Four years ago I walked out of my corporate office for the last time. I found myself entering a new phase of life that is often talked about with anticipation but can be fraught with uncertainty and anxiety. Almost immediately anyone in this situation is confronted with the question “Who am I now?” This sense of uncertainty causes us to question how we find the same satisfaction in our lives that we found building and growing a business, clawing our way to the top and outsmarting our competition. Our work played a large part, if not the major part, of defining who we were, what we accomplished and the external recognition and acclaim we received. Now it is all gone, along with many contacts and business friends.
Knowing I would retire in a few years I began talking to many recently retired executives. Before I departed I wanted to gain the insights of others to help prepare for my exit and develop my plan. One, in particular, stuck with me. My friend said you need to prepare for the day your successor is named because you will instantly become irrelevant. She was so right and I wasn’t accustomed to feeling irrelevant. I also knew that I wouldn’t feel that way for long, because I was developing a plan. So, I’m now four years out into this brave new world. Fortunately, this life phase is getting longer and more active thanks to better health and an engaged generation still eager to contribute to society. It has been a challenging but rewarding transition. I don’t have a magic play-by-play to navigate the path of retirement, but I can tell you my journey and the lessons I’ve learned transitioning from a lifetime of business success to a lifetime of meaning and significance. I think the quote from famous American Writer E. B. White puts the challenge in the right context for me. He said, and I quote “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and to have one hell of a good time. Sometimes, this makes planning the day difficult.”
As I was making my farewell tour to my company locations, an employee asked me in a town hall meeting “How would you like to be remembered?” I must admit I’d never thought much about it but, after a short reflection I said, “She made a difference.” I think about those words a lot these days as I try to create a life that is intellectually stimulating, socially engaging, fun, and filled with purpose. I have chosen to stay busy – formed a consulting company to advise leaders and businesses undergoing their own transitions, I serve on three corporate boards and I have a number of non-profit interests I’ll talk more about later. Frankly, I’m busier than I would like, and I think, perhaps, I rushed too quickly to fill the void left when I ended my corporate career. I continue to reevaluate the choices I’ve made. It is important to remind myself that these are things I’ve chosen to do, not things I have to do.
But let’s go back to the beginning of my story. I was born in 1950 in middle Georgia. I grew up in a very segregated society where women knew their place and it wasn’t at work, unless you were a teacher or a nurse. My mother was a teacher and my father was a business owner who then later became a teacher as well. My good fortune was that my parents were open minded and thought discrimination was wrong. My brother and I were taught to treat everyone with fairness and respect. For her time, my mother was strong and independent, believing women could do so much more. Neither of my parents tried to steer me into stereotypical female roles. They encouraged curiosity and insisted on self-reliance. We didn’t have much money but there was always time to reach out and help those less fortunate. I grew up being independent and fair-minded when that was not the norm for a little girl in the 50’s.
We moved to Central Florida when I was 7, the year the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space. Little did I know then that the beginning of the space race would be the catalyst for the direction of the next 60 years of my life. I became fascinated with the space program as it emerged at Cape Canaveral, not too far from my home. I went to many launches and, on a clear day, could see them from my yard. I knew I wanted to do something in that field when I grew up, I just didn’t have a clue what. With the support of a seventh-grade math teacher who thought I had a special aptitude for math and science, along with my parents’ encouragement to follow my dreams, I knew by the age of 12 or 13 I wanted to be an engineer and do something with airplanes and rockets. There was just one problem, girls didn’t become engineers in those days. Thus began my crusade to be taken seriously and treated fairly as I tried to do very nontraditional things for a girl. I had no idea that the battle was just beginning and that barriers would continue to emerge, only to be broken down. I was good at what I did and was fortunate to work for many enlightened men willing to take a chance on a talented woman.
My career was one of breakthroughs and firsts, culminating in my last job as the first female CEO of a major aerospace and defense company in the US. Of course, there were setbacks and obstacles but I loved what I did and, through it all, I became resilient and more determined to succeed. Often being the only woman, I felt I not only carried the responsibility for my success but also the responsibility for those that followed me. I always worried that if I failed, perhaps no other woman would be given a chance.
