Kraft Foods

The CEO afterlife

February 18, 2011: 10:31 AM ET

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.

John Bell

John Bell

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. More

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