This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the retirement phase of a sustainability professional’s career. Those articles came out of a conversation that Chuck Bennett and I organized with six of his “retired” or “transitioning” sustainability friends. Chuck formally retired from Aveda in 2013 as VP of Earth & Community Care.
Meet the seven participants:
Scott Nadler, ERM, was involved with politics, government, Conrail and the environment, and taught at Northwestern University. He is a partner at ERM, but is contemplating the next phase which increasingly focuses on other professional interests beyond ERM.
Nancy Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm, spent 22 years in corporate sustainability, in addition to agriculture, education and forestry. She transitioned from her full-time corporate role at Stonyfield Farm to consulting so as to focus on her core interest in climate change and to achieve a better work-life balance.
Gene Kahn, General Mills, worked in agriculture and branded foods, sold a company to General Mills and became its global sustainability officer. He initiated a program on hunger and poverty alleviation for the General Mills Foundation. He formally retired at age 65 as a result of General Mills policy, and joined the NGO HarvestPlus. On top of his role leading global market development, he also is helping HarvestPlus improve business practices.
Bill Blackburn, Baxter, “retired” as the result of a corporate reorganization. He is writing, consulting and developing a nature conservancy on an old family farm in southwest Iowa.
Lynnette McIntire, UPS, “retired” at age 55, the minimal retirement age at the company. She wanted to achieve a more balanced quality of life; she also was ready to try something else and share her experience, having been a change agent at UPS for many years. Currently she is teaching, consulting, and speech writing.
Chuck Bennett, Aveda, formally “retired” at age 70 after a career in several corporations and The Conference Board. Now he is sorting out what’s next with an emphasis on helping young people with their careers, including students and young professionals.
Paul Comey, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, seized the opportunity of a leadership change to formally retire when he found the job no longer was fun. He had started out in education before becoming general manager of manufacturing in cast iron materials. Then he worked for the CEO of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters as VP of facilities & engineering, before moving on to environmental affairs. He is now pursuing personal interests and consulting with green businesses in start-up stage.
In considering their retirement, professionals may need to adjust to the prospect of oncoming changes in their life and career. Scott Nadler described going into a “tailspin” when he realized that he would be turning 60 and wanted to work for another 10 years. He felt like he was “reenacting the salesman’s role in Arthur Miller’s play 'Death of a Salesman.'”
Some interviewees described fears such as having less influence and losing the financial security of a paycheck. Others cited concerns about being able to stay sharp professionally and personally. As Bill Blackburn said, “The real question was what do I do with my brain?”
Several people spoke of a fear of isolation and being on their own. Lynnette McIntire said, “I’d worked since I was 16 for pretty big companies, so it was scary to dive out there and be ‘an entrepreneur’ for the first time.”
One participant — Paul Comey — said he actually had no concerns when considering his plans for retirement.
Despite initial trepidations, how has reality played out for the “retirees”? In short, it’s been terrific.
They have felt supported and encouraged. Nadler said the response to his transition has been “incredibly generous and interested.” Rather than feeling isolated, he has found it to be “an opportunity to get more connected with more different people.”
As described in our first article of this series, there is a continuum of activities and things that people are doing to stay intellectually and professionally engaged. For example, Blackburn has written a book and set up a consulting practice whose proceeds go to an Iowa nature center. Gene Kahn has worked with issues of hunger and poverty in the non-profit sector. Nancy Hirshberg has shifted her focus to climate change.
Chuck Bennett said, “It is possible to ‘transition’ to a different and more personally satisfying career stage and still maintain an acceptable lifestyle through mixing work and other objectives.” And by bolstering their networks and staying engaged, they have kept important connections to others in the field.
There is a range in financial security among the group, which of course can affect post-retirement choices. Some participants are quite comfortable and can travel frequently, donate the proceeds of their consulting or work pro bono, or otherwise pursue professional and personal interests with greater flexibility. Others continue to work full-time or nearly so, be it out of necessity and/or the desire to stay involved.
Advice from the experts
1. Build your personal brand
Nadler quoted a mentor speaking to EHS/sustainability leaders 15 years ago: “You are all self-employed; most of you just don’t realize it yet.” You won’t have your own employer’s brand behind you when you leave, so working on your presence and visibility in the field will go a long way later on. This can be done in many ways, including speaking at events, writing articles or books, and bolstering your network.
2. Build skills
Blackburn advised working on public speaking and writing skills, which retirees/transitioners rely on heavily. He recommended investing in resources such as Toastmasters, a writing coach and other skill-building supports.
3. Plan ahead
Depending on the circumstances of the transition (expected due to personal decisions or company-wide retirement policies, or unexpected due to a sudden corporate reorganization), employees may have days to years to prepare for their transition. McIntire said, “Build your credentials, exposure and network. What is your expertise and experience that is not easily found?” She has “hedged [her] bets” by venturing into teaching, consulting/communications and speechwriting/leadership. Planning ahead also relates to practical issues such as fiscal security. As Bennett said, “People need to be realistic about their financial situations no matter where they are in their careers.”
4. Take pride in your experiences
Hirshberg said, “As we age, we gain a wisdom and expertise that people younger than us don’t have. This is an incredibly valuable resource for the world; don’t undervalue that.” She and Kahn suggest bringing this experience to help organizations such as NGOs with managing their business.
5. Follow your passion
Take the time to understand your interests, and decide where you’d most enjoy contributing your skills. Bennett advised, “Embrace change as opportunity, not something to be feared. There are so many needs out there — and we as sustainability professionals are blessed with important skills and perspectives — that opportunities for service to society and the Earth are abundant. It may take a while to figure out what works best for each of us, but if there is desire to continue to contribute, the opportunities are there.” Kahn agreed: “The sustainability professional has a lot of service opportunities, including nonprofits, teaching,” and other opportunities to give back to the community.