So, why do I tell you this story? Because it is critical to who I have become and the passions I have developed. Reflecting on who I am and what I care about has been critical in shaping this phase of my life. As my retirement neared, I focused on my successes, my failures, what I learned and what I loved. I also tried to identify those things I had yet to accomplish – not just “bucket list” items but passions left to fulfill. As you might have surmised I care deeply about equal rights and the importance of education and critical thinking. The people I admire are well-read, well-traveled, have interesting hobbies, and care about social good. Those pursuits are also important to me. All of this forms the basis of who I have become and are at the foundation of my plan for the rest of my life. Taking the time to understand what made you who you are, and where you can continue to make a difference, will shape the roadmap to successfully move forward with your life.
Numerous studies have shown that money is not the main reason people choose to stay engaged after their primary career is over. The company Age Wave conducted a study that found about 75% of baby boomers want to work in retirement but they want more flexibility, something to get excited about, and a better balance between work and leisure. They say the main reasons boomers want to stay engaged are mental stimulation and the feeling of making a contribution.
There has been a revolution in our society as life expectancy has increased and many of us now have decades to contribute once our primary career comes to an end. We have a chance to pursue a new business interest, take a sabbatical, see the world, or change the world. We often have resources we never imagined and passions not yet pursued. We have the time to think about what really matters to us and to share the lessons learned not only from our successes, but from our failures.
In the book The Power Years, Ken Dychtwald and Daniel Kadlec say that later life is evolving into an extraordinary period of good health and extended opportunity for people to do whatever they want…. they concluded that leaving a legacy – not necessarily the financial kind; but doing something memorable to lift others – would emerge as a retirement revolution.
So, let’s talk about how you go about the process of defining purpose and significance in your life as you move forward. If you know your passion and have a plan – good for you, you should just get on with it, momentum is important. But if you are like me, so much energy was focused on life and work, there wasn’t much time for planning the rest of your life. I found it necessary to be very deliberate and think through the steps.
We’ve all been through transitions – going to college, getting married, having kids, getting divorced, losing loved ones, changing jobs. We’ve actually gotten pretty good at managing our way through change, whether it was deliberate or not. But, with most of those transitions there were often external pressures that propelled us forward – for example, our parents expected us to go to college and get married or we had to deal with job changes or loss because we had to pay the bills. We didn’t bother to think about it, we just did it. The difference now is that the catalyst to propel you forward must come from within. No longer is anyone telling us what we have to do. Understanding and defining where you go from here – articulating your dreams, defining your purpose in life and developing a plan – rarely just happens by itself. I’ve experienced it personally and we’ve seen it in our clients, it takes a deliberate effort, reflection and time to find out who you are, who you want to be and how you want to get there.
Below are the eight steps I’ve determined are the key to securing a life of significance.
Step one in my mind is recognizing and accepting that you have lost something – whether it is your job or your business, it likely defined who you were in your eyes and the eyes of others. My retirement was announced in August and I left at the end of January. Over those five months I went through something that reminded me of the five stages of grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Sadness, and then Acceptance. Having now been through it, I think I would add Enthusiasm. Life is good on the other side and there is something invigorating about having more control. I would suggest you acknowledge the loss and go with the emotions. By focusing on what’s next, the grief doesn’t linger. Have the grace to let your successor, or the person who bought your company, make their mark without trying to offer help or commenting publicly about mistakes you think they make. Offer advice only when asked, you are not in charge anymore. Just move on.
Step two is to stay connected and expand your connections. One of my friends who retired recently rents an office from a law firm and the firm also provides administrative support. He says he goes to the office almost every day he’s in town – makes phone calls, follows the latest news and prepares for his board work. He has breakfast or lunch with a friend or contact on most days. He said that he’d been going to his office all of his life and it wasn’t fair to his wife for him to suddenly start hanging around the house, disturbing the long-standing rhythms of her life. That was his way of creating a routine, staying connected and not ruining his marriage. Be mindful of how this transition affects a spouse or partner and don’t expect your kids to fill the void, they have their own lives to lead.
