Figure Out What's Next

Looking for a Retirement Career? Don't Be in Too Big a Hurry

encore career kerry hannon non-profit purposeful living retirement self-assessment Aug 12, 2009

by Kerry Hannon

photo by fauxels

Financial executive Hank Schmelzer pursued a two-year self-assessment process before stepping into a non-profit career.

There is no one right way to create a fulfilling alternative to retirement. Those who manage to do so, however, tend not to rush into a plan in order to fill a void. They slow down and take the time to assess their lives and their goals, during which they often look for ways to apply in a new way something they have done well in the past. The key is listening to themselves and to others and using intuition and instinct to identify what feels right. Hank Schmelzer, outgoing president of the Maine Community Foundation, is an example of how meaningful lives after 50 are created.

Hank began his work in philanthropy in 2000, at age 57 and after 30 years in financial services. As the president and CEO of a Boston-based mutual fund company, he managed $8 billion and supervised 240 people. When he turned 50, Hank set a goal of starting a new career in a different field within five years. When his 55th birthday came, he knew he had to try something different; he just didn’t know what. At the time, the idea of walking away from the his top-dog salary and perks, he told me, was “gut-wrenching. External events intervened. A corporate reorganization in 1998 gave him an opening: He took it and left.

Hank took the time to decompress and conduct a thorough assessment before jumping on the next train at the station. William Bridges, author of the book “Transitions,' calls that going into neutral. Hank and his wife traveled to Italy, where for several months he skied every morning and studied Italian and wrote every afternoon. “Ideas kept coming to me,' Hank told me. “For the first time, I was free to create. I loved skiing every day, studying Italian and writing every day. I began to clear away what felt insignificant.' He later did a research project on government regulation of hedge funds through Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Self-Knowledge Leads to Better Choices

Hank said that as he sought his new path, he had to develop a deeper knowledge about what was most important to him, what fed his core self. We sometimes glibly call the assessment process “Me 101.' On the surface, this sounds selfish. But in fact, people who truly know themselves tend to make life choices that give them the will and ability to help others. I believe deeply in serving others and changing our world for the better. Nevertheless, I tell this to clients who want to do just that: Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs are people who have come alive.

I also advise clients in the assessment process to follow hints from their own histories. Hank did this and along the way found a great metaphor for career change. He had loved apple trees since growing up in a rural community outside Boston. His father had apple trees, and Hank worked in several orchards. So he decided to take a course on how to revitalize an apple tree.

A Lesson from the Apple Tree

“It was all about pruning the dead wood,' he said, “about gradually getting rid of the weak branches and suckers and laterals that overlap each other. When you cut out the weak branches at the center of the tree, you make it a strong, healthy tree that holds the heavy fruit.' Hank learned that an overcrowded apple tree is hard to protect from disease and produces small, dull apples. The older an apple tree grows, the heavier a pruning it needs.

“The teacher was this old Maine duffer named Amos. Someone asked how you know when you’ve pruned enough,' said Hank. “Amos thought for a minute. Then he said, ‘Well, stand back and look. If you think you can pick up your cat and toss him right through the middle, then you’ve pruned enough.’'

“I loved that response, because it reminds me of what you have to do when you’re going through a career change. You have to try to open yourself up and get rid of all the dead aspects of yourself that weigh you down or drain the nutrients from your mind and soul. It’s self-pruning, and it’s what you have to do to rejuvenate and be able to grow productively.'

In late 1999, a year after he had left his job, Hank heard about an opening at the Maine Community Foundation, which is based in Ellsworth, Maine, and which funds state projects in education, conservation and the environment, the arts and social services. Hank said the job interested him for several reasons. He was trained as a lawyer, and through his years in the securities world, he had always remained interested in doing something connected to public service. In addition, he had resolved during self-assessment to seek a role that would tap into and build on his years of experience, and he discovered that the nonprofit world could benefit from his financial and managerial skills.

Plus he had Maine in his blood. His grandfather had been a minister in Maine. His mother had grown up there. And Hank had vacationed there as a child, graduated from the University of Maine, and now owned a second home there.

Allow for Adjustment

Hank took the job in 2000. The change took some adjusting, he recalled, because the nonprofit world, which prizes consensus, is a different animal from the hard-driving, corporate culture he came from. “I knew my skills were valued, but it took a while for people to accept me and for me to feel comfortable.' But it worked. After he took over, the endowment of the foundation more than doubled, permitting it to make more grants and help more people. In 2005, he called his new job “just about perfect' for him. The knot he used to have in his gut Sunday nights, thinking about the upcoming week, had vanished, and he said he loved getting up each day and going to work. “We’re trying to make life better,' he explained. And he got an occasional bonus that he truly valued: Hank traded his Blackberry for visits in his jeep on bumpy back roads to blueberry farmers in Maine.

After eight years of fulfilling service at the foundation, Hank plans to retire—again—this winter.


David Corbett and Richard Higgins are the coauthors of “Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50.' Corbett is the founder of New Directions, Inc., on Boston’s historic waterfront, which offers planning in career and post-career fulfillment to accomplished individuals. Higgins is a writer and editor. A Harvard Divinity School graduate and former Boston Globe writer, he edited More Than Money magazine.


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