I get a lot of calls from recently retired CEOs or their agents.
CEOs and other executives who retire today often want to write a book to leverage their experience and networks as a way of extending their careers or preserving their legacy. Usually the idea for a book has been percolating for some time and leaving the corner office catalyzes an agreeably large number of recently retired executives to start the process.
This fact is agreeable because I’m a business ghostwriter. I’ve consulted with over a dozen recently retired CEOs who wanted my help in writing their book.
The executives’ desires usually fit a pattern. My goal is to figure out what they really want.
One of the first questions I ask, is Why do you want to write a book? What do you hope to get out of having one?”
After dozens of these conversations over 25 years, I can predict the answer will track to one of seven varieties of business books that retired CEOs want to write. Here they are in rough order of popularity.
Full disclosure: I was personally involved in the production of only one of these books (number five if you must know).
- I Want to Set the Record Straight
Some of these books are straight-ahead histories of the companies they led or founded. Books by retired CEOs are generally better than books by sitting CEOs because the former don’t have to be so cautious.
Here’s the fun part. Few CEOs get through a career without a sense of grievance or regret. It’s sometimes difficult to temper the spite. I’ve found it best to include the spite at the beginning. By the time the manuscript is edited, the CEO has cooled off and willingly trims that stuff out. But a little conflict is always good, for no other reason than it’s accurate. Typical targets of spite: recalcitrant boards, obtuse underlings, feckless government regulators, or investors beset by short-termism. These CEOs want to set the record straight. They want the last word. Examples of this genre include:
David Packard (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard) The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company (Collins Business Essentials, 2006).
Conceived in 1939, the Hewlett–Packard story is an extraordinary tale of vision, innovation and hard work. It’s the opposite in tone and substance from the next example.
Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, offers a different perspective to the “The HP Way” in her own memoir, Rising to the Challenge.
Since Fiorina’s ouster from HP, she’s run for the Senate and is currently a candidate for president. This book is partly an attempt to spin the debacle of the merger she championed between HP and Compaq and the resulting chaos that led to her expulsion, which is just another form of retirement.
- I Want to Cement the Important Work I spent my Career Pursuing
Many CEOs have spent a lifetime forging the most significant progress in the nation. Think of Apple’s Steve Jobs. CEOs at this level have briefed presidents, addressed leaders in Davos, been on the cover of Time as one of the most influential people in the world, and otherwise occupied the top tier of business innovators. These CEOs think of themselves as rock stars who have to capture those moments when they were inspired, changed the world, and went to Africa with U2’s Bono. They believe they have important stories to share with a world clamoring for their stories.
Dan DiMicco (former CEO of Nucor Steel) American Made: Why Making Things Will Return Us to Greatness (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).
DiMicco, an outspoken supporter of U.S. manufacturing even in retirement, uses this book as a platform to continue the shamelessly self-serving policy arguments he made while CEO.
- 3. I Want to Capture a Personal Spiritual Awakening
Corporate work can be so all-encompassing or soul-deadening that retirement sometimes frees up CEOs to explore long, pent-up spiritual longings. Sometimes the catalyst is a personal loss or other transformational event. In either case the executive is fired up to write about events and issues that he or she is passionate about and wants to share with the world. These books, often self-published, are often too earnest for commercial publishers.
Gerald Baldner (former CEO of Kitchen Solvers) Successful Servant Leadership: Successful Servant Leadership: Insights from Servant Leaders in Education, Business, Healthcare, Politics, Athletics, & Religion (D. B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership, 2013).
Baldner wrote the book inspired by the death of his son.
- I Want to Build Intellectual Capital to get Speaking Assignments
Some recently retired CEOs are clear that what they want to do is to do more public speaking. They see their book as a measure of the intellectual capital they hope to share with the world. They want to leverage the book to garner invites to prestigious gabfests such as Davos or TED. Or they want to rake in fees of up to $250,000 for keynote presentations to big corporations or industry events.
Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric). Jack: Straight from the Gut (Grand Central Press, 2001).
Published after a 20-year run at GE, Welch’s ghostwritten memoir cemented his reputation as “The Manager of the Century,” and someone whose opinion, usually delivered in speeches, would be in demand for another decade. Welch used this book and others to stay on top of the speaking circuit.
5. I Want to Build Intellectual Capital to Promote the Public Interest
Some retired CEOs see themselves as having something of interest to contribute to an issue of vital public interest facing the body politic. Now that they are retired and unfettered from having to kowtow to the corporate speaking points, they can finally speak freely on matters about which they often have a genuine passion. By writing the book, these executives hope to move the needle on some public debate, often by influencing legislators.
Hank McKinnell (former CEO of Pfizer) A Call to Action: Taking Back Healthcare for Future Generations (McGraw-Hill, 2005).
The book is a manifesto to reframe the dialogue on healthcare reform. Oh, and it often promoted the view of Big Pharma. The book played a minor role in the healthcare debates in Congress leading to the Affordable Healthcare Act.
By the way, I started this book as a ghostwriter. But Hank McKinnell was so generous that he ended up giving me credit.
- I Want to Advance a Movement or Social Good
Sometimes retirement releases time and energy for executives to focus on an issue that holds deep altruistic, public service, emotional, or philanthropic resonance. So these former CEOs want a book to reflect their experience, spiritual journey as social activists, and commitment to a cause, reform movement, or other public service. Some of these books by retired executives in the private sector have useful things to say about how to get things done in the public sector.
Lee Iacocca (former CEO and Chairman of Chrysler) Where Have All the Leaders Gone? (Scribner’s, 2008).
A genuine public figure who many Americans once wished would run for president, Iacocca saved Chrysler from financial ruin and since retirement has published frequently about his vision for leadership.
- I Want to Capture My Legacy for Family
While most retired CEOs initially expect to publish a commercial trade book that will be reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and swept off the shelves at Barnes & Noble, a small subset of executives imagine a private book, discreetly published and distributed only to family members and select intimates. I prefer working on such books as the executive can usually be more personal and honest.
While I’ve helped five former CEOs write and print such books for their families and intimates, I can’t share example of them here. You’ll just have to take my word that there are dozens if not hundreds of such books quietly, if expensively, published every year.
Some are full-blown histories of a company. Others are focused on specific accomplishments or inventions. Still others are driven by values.
The last one I wrote is really a high-level ethical will, capturing the personal values the CEO hopes the next generation will most embrace. Many of these types of books are beautiful: leather covers, full color, high quality paper, custom presentation case. The book I just delivered even bundled an Apple iPad with each book, the CEO’s commitment to ensure that even grandchildren yet unborn, who presumably will not be reading books anymore, will be able to access the author’s message in a multimedia format including video, audio, and images.
Other books are more basic. What they have in common is that they are addressed to a small group of family and friends who are expected to guard its privacy.
Active Vs. Retired CEOs
As a ghostwriter, I enjoy working with sitting CEOs. Some books by active CEOs, like those of Starbucks’ Howard Schultz (Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul) or Palantir’s Peter Thiel (Zero to One) are genuinely first-rate books deserving of serious attention.
But for my money, I actually prefer working with recently retired CEOs. First of all, I don’t have to deal with all their minders and corporate flacks trying to keep them on message. Second, being retired, they have more time to devote to the project. I value the opportunity to assist recently retired CEOs on whatever basis they want a book.