New Roles, Few Rules: Planning for Purpose beyond Position, the third of four reports from the Life After Leadership Project, focuses on how non-profits can retain the experience of seasoned leaders, create opportunities for new leaders, and derive strength from a multigenerational workforce. Drawing on more than 600 surveys, interviews and conversations with focus group participants, the researchers uncovered some surprising findings, including important messages for nonprofit leaders, organizations and the non-profit sector as a whole.

New Roles posed two main questions: How to advance a new narrative about social-change work for people of all ages, and how to develop practical, satisfying alternatives for social-sector leaders who want to continue to work after they exit formal, full-time leadership. This turns out to be a particularly crucial question for the sector since today’s nonprofit leaders are predominantly baby boomers: Nearly nine of every ten social-sector CEO and leadership positions in the U.S. are currently held by baby boomers of 50 or older, the report’s authors write and 2012 data from the University of Washington show that nearly 6 in 10 social-sector leaders are older than 55. This great wave of dedicated, expert talent represents a vast resource; the challenge is how to best tap and channel the strengths of these seasoned professionals when they leave full-time leadership.

Phyllis Segal, Vice President of Encore.org, is a co-author of the report; our conversation, edited and condensed, appears below.

Q. Your research explored the transition from organizational leadership into the next stage of life. You also asked how leadership transitions affect rising leaders, and about the “glass ceiling” that some say limits their upward trajectory. What did you learn?

A. The biggest takeaway is that veteran leaders are ready to exit their formal leadership positions and eager to reinvest their energies in new ways, rather than just take their experience and disappear. The narrative that boomers are intent on clogging up leadership positions is flat-out wrong. The surprise is, they’re not, and they don’t want to! They are intent on finding the best time and way to exit, and continuing to work in new ways to solve social problems. The challenge is figuring out how to leverage their experience to achieve the highest and best use of their talents.

That’s the big news for the nonprofit sector: Here is this very strong and potent source of human capital to engage in creative ways. It’s a resource that people might not be thinking about. We learned that long-term nonprofit leaders are more actively thinking about what’s next than we’d anticipated. In fact, a robust group has already moved into encores, and others are in the process. We also learned that there is an almost-universal desire (97 percent) among these leaders for an encore career they are twice as likely as the general population to want social-purpose work in their future. Finally, we learned that these leaders are largely isolated as they think about their transitions. They did not typically engage with others also going through this, or find resources to help their transition. We found interesting pockets of reliance on peer groups and the long-term informal networks that a number of people regularly engage with. But for the most part, leaders feel isolated from others who are asking the same questions.

Q. Is there a particular takeaway for mid-career workers?

A. There are two. First, seeing that their own career trajectory might involve an encore stage in the future may affect how they pace themselves now. If anyone had told me when I began my career in law reform that I would have decades after my children were grown to continue my work for social change, maybe I wouldn’t have pressed myself so hard to “do it all at the same time,” because I’d have had a longer view of the time I would have for working.The second is recognizing the eagerness of exiting long-term leaders to help younger colleagues develop. As these leaders step off their own achievement ladder, they can become trusted mentors to those who are climbing.

Q. How can individual leaders plan for their encores? Can organizations play a role in helping leaders transition into encore careers?

A. Organizations and more broadly the sector have roles to play, supporting exiting leaders in finding their next stage of social-purpose work. It’s in the organization’s interest, because a leader’s encore reflects back, and can directly help. For example, a number of nonprofit leaders became board members, major fundraisers or staff for the organizations they once led. The sector can make it easier for organizations and departing leaders by making this new stage of non-profit leadership visible, recognizing that the transition is important, and creating (or aggregating) accessible resources — tools, training, peer networks and other types of support — to help successful landings.

Q. But if the sector’s not there yet, how can someone make his or her own road?

A. It is important to be intentional. Think through when and how you want to exit leadership in a way that’s both optimal for your organization and good for you. Bring the skills you honed as a leader to plan your next stage strategically. While not everyone we spoke to had been deliberate in their planning, there was a strong correlation between planning and the ease of thinking about the future. In the same way leaders are accustomed to developing a prospect list for donors, you can develop a prospect list of people to talk to for encore ideas. Be deliberate in deciding whether you need a “pause” before even thinking about what’s next. (The “Rest or Ready” exercise, shown below and one of many tools in the report, is an aid for doing this.)

And there’s no substitute for networking. It’s a lot easier to find an encore if people are well-networked in the arena where they will continue to work. It’s harder if it’s a new arena, which is why making encores possible requires resources and systemic change.

Q. How do today’s encore-seekers pave the way for rising generations?

A. Ideally, these early pioneers will build learning and resources that will make it easier for those who follow.We are in the early part of a very large wave and those at the beginning won’t find it easy. But there is an upside in building a bridge for others to follow and that should appeal to social-change activists. I think of this as a movement to make the encore stage of work real beyond each of us individually. In addition, I’d challenge current nonprofit leaders to be receptive to encore-seekers who might like to find opportunities within their organizations. These leaders are gatekeepers to people trying to find an encore. What a difference they could make transforming our culture and to the success of their organizations by becoming places where encore talent is leveraged.

New Roles, Few Rules, co-authored by Phyllis Segal (Vice President of Encore.org), Stephanie Clohesy (Clohesy Consulting) and Frances Kunreuther (The Building Movement Project), includes practical tools to explore, plan and move into satisfying encore careers. Readers are invited to learn more by reading the full report and complete the worksheets and questionnaires.

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