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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

New York Times: Even at the Top, Making Plans for Life’s “Third Chapter”

From The New York Times, posted May 1, 2015

When Sherry Lansing, the former chairwoman of Paramount Pictures, decided to end a 40-year career in the rough-and-tumble of Hollywood, the question she faced was where to direct all the energy and drive that had propelled her to the top of the industry.

Lounging about in the suburbs of Los Angeles at age 60 was not going to be an option. So instead, she turned her attention to medical research — cancer research in particular, a subject that had taken hold of her years earlier when her mother died of ovarian cancer at age 64.

“For me, it’s something I always had inside of me, something I always wanted to do,” Ms. Lansing said. Acting on that passion, she started the Sherry Lansing Foundation, which funds cancer research, about 10 years ago, and is a member of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which promotes stem cell research.

“They had to explain things to me and I had to learn things,” she said of the medical experts and scientific researchers with whom she began associating. “I felt young. I felt curious. Everything was new because I didn’t know,” she said. “If you keep curious, you keep young.”

Whether closing that next deal or creating that next film, high-powered executives thrive on the next big thing. Without it, some are left searching for meaning or another challenge. To that end, a growing number of Americans are creating a new phase of life, sometimes called a “third chapter.”

Often leading the way are those at the top, who typically have the most options but can also face struggle and rejection as they grapple with trying to find a meaningful role in the later years of life. Many who have achieved considerable success in one field want to reach new heights in another field. 

Whether they make money or not, the most driven search out stimulating ways to live life, including new areas of work. If you have a passion for something, they say, figuring out what to do next can be easier. Yet changing the pace of life brings with it adjustments, no matter how extraordinary, or ordinary, that life may be.

“I think the most important thing is to be brave, not to be afraid of failing,” said Stephen J. Friedman, 77, who has been president of Pace University since 2007. Before that, he was dean of the Pace University Law School for three years, senior partner at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton and a commissioner at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“I just didn’t think of myself as an education person,” Mr. Friedman said. “I never thought I could become a law school dean.” It was actually a younger lawyer in his firm who had a doctorate in history who suggested that Mr. Friedman talk to Pace about the law school deanship, he said.

Mr. Friedman emphasized that being “comfortable when you are on a learning curve” is at the core of making transitions. You must “have the confidence that you can get to the point reasonably quickly where you know enough,” he said, even if you are missing some of the context. “A lot of people are afraid of that, of being in a situation where they don’t have the full context, and saying the occasional stupid thing.”

Therein lies the satisfaction of beginning anew later in life. “We’re looking for new meaning and purpose,” said Jeri Sedlar, co-author with her husband, Rick Miners, of the book “Don’t Retire, Rewire!” She is also a personal transition guide who ran an executive search firm. “Do your planning in advance so you won’t get blocked out of something.” Ask yourself, if you had infinite time and money, what would you want to do? “Write these things down,” Ms. Sedlar said. “Start to look now.” What does it take to get there?

Those who have had high-level careers can be role models for others who are 60 or 65, as well as for those who are much younger.

Joseph McInerney, who was president and chief executive of the American Hotel & Lodging Association in Washington for 12 years, until September 2013 — after years of private sector leadership roles in the hospitality industry — is developing another chapter. He continues to consult and serves on the advisory board of Attract China, which markets and promotes destinations to Chinese tourists, and other hospitality industry businesses such as the Hotel Inventory, a website for the buying and selling of hotels.

“The day you’re no longer the C.E.O., your life changes — so you have to decide what you want to do to move forward,” Mr. McInerney, 75, said. “The important thing to do is network with all your connections. I started talking to a lot of different people and opportunities arose.”

Mr. McInerney, who also was chief executive of the Pacific Asia Travel Association for four years, based in Bangkok, is leading a training program for the World Bank for the Municipal Development Fund of Georgia in the former Soviet Union. The program’s mission is to train hotel and restaurant workers, tour guides and retail wine clerks in customer service skills. “I enjoy going to work,” he said. “I’m not making a lot of money but I’m having a lot of fun making a difference in people’s lives.”

Many who have had high-powered careers look for opportunities to help others, particularly in guiding the next generation. Sometimes they find advisory roles for themselves in start-up companies, other times they teach at the highest level, write books and serve on the board of major corporations.

Bill George, the retired chief executive of Medtronic, the medical device company, finds nurturing and mentoring the next generation of leaders brings significant meaning to his life. The author of several books, including “Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value,” Mr. George is on the board of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard, and serves on the board of more than one company.

In his 70s, Mr. George finds satisfaction interacting with people who are “doing challenging work,” and derives “vicarious pleasure in their success,” he said. In addition, “becoming a learner” later in life brings additional satisfaction when you are “no longer carrying the organization’s responsibility.” 

John Seffrin, who was C.E.O. of the American Cancer Society for 23 years, has a plan for the next part of his life. In an interview just days before he retired on Friday, Mr. Seffrin, 70, kept returning to the same theme: battling cancer as a major public health problem.

“We can make this cancer’s last century,” he said.

As he leaves his current position, Mr. Seffrin expects to go through a period of change. “It’s a transition,” he said. He already has some teaching opportunities he is considering, having spent two decades in academia earlier in his career at Indiana University. “I might become a consultant, do some teaching,” he said.

As a chief executive, “real work-play balance is not possible,” Mr. Seffrin said. Instead, he said, the answer has been “finding play in your work when you have to work all the time.”

Mr. Seffrin recommends finding, or in his case having, a mission when you retire: “You need to find a way in which you are committed to something other than your ordinary self.” In short, he said, find a role in which you are making a difference in this world, and that’s what he intends to do. He is passionate about battling cancer as a public health problem. One of his grandmothers and his mother died of cancer. His wife is a breast cancer survivor.

Looking ahead, Mr. Seffrin spoke about anticipating becoming a grandfather this month for the first time. In fact, those in high-level careers often spoke of a desire to deepen relationships with family and other loved ones.

“Sixty is young enough for a whole third chapter,” Ms. Lansing said. “I didn’t dislike my job, but I had done what I set out to accomplish. I didn’t have the same passion for it. I wanted a whole new chapter. In terms of my life, too, I wanted a different kind of life, where I could actually be on vacation and stay another day.”

She added: “I used to read scripts during a concert. I loved it at the time. There is a season for everything. You need to be interested and curious until the day that you die.”