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Can you ever really retire from sustainability?

A wave of corporate executives stepping down from longtime roles in environmental responsibility are redefining retirement.

Two years ago, I convened a group to talk about their transitions out of long-term sustainability roles. They shared advice on navigating a successful career as well as a smooth transition out.

All of them were leaving sustainability leadership roles with the employers they’d been with for a significant time. How would this change their identity, focus and goals?

Our conversation made clear that "retirement" did not mean becoming less engaged. Quite the opposite; many were pursuing or planning even more meaningful endeavors.

But new challenges arose: confronting the unknown, mustering the self-discipline to challenge oneself and overcoming perceptions that retirement meant a lazy nap on a beach.

I recently reconvened five of them 18 months later to compare notes and hear about how their perception might have shifted. Our chat surfaced interesting insights about the nature of work in expressing our values and shaping identity.

Getting paid

I asked participants if they needed to make money to feel their contributions are valued. Responses varied.

Scott Nadler, former partner at ERM, recently founded his own firm, Nadler Strategies. He described the validation that comes from being compensated.

"There have been a number of situations where I know what I’m doing is taken more seriously because people have to make a value decision about it," he said.

Others are welcoming pro bono work that’s flexible.

"I’m flattered by organizations wanting me to help them on various projects without necessarily a formal working relationship," said Chuck Bennett, former VP of Earth and community care at Aveda. Bennett is busy with local environmental groups and youth mentorship roles.

I used to think, 'How much more can I get?' Now I think, 'How much is enough?'

All participants expressed satisfaction with the freedom they have by not having a boss.

Lynnette McIntire, former director of reputation management and sustainability communications at UPS and currently owner of her own consulting firm, Silver Birch Communications, limits her work so she can pursue other interests.

"I used to think, 'How much more can I get?'" she said. “Now I think, 'How much is enough?' so that I can go and do the other things that bring balance to my life."

Living your values

The decision to leave their longtime employers initially came with anxiety. Their careers span decades, and all but one had been with their last company for over 15 years.

"I think it took a lot of courage for us to jump off the treadmill and see what else we can do," said McIntire. "A lot of people just can’t do it."

While Nadler admitted fear in striking out on his own, he now finds comfort in "not having to fit inside other people’s envelope" the way he used to.

Bill Blackburn, former VP and chief counsel, EHS & sustainability at Baxter, is pursuing creative projects. After publishing a successful book on organizational sustainability, his publisher wanted two more. But Blackburn decided against it.

"I thought, you know, I’ve checked this box. I want to go to something else," he said. "Now I’ve got my outline together for a book of short stories."

Paul Comey, former VP of environmental affairs for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, is happily pursuing interests in scuba diving, dog rescue and aviation.

The lucky ones

This group is fortunate to be able to design their activities in retirement.

"A lot of people don’t think they’ll ever ‘retire,’ or even have the option," McIntire reminded us.

In part, this is due to prudent financial planning. Bennett and McIntire adjusted their lifestyles to live more simply. Blackburn described his long-time value of saving that now buys him freedom. After years in the corporate world, he also has a secure retirement to fall back on.

His independence feels like 'more of a graduation than a retirement.'

Nadler described the joy in selecting work he finds interesting with people he likes.

"A world with all clients and no bosses means … that I may have a lot of pressure, but I have a whole lot less stress," he said.

Changing the retirement script

The group agreed that retirement offers opportunity to explore one’s identity.

Blackburn doesn’t even use that word; he’s just moving forward with more interesting stuff. Similarly, Nadler said his independence feels like "more of a graduation than a retirement."

He also noted the diverse contexts — from NGOs to corporate environments — where sustainability professionals are suited to add value.

"[Sustainability] fits naturally with us trying to balance what we want do personally and how we want to be effective," he said.

Comey described his family in the military, for whom retirement isn’t a bad thing.

"There’s a whole world out there where retirement isn’t a scary term, but a badge of accomplishment," he said.

Maybe there’s something to that idea. "Retirement" shouldn’t be a dirty word; it signals wisdom we can learn from and a freedom we can hope for.

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