Louisa Hellegers, 66, was an education publishing industry veteran who had spent 40 years as an editor for companies like Pearson, and most recently Cambridge University Press, where she had been Publishing Director for the ELT (English Language Teaching) and ESL (English as a Second Language) publications. After retiring at age 61 in 2009, she continued to stay active and volunteered her time for a local non-profit, but she continued to look for another career direction, one which could capitalize on what she had done previously, but could also provide a greater sense of purpose and meaning in her life.
As we are discovering in this series, this quest for something more than an income and the conventional trappings of success is a key motivator for our generation. We’re living longer, and we’re not about to slow down, or succumb to the negative message often heard in corporate America that we’re too old and should just “move over.” For most of us, retirement is not an option in any event.
As Hellegers said in an interview with CNBC in 2013, “What I wanted to do was what I had been doing my whole career, which was to serve and to give back…” Self-reflection is crucial for all of us going through this kind of transition, and Hellegers agrees that it took “a lot of thinking about who I am, where I come from, and what I wanted to do.”
The good news for those of us with the right motivation and the willingness to change and entertain new possibilities is that there is help available to guide us and support us in this process. Encore.org (formerly Civic Ventures), the San Francisco-based think tank and research center, is well-known for their annual Purpose Prize, recognizing social entrepreneurs over 60 who are making an impact on our society and culture. Encore has also developed the successful Encore Fellowships Network, a program to match midlife professionals in search of new, encore careers with compatible non-profits who can benefit from their decades of expertise. Fellows spend 6-12 months in fulltime or part-time positions, working on a range of possible issues for their host organizations, including performance management, leadership or management effectiveness, human resources, systems and policies, strategy and implementation, and scaling initiatives.
Hellegers read about the Encore.org program and knew immediately that she wanted to apply. One of the things that she had realized about herself was that she had been successful over the course of her publishing career in hiring and training others, and that this was something she truly enjoyed. Accordingly, Encore paired her up with the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a non-profit in New York that helps recently incarcerated individuals make the transition back into society and career. For about a year, Hellegers served as the Human Capital Fellow at CEO, assisting with the complete “people” side of their business, including organizational development, leadership coaching and development, succession planning, recruiting, and training. After completing her fellowship, CEO asked her to stay on as their Director of Organizational Development, a role she held for the following year. Her mission accomplished at CEO, she was preparing to take another break and consider more possibilities when she received a call from Encore.org, asking her if she would consider taking a position in their New York office as, ironically, the Program Director of the Encore Fellows Network (she said “yes”).
As she told the New York Times, her entire experience over these past few years has taken her completely by surprise: “When I left my old job, I was told I couldn’t go anywhere but in publishing.” But she has realized that her skills have been completely transferable, something that few of us understand when we’re coming out of many years within a single organization or industry. This myopia is unnecessary, and can be toxic if it paralyzes us in our willingness and ability to broaden our horizons. It is only when we leap into the unknown that we understand how well our decades of life and work experience have prepared us for what is to come.
We are actually pretty unstoppable – if we choose to be.
For the Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50 – Huffington Post’s “Post-50″ section is running my career reinvention series profiling 50 Boomers who have reinvented themselves within the last 10 years.