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Retirement & Career Change– Transitions for the Next Stage

One way to think about much of what I do as an executive coach is to support people as they navigate what I will call “classic transitions” – which involve a significant and sometimes radical change in their work environment that changes their job and its challenges in unforeseen ways. Typical examples are promotions or lateral shifts to a new and wholly different job at the same company or nonprofit, a new boss, a major restructuring, the pandemic, a merger or a layoff or other shift to a new organization.

In a classical transition, my role is to challenge their assumptions, help them reframe the way they see their professional ecosystem, see new possibilities, set new goals and function at their highest level. It is captured neatly in the title of Marshal Goldsmith’s well-known book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful.”

There is another kind of transition, which I call a “Next Stage” transition. Virtually everyone is confronted by a Next Stage transition at some point in their life, and most are unprepared even when they know it is coming. We usually think of that transition as coming with retirement, but the concept is actually much broader. It is any transition that occurs when you stop doing what you have been doing for most of your adult life. It occurs when your “regular” job ends in a manner such that it is difficult or impossible to shift to a similar role in a different organization.

For example, it can occur:

  • early in life if you have been a full-time parent and you face a fully empty nest,

  • when an accident or disease takes you out of the workforce for a long time,

  • when a career in the armed services or police or fire department comes to a 20-year end in middle age,

  • when your company or nonprofit is acquired or liquidated,

  • when you lose your job and your age makes it almost impossible to replicate your level of responsibility and compensation at another organization,

  • at “normal” retirement age

  • much later in life if you chose to keep working at your traditional profession or company, or

  • at any time when you are no longer engaged or interested in what you are doing.

Unlike classic transitions, Next Stage transitions raise a series of fundamental questions: do I just want to play golf and bridge, and travel: if not, what would I like to do next; how do I get there; would it be possible for me to do something radically different; what would be the implications for my personal and family life; what are the questions I should be able to answer before trying to answer those fundamental questions and (assuming that you have reasonable advance notice) what should be doing about it right now?

There is a story about Dean Acheson, who was Secretary of State during the Truman Administration, that captures the essential nature of these questions. It is said that Acheson had three boxes for memos and mail on his desk: an inbox, an outbox and a box that was labelled “Too Hard.” The questions that must be answered for Next Stage transitions fall into the too hard category, so most people are starting from ground zero when circumstances compel them to confront these questions.

I have been fascinated by Next Stage transitions for 25 years. Older friends began to retire and most seemed absolutely clueless about how to structure their lives for the Next Stage. There were few role models. In many cases their personal identity was bound up with their professional or business lives, which were ending. In some cases, they measured their self-worth by how much money they made each year, which is a recipe for loss of self-esteem for a person who moves into a nonprofit role. Others were uncomfortable because their younger spouses were at the peak of their careers and did not want to live life in a “retired mode.” Most believed that if they took something on in which they had no experience, they had a significant risk of failure, and they were scared by the possibility of ending their working lives that way.

I was also fascinated by Next Stage transitions because I personally went through two of them. When I retired from my law firm, I became dean of a law school and, three years later, president of a university. I had not thought seriously about higher education since I was a student. And when I retired from the university, having squeezed in a year of coach training, I started from scratch as an executive coach and consultant. At both the law school and the university, I initiated programs for people returning to the professional work force after a hiatus of many years or starting wholly new careers after losing or leaving their traditional careers. Over the past four years I have coached friends and clients through these Next Stage transitions.

What were the lessons of these experiences? There were many. There is real advantage in advance preparation at least a year and preferably two before the shift. The range of possibilities open to people making Next Stage transitions is usually far broader than they expect. And the more the next stage is not just an extension of what they have been doing, the more energizing and satisfying it proves to be. As for the lack of experience in a new sector, people are generally surprised at how much of what they have done is transferable to a wholly new sector. They had to be 50% more aggressive in talking to people and networking than they were comfortable about, so be prepared for some rejection. It is critical to have a written action plan with defined milestones, even if your discussions lead you in a direction that is not on your plan – that was true in my case.

It helps a great deal to have an executive coach to keep you focused and guide your thinking because at the outset of the process it seems scary and some of the most successful people cannot imagine why someone would want to hire them to do something entirely different. The urge to procrastinate is very powerful.

The best way to work through a Next Stage transition is with a group of 3-5 people who are in a similar position, ideally a group from your company or professional firm or nonprofit. You would meet as a group, chaired by an executive coach, and also separately with your coach once a month over a period of 4-6 months. I offer a program of this kind and if you or a friend is in the last few years before retirement or another Next Stage transition and would like to learn more about this program, or about individual coaching, you can reach me to schedule a call by visiting this page: and filling out your information. We’ll find a time to discuss your transition and how this peer group could benefit you.

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