I started a consulting firm at the age of 64 and I too go to the office. I get energy being around bright, motivated young colleagues and knew I continued to need some structure and reason to get up every day. It also has given me a platform to engage in the community and meet more people. I would strongly suggest you embrace social media, particularly LinkedIn. Let people know what you are up to, expand your connections, comment on Twitter if you like and follow those you admire. I use Facebook to stay connected with family and friends, LinkedIn and Twitter for professional connections. If you don’t know how to do it, ask someone to show you or reach out to a company like mine to help establish your digital presence, brand and strategy. Your connections should be multi-generational, so you don’t get too out of touch with trends and movements. A lot of exciting stuff is going on. I work hard to not become a dinosaur.
Step three is to really decide what you want to do. I wanted to learn about things other than aerospace and defense – hence my board service in the fields of energy, finance and industrials. I wanted to share what I’d learned about being successful – hence my executive and business consulting. I wanted to spend more time with friends and family and continue to see the world. This past year I went to the Galapagos Islands, Paris and Turks and Caicos with friends and family. I’m over 40 countries visited and still counting. And, perhaps most important, I wanted to continue my life-long fight for equal rights and promoting the benefits of diversity. I do that in my work, philanthropy and political engagement.
Step four is to challenge yourself intellectually. Step out of your comfort zone, expand your hobbies, learn something new, take a course, read, travel to unusual places. In 2014, CBS News reported that a Mayo Clinic aging investigation found that regardless of educational and professional background, all participants who routinely engaged in intellectually stimulating activities in middle-age and their later years ended up seeing their relative risk for dementia improve by three to nine years. That is a compelling reason to challenge your mind and you’ll learn something and make new friends in the process.
Step five – think about your passions and the legacy you want to leave. Share your expertise, time, wealth and good fortune, it feels really good to enable the dreams of others. Our successes have often given us more material wealth than we could have imagined. I never thought I’d have more than one house nor the ability to buy what I want or travel where I desire to go. But at some point, owning one more material thing ceases to matter. Whatever you choose to do, share your wealth and time with purpose, in ways that support your passions. For example, my money and time goes mostly to higher education and organizations that support civil rights and women’s rights. I serve on the Executive Board of the University of Florida Foundation and helped establish the Engineering Leadership Institute, an Engineering Leader-in Residence Program and numerous scholarships at the University. I serve on the board of a local community college foundation that focuses on skills training – a vital gap in our economy today – and help support their program for first generation college students. I also serve on the board of a local science museum focused on STEM education, donate to many civil and women’s rights organizations and co-chair a women’s health clinic fund raising campaign. Additionally, I have become a benefactor for a small historical museum to preserve the history of an area of Florida that matters to me and my family. I detail this so you can see that there is a link between who I am, the passions I have and the philanthropic actions I take with my time and money. When you can align your actions with your passions, you not only make a difference, but you feel good in the process.
Step six – don’t forget your health. I try to get this right but haven’t done as well as I’d like. None of us can do any of the things I’ve talked about if we aren’t healthy enough to do them. I’ve not cracked the code of daily exercise but I’m working on it. I do yoga and meditation with a private instructor. I am disciplined about annual physicals and required health screenings, I get any vaccination recommended for my age and I religiously get my flu shots. This is an area where I continuously strive to be better because I know how important it is to my future well being.
Step seven is to make sure your financial house is in order. Data from State Street Global Advisors says that only 45% of baby boomers have a wealth transfer plan in place. 55% have discussed wealth with their family but only 4% hold regular meetings with family members to discuss wealth matters. My financial advisors and my estate planning attorney were a vital part in my planning for this stage of life and my philanthropic intentions. There is no substitute for trusted advice and family alignment.
And finally, Step eight is to periodically reevaluate the choices you’ve made; you likely still have work to do. This transition is filled with peaks and valleys, there are days of disenchantment, and two thirds of baby boomers say they had challenges adapting to this change in their lives. This is a process and you likely won’t nail it first time around. Reassess and adjust, just like you would in your business if things weren’t going as expected. No one is keeping score now but you, so be kind to yourself.
There will be days you wonder why you didn’t retire sooner and moments when you relish the reduced stress and pleasure of doing what you now choose to do. Build on that momentum. Because of our increased longevity, we are truly redefining what it means to live a life of significance.
I always close our leadership development programs with one final thought from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and I’d like to leave you with that thought today.
He said and I quote, “I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving – we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it – but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”
May you sail on.