Equipping nonprofits to advance social change

Leaving Long-term Leadership

Personal Stories and Shared Experiences

Written by Frances Kunreuther

Our research on leadership started over a decade ago with a focus on the generational transfer between older and younger leaders in executive positions. That frame has kept evolving. When we published our book, Working Across Generations: The Future of Nonprofit Leadership we wanted to address how younger and older leaders could work better together, responding to the tensions we witnessed as we presented to groups in the field.  Now our interests have branched into several directions – from structures that promote leadership at all levels to obstacles facing leaders age 40 and under who have a vision of justice that they are trying to take to scale in new ways. The other area of our research is on what is next for long-term leaders as they think about leaving positional power. We do this work several wonderful partners.

Our New Lifecycle of Work was based on a survey of almost 300 leaders age 55 and older. Here the message was clear. This group of leaders is ready to leave their jobs for a next stage of work and life, a stage that has not yet been created. They are looking to engage in meaningful work, give up the control and responsibly of sustaining an organization, and have more flexibility in their lives. The problem is they are not sure how to make that happen though many are still taking the leap. The next step in this research is based on in-depth interviews with 40 long-term leaders – the findings will generate a series of papers, tools, and practical recommendations that will be available over the next six months about this transition. Our first paper, The Leadership in Leaving will be out in June.

In addition to the survey and interviews, we teamed up with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Fellows Network and Tim Wolfred an expert on executive transitions (who consults for his former employer CompassPoint in his new stage of work) to conduct focus groups with older leaders in the nonprofit and public sectors. The results can be found in Reports from the Field: The Next Stage: Leaving Long-term Leadership which offers some important insights that confirm our other findings. The Report highlights both the personal stories and structural barriers facing those who have recently left their leadership positions and those still in leadership who are thinking about their next move. It offers some of the challenges in leaving and points out how we need to move from seeing these experiences as individual problems to one that is collectively shared.

What do we know? The Baby Boom generation and those who precede them are creating a new stage of work and life that still needs to coalesce. Right now it is a DIY transition but there are tens of thousands who will be going through this process. We also know that the transition raises both practical and emotional challenges. And we know that right now there are few conceptual frames or on-the-ground supports for those going through this process.

This transition is not just about older leaders. It is about generations figuring out – together – how to make the best use of everyone across the lifecycle to help move us towards our vision of social change.

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