How to be a successful ex-CSO

Getting Real

How to be a successful ex-CSO


What a time to find myself having to write a new chapter of my life.

My entry into the "real world" started with voluntary retirement from the erstwhile EMC Corporation on July 1, and since that date, my entire world has changed.

Yes, much of it was voluntary, and adventurous, and exciting: the change in coasts, the move from the exurbs to the urbs, the downsizing, and most jarring of all, the laying down of a leadership role in corporate sustainability.

It made sense to me at the time. It still does. But the world around me doesn’t anymore. And that threw all the ideas I had for my future into complete turmoil.

What did I expect from my post-CSO life? I didn’t have a clue — and facing the unknown was what was so energizing. I could do anything. Go back to school, hang out my shingle, explore the nonprofit sector, get a job in a new industry, volunteer, travel.

Or just do nothing; work out, read, mess around on the flute, and take a road trip now and then. (And yes, of course, meet my commitments as a board member for a couple of very respectable non-profits.)

The world was my oyster.

And then it wasn’t. 

The "real world" was longer real — it was unfathomable. Every morning since, I have experienced the shock of confronting how very real it is.

And just doing nothing isn’t an option anymore. Not when so much that I value is under siege. Doing what I did before somehow feels too small when the issues are so big. Focusing on developing my own mind and body seems be so selfish when so many are at risk.

So what next? I still don’t know. Zen-like, I’m opening myself to opportunity through networking with friends and engagement with grassroots movements on climate action and civil rights. Being part of the "resistance" (not my favorite term, but we’ll save that for another day) may well be my primary path forward.

But after having had the honor of eight years leading a mission-driven team, I won’t settle for less than something that leverages my skills and experience, that is fed by my passions for social justice and the well-being of the planet, and that is part of something big enough to have an impact.

I still frequently speak with young people who want a "job in sustainability." Aside from my usual message that innovative change typically comes from deep within a discipline such as engineering, design or finance rather than the few low-turnover jobs with a "sustainability" label, I also point out that there is no standard post-CSO career path.

What comes next has never been obvious. (How many CSOs do you know who’ve gone onto another C-suite job?) And, for the purpose-driven individual, that is truer than ever. 

I’m not alone. I talk to (ex-)colleagues every day who are struggling with the same question. You don’t have to be retired to feel the hunger to matter.

And companies, take note: your employees don’t want to be on the sidelines anymore. If they can’t climb out of them in their current jobs, they will find somewhere else to channel their passions. Promotions and a paycheck are important, but they are simply not enough.

At least, not for me.