One of the most gratifying aspects of executive coaching is the privilege to work with people who are way smarter than you are.
That would certainly be true for one of my past coaching clients, Gail Aldrich, the newly appointed Board Chair for AARP and retired VP of Member Services at Society for Human Resource Management.
I had the chance to see Gail in Washington, D.C. a few nights after her board appointment and was struck at how masterfully she lives out a road map we worked on several years ago. Her goal was to mindfully move into “pro-tirement”* – an alternative concept to retirement (because let’s face it, retirement tends to conjure old farts on the golf course followed by a beer in a Barcalounger).
Gail’s goal was to craft a Life Portfolio. For her, this meant finding ways to stay challenged intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, and to continually contribute to those around her.
Here are a few questions we had her ask herself as she began creating her next phase of life:
- When I picture my most liberated, joyful self, what do I see? What will bring me lasting fulfillment?
- How do I need to shift my view of myself in order to move into this vision? How do I need to change my definition of who I am? How can I become a good friend to that person?
- What do I need to let go of in order to move forward? What is holding me back (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, physical clutter, location, negative people, etc.)?
- What anchors do I rely on to ground me as I move into this new stage? What foundational relationships can I count on? What spiritual truths or intellectual principles can I rely on to inform my choices?
- What do I need to learn? In what ways do I need to grow?
- How do I want to be accompanied? Who do I choose as faithful companions?
We also drew upon two books, which I recommend for anyone re-visioning their life after 50. Both authors provide anecdotal stories of people who have re-invented themselves, describe the shifting demographics and societal trends that inform our 21st century lives, and suggestions for how to create your own roadmap:
- Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50 by David Corbett
- Encore by Marc Freedman
Gail exemplifies this transition. If you’d like a window into the spirit of someone who knows how to pro-tire, here are excerpts from a recent interview with her:
Board Chair Gail Aldrich: “We’ve Only Begun”
Our new board chair sat down with her speechwriter, Linda Slaughter, for this conversation that covered Gail’s views on her new role, how she applies her professional background to work on the board, her approach to retirement, her “life portfolio” and more. – May 16, 2012
Q (Linda): Why did you decide to pursue the board chair position?
A (Gail): I have always had a passion for the mission of AARP to enhance the quality of life for ALL as we age. It is such a great opportunity to serve in this role and I appreciate the trust that this organization is placing in me as board chair. I did not make my mind up to run until last fall. I had to assess whether I was the right person to help AARP at this point. I had to think a long time, because being chair is a huge responsibility and a huge time commitment. My joke with everyone is that I’ve given up everything except my husband, my children and my grandchildren.
I believe I can continue a lot of the things that have been done and I think I’m a good facilitator. I’m also interested in determining how to make our governance structure the most appropriate for AARP. I think I can make a difference.
When the board was considering me, I told everyone I bring three skill sets. First, community building, because I like being part of high-performing groups of people.
Second, I think I’m a good coach. I’m a trained and certified coach. And one of the things I think I’m good at is talking to Barry and management and conveying to them what the board thinks.
Third, I think I can really help individual board members deliver their best performance in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. I’m a change agent. You don’t want to put me in a situation where you need status quo.
Q: Four years ago, what motivated you to apply to AARP’s board?
A: I was leaving full-time employment and I wanted to continue making a difference. Colleagues who worked at AARP told me to think about throwing my hat in the ring. So I did. It seemed like a good match. I’ve mostly been in not-for-profit membership organizations for all but three years of my paid career.
The other thing is the emotional pull. I’ve been on over a dozen not-for-profit boards, all related to helping people be independent and live their best lives. [Helping unemployed and underemployed women, people with developmental disabilities, people with housing needs.] Doing that for people over 50 just seemed like a natural evolution.
Because I was an executive at AAA, I also understand the complexity of a membership organization, and that sometimes there are mixed messages in the market about endorsing products. So I thought I could bring some experience and knowledge to bear in that way, too.
Rewards of Board Service
Q: What’s the most important thing AARP can do for the 50+?
A: Help the 50+ live their best and healthiest lives, and see life at 50 and beyond as exciting. That also means helping them understand, utilize and access health and financial security resources like Social Security, pensions and health insurance.
