A Message for Leaders About Baby Boomers

I believe it is time for leaders to view – in a new light – the talent, the expertise and the wisdom of the Baby Boomers who are leaving or will soon be leaving your organizations.

I also suggest that many, if not most, organizations are missing real opportunities to reap the benefits of Boomers who are going through their own personal and professional transitions.

That is why I feel that leaders need to start having open and honest conversations about this seismic generational shift that is going on all around us.

I firmly believe that such conversations can be truly meaningful and freeing for organizations and for individuals.

First, let me share a story about one individual and her organization that are experimenting – and getting it right.

This is a story that impresses me – because it is about an individual who, with the leader of her organization, created a solution that benefits everyone.

After three decades as the Director of Advancement for Mercer Street Friends Center and the Director of the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, Phyllis Stoolmacher last year proposed to her boss that she cut back to working four days a week.

She explained, “It was a way for me to ease into retirement, while also making sure that all that I have learned and all the contacts I have made can be passed on to this organization that has meant so very much to me.”

Phyllis has tirelessly dedicated her career to raising funds to help alleviate hunger and child abuse, while enhancing education and welfare-to-work programs in and around the city of Trenton.

Working nights and weekends, whatever it takes, has always been part of her personal credo.

So, cutting back what she was officially doing by 20% was an experiment for her – and for her organization.

Through this process, she learned a lot about herself.

Part of it, she said, was about learning how to let go. Part of it was about prioritizing. Part of it was about managing her time more efficiently. Part of it was about actually taking that extra day off – and not looking at her email. Much of it was about becoming comfortable delegating important projects to others – so that they could grow.

She came to understand that “It is better for me and the organization if I say, ‘I know someone else who can do this.”

When her Executive Director first agreed to Phyllis’s proposal, they said they would review the arrangement over time. And together they could decide on next steps.

At that time, Phyllis said, she was not sure if she would want to keep the arrangement.

Or if at the end of the year she would want to cut back one more day.

Or if she would want to become a consultant to the organization.

Or if she would just want to retire.

She and her Executive Director were both open to all of those possibilities.

So, what happened after her year-long experiment?

After much thought, and before going on a dream vacation, she approached Armstead Johnson, her Executive Director with a new proposal.

She wanted to work just two days a week, rather than four.

And she recrafted her job – so that she would no longer be the Development Director for the entire organization.

Instead, she just wanted to raise money for the Food Bank, which, as she said, “has always been my passion.”

Why did she decide on two days, rather than just cutting back one more day?

She said, “Three days would have been more like doing what I was doing before – just a little less. Two days allows me to redefine what I was doing. It also allows me to still be engaged in very meaningful work, while living a more balanced life.”

And for the organization, it provides stability, continuity, an ease in her transition as she transfers most of her responsibilities to others, and the ability for everyone there to continue tapping into her expertise.

To me, this is a story of our times – a story for the future of organizations.

In this case, it took Phyllis approaching her Executive Director about her thoughts.

And it took both her and her organization being comfortable with the uncertainty.

Her innovative approach to redefining her career, and easing into the transition of retirement, has created enormous benefits for her and for the organization.

She has affirmed, in the most positive way, that as our lives and circumstances change, we can decide to look at those changes as welcome opportunities.

What does it take to bring about such a change?

Two things:

First, a solid, open relationship – based on a real connection, with mutual trust, and respect – along with honest communication.

Second, it takes being comfortable with the unknown.

This could have turned out differently for both her and for the organization.

Phyllis and her organization had to be comfortable not knowing how everything would work out – and to believe in each other, and in new possibilities.

As Boomers begin to wind-down their careers, it is important for them – and their organizations – to be honest with themselves, to reflect deeply, and to know what they want to do next.

What will their next chapters be?

Such questions are important and difficult to explore.

Answering those questions takes enormous self-awareness.

Along with considerable self-reflection.

As well as meaningful conversations.

I propose to you that, as leaders, now is the time to make sure that those conversations begin to occur.

We can create the space for those open and honest conversations to take place – in ways that are beneficial for individuals and for our organizations.

Let me close with a quote from Tom Gartland, the former President of Avis Budget Group, who is now on several public boards, and with whom I am currently writing a book on leadership.

Tom said, “It is my firm belief that my most important job as a leader is to develop individualized plans for each of my top performers – and a succession plan for our organization.”

I propose that such succession plans depend upon a clear understanding of the talent you are growingand the talent that you will be losing.

And such individualized development plans ideally would also include formalized mentoring programs – so that the skills, the talents, the connections, and the relationships of the Boomers who are leaving are not lost in space or time.

Let me ask:

Do you have a clear idea of what the Baby Boomers in your organization are thinking about their futures?

Have you prepared them and those younger than them to transfer their enormous talent, insights, and relationships?

Have you thought about innovative ways to keep those Boomers engaged who could still play a meaningful role in growing your organization?

Have you had open and honest conversations with them about what they might be looking for?

Imagine the possibilities such conversations can create for individuals and for our organizations.

The care, dignity, and honor that we extend to Baby Boomers who are in transition will speak volumes about our organizations – and the values we embody.

By honoring our past, we will also be creating our future.

As leaders, one of the most important things we can do is to engage our organizations in the right conversations at the right time.

It is time to create such conversations.

It is time to go there.

Because there is here.

And the future is now.