Getting Real

I’m an ex-CSO — so, who am I now?

It’s now been one year since I turned in my badge. And what a year it’s been — a year like no other. May we not have another like it. 

Yielding one’s role raises existential questions on a very personal level. A dear friend who retired in the past but has recovered summed it up perfectly by pointing out that the hardest part of retirement is being able to answer the question, "Who are you?"

I am an ex-CSO. It says so right there on my bio: "recently retired chief sustainability officer." But that’s not going to work for much longer. For one thing, that "recent" is getting a little worn at the elbows. For another, it’s weirdly recursive and faintly solipsistic to define who I am in terms of who I was. 

Current events, of course, are raising truly vast existential questions — about the planet, about democracy, about truth. Corporate sustainability has to carry more of the responsibility now. As an ex-CSO, I don’t envy you. But oh, do I envy you.

No regrets, mind you. Life is grand as an ex-CSO. I am getting to be so many other things.

I am a Climate Reality Leader, working in a grassroots army of 14,000-plus to educate, advocate, encourage and influence action on climate. Speaking to fourth and fifth graders about climate change and the actions they can take is both inspiring and fulfilling. Make no mistake about it: They are smarter than you think.

I am a mentor. It’s always been my policy to accept when asked to speak with people who want career guidance, or just to share my own experience as a technologist, a sustainist, a woman in business. If anything, my lack of affiliation seems to have increased the volume of requests.

I am an independent. That lack of affiliation means a healthy perspective of distance, too. Not that I ever felt muzzled (have you not met me?) Still, it’s freeing to step back, to see the progress that’s been made on the one hand, but how self-absorbed corporate sustainability can be on the other. To act on what I think is important, without the constraint of having to spin it to the benefit of a particular company or industry.

No, I’m not saying that a sustainable future is bad for the business. Quite the contrary. But there will be winners and losers. There should be winners and losers, frankly. And I can say so, loud and clear, without worrying about pissing off my colleagues or customers. 

Realist, optimist

I am a hopeful realist. A team member once said to me, "You are so effing optimistic, it makes me sick." It wasn’t feigned, exactly, but it was at least partially born of professional obligation to buoy the spirits of my employees and teammates. I’m still confident in our ability to do right by the future; less so in whether we will do so fast enough. And I feel more at liberty to express my doubts.

I am a conscientious board member. I serve on the boards of two NGOs, and am diligent in meeting my commitments to the organization, the boards and the committees on which I serve. 

I am a networker, investing time in strengthening my ties with peers, and in building new connections both for myself and others. There’s no particular agenda, but some wonderful new people have entered my life, some old bonds have been re-established and I’m finding some new opportunities to bring value — opportunities with a plausible theory of positive change. 

I am a dilettante. I have the time to do and enjoy things I am not, and never will be, good at. Playing the flute. Yoga. Pilates. I’m even taking practice LSATs; although law school is not in my plans, the questions are fun (no, really). I’m following the syllabus and lectures of the University of Washington's seminar Calling Bullshit, which is thought-provoking and funny and very, very relevant.

I am a volunteer. I’ve done some data collection for a political activist, some for the climate community. I am signed up to train as an aquarium docent — ocean ecology being a passion for me that was sadly not "material" when I was gainfully employed. 

I am a sister, wife, stepmother, cousin who, having moved cross-country and freed up calendar time, gets to attend more recitals and birthdays. 

I am an editor at large for GreenBiz, allowing me to speak my mind publicly and have at least a modest claim to being a "writer."

And yet — so much of the “ex-CSO” is about being an "ex." 

I am a concerned citizen. I learn about issues, vote, contact my elected officials. All necessary but not sufficient. I want desperately to do something to change the national conversation; to make it safe to have disagreements, to remove politics from empathy, responsibility, climate change. But I no longer have the lever of a business to wield. 

I am a workaholic with not enough to do. And too much to do. Not enough that I have to do, but too much that I want to do. I am an interrupt-driven worker with no interrupts, staring at an absurdly large inventory of things I was going to do "someday." I suck at meditation because my mind keeps making lists, trying to figure out how I’ll meet the goals I’ve sent myself for the day even though no one cares whether I achieve them. How the heck did I ever find time to work? 

I am a retiree. It insults me when people ask, "How’s the life of leisure?" Do they think I stopped caring? It pisses me off that I’m seldom invited to share my lessons as a CSO. Do they think my experiences are no longer relevant? That I’ve gone senile? Or is it just that I am no longer a potential source of revenue to consultants, NGOs and energy companies? 

So, who am I?

I am me — more civically engaged, less financially secure, more flexible, less visible, better read, better fed, physically fit and newly urbanized.

But I’m still eager to change the world. I’m still oh-so-proud of my team and what we accomplished, and still honored to be in the company of so many accomplished folks who’ve paved the way before me. And I am still on my journey.