It also means focusing on living versus aging; asking yourself what you want to accomplish during this part of your life, and where you want to contribute, volunteer or work.
More and more people need to keep working. Finding and keeping full-time and part-time jobs and changing careers are really important.
Then there are leisure-time activities; getting people to think, “I’ve completed a bunch of things in the first half of life, what have I set aside that I can pick back up?”
AARP covers all of those things. We’re the go-to place for people 50 and beyond. I think we should be the place for caregiving resources in addition to travel and discounts.
Her Personal “Life Portfolio”
Q: One of your favorite books is Portfolio Life. Talk about its impact on your life.
A: I really like Portfolio Life by David Corbett because it helps you evaluate your life based on several dimensions. I also like Encore by Marc Freedman. Often until midlife, you’re mostly focused on work, family, raising the kids, paying bills, not losing the house, those kinds of things.
After that, more choices tend to come into your life. Looking at your life as a portfolio helps you create different aspects and activities, like professional, family, spiritual, physical, and financial dimensions, but you allocate and create your own life.
At some point, nobody will demand that you work 40 hours a week, eight to five. But once you stop, it takes some structure out of your life.
Creating my own life structure about what’s important to me has been really useful. Exercise is more important than it used to be. Time with my grandchildren is more important now than some things I did earlier in life. Reading is very important. It’s part of staying sharp intellectually.
You must be intentional. As I make a two-year commitment to be AARP’s board chair, I understand it draws away from other pieces of my portfolio. But I plan to go back to those pieces after my term is complete and continue pursuing those other interests.
Transition to Retirement
Q: Do people have a hard time letting themselves create a new structure?
A: A lot of people are addicted to work. Work is an identity issue so it’s very hard. It provides social interaction, professional development, financial and health security. It’s difficult to transition to a new structure.
I used to coach transitioning from work, especially for senior-level people. Everyone looks forward to not working, but few people think it through, so there’s a natural tendency to drift in retirement. I really encourage people to think about what interests them before they leave work.
One of the biggest things for me was discovering that several things I thought I wanted to do, I didn’t enjoy. Before joining AARP’s board, I thought I wanted to work on a political campaign and get involved in local politics. But I hated it! I tried it and didn’t like it.
Q: In the age of ‘what’s next?’ what does retirement mean to you?
A: I’ve actually retired three times, so my friends all say I’ve flunked retirement. But I don’t think retirement’s the right word anymore. There’s got to be a name for this new phase of life; to me, it’s the most exciting phase, because I get to choose what I want to do, more than ever before, without the restrictions I felt earlier in life.
I certainly feel fortunate to have these choices and recognize that AARP also has a responsibility to help those whose “what’s next?” may be finding a job, for example. Focusing on this phase allows us to look at possibilities, based on what we’re physically and financially able to do and take advantage of them.
Q: You called yourself an agent of social change, an activist, a daughter of the 60s. Now that you’re a little older, how do you view your evolution? Do you still see yourself as a change agent?
A: I do! I do! In the ‘60s and early ’70s, we were all angry. We were protesting. We saw discrimination everywhere. At some point—maybe this is an age thing or part of how movements evolve—many of us decided the best way to cause change was to work inside the system. We worked at being the first woman in the room or the first person doing X, Y or Z.
Today’s generations don’t always recognize that just a short time ago there weren’t women or people of color in the room. In some ways, I’m heartened that people take it for granted now.
On the other hand, I see continuing evidence that we’ve got a ways to go. So when people can call women bad names for having a different point of view, or when people can be shot because of the color of their skin, that’s unacceptable to me.
I have to tell you, Linda, even though I went through a period where I felt—and I do feel—there’s been tremendous progress, some of the frustration is coming back.
Q: That’s not a bad thing.
A: It’s not a bad thing, because we need to stand up. If someone’s calling a person a bad name that we don’t agree with politically—or even someone we do agree with—it’s not acceptable.
And when people are killed or mistreated because of their skin color, we can’t stand for that either. So, that 60s rebel? She’s still there.
*Pro-tirement – a term from Fredric Hudson, founder of The Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara