. There are several dozen decent happiness books in wide circulation, and I am not prepared to recommend one over another. But I did make an effort to read at least one by Marty Seligman, an enterprising psychologist who has spent decades contributing to the field.

My reading helped me think about what “meaning” meant, and the difference between having meaning in one’s life and being happy. I came to the conclusion that happiness is what economists call a “trailing indicator.” If I had a sense of meaning in my retired life, I would likely be happy. If I pursued happiness for its own sake, I would end up chasing my tail.

Finally, I reviewed Erik and Joan Erikson's stages of psychosocial development. My goal in reviewing the Ericksons’ framework was to think about psychological challenges that may lie ahead for me. The Ericksons stress the importance of self-reflection later in life, of contemplating one’s accomplishments and developing a sense of integrity and completeness. The framework seems rather western and individualistic to me, but has proved useful to many.

Mostly, though, I didn’t prepare in any formal way for retired life, other than completing financial paperwork. I didn’t plan any big trips, volunteer at new organizations, or enroll in any classes.

As it turned out, Providence provided me with something entirely new to do, which I describe in Part 3 of this series.

Paul Valenstein, MD, FCAP, practiced pathology for 33 years before retiring. At the CAP, he served on many committees and councils, chaired the Council on Scientific Affairs, authored a book on Quality Management, and served on the Board of Governors and as the CAP Secretary/Treasurer. He held major administrative roles leading a group of more than 500 physicians and a consortium of more than 80 non-profit laboratories. He currently divides his time between Ann Arbor, MI and Berkeley, CA.

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