Life after Success: The Challenge of Executive Education at Mid-life

Life after Success:  The Challenge of Executive Education at Mid-life

 ‘I learned this at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unimagined in common hours’  Thoreau (Walden)

The issue of legacy (including questions of continuing vocation, self- development towards maturity and preparation for retirement) raise profoundly interesting questions for late career Executive Development and for the wider role of organisations in developing people who may be able to continue to contribute to organisational goals in broad terms and in meaningful ways beyond the ordinary life span of their time ‘in the firm’.

Currently it is fair to say that organisations provide an environment that is attractive to a certain level of human development. Traditional educational opportunities within business typically expand people primarily towards levels of greater effectiveness in achieving core organisational ends:  the primary goal of organisational education is thus to develop individuals to become more capable of driving and delivering core business goals.

One very interesting challenge within the current learning and development model arises with regard to the unmet needs of the extensive cohort of highly developed late career senior executives whose roles, values and ambitions often begin to shift away from those of the broader organisation as deeper questions about life, values and meaning begin to alter.

Eventually most organisational business frameworks will prove too small to contain the aspirations of those senior executives whose goals have shifted towards questions of shared meaning , vocation and legacy rather than the next promotion, increasing profitability and the achievement of personal economic security-all of which represent legitimate and important though ultimately limited goals in early stage career development.

As experienced individuals grow towards greater stages of mental complexity and as pressing and often challenging life questions start to emerge a necessary tension begins to arise between the individual and the organisation.

The re-evaluation of personal goals is natural in the second half of life and will arise as a felt movement towards, what depth psychologists defines as, the personal individuation project, essentially the re-claiming by a person of the personal authority for their lives in post-conventional terms. Late career very often coincides with the individual’s entry into mid-life, a process that is psychological and spiritual in nature and is dictated less by the Greek concept of Chronos (worldly time) and more by the principle of time as Kairos (time that is opportune). It is a period of transition that is usually both enriching and extremely challenging and one that really encourages the individual in becoming psychologically and spiritually mature.

As stated, such urges or callings towards the reclamation of personal authority are concomitant with the psycho-spiritual process of individuation or maturation and also by the stage changes referred to in business literature and research as self- authoring or self-transforming. Typically, this profound calling to change will be accompanied by certain emotional or behavioural indicators typical of mid-life. The role of the organisation in addressing this period of life and career is largely unstated and unclear, but there may well be considerable value in organisations directly supporting individuals to re-assess or re-frame their experiences and then articulate a new vision that could extend the functional and creative relationship between individual and organisation for the greatest benefit and for the longer term.

This raises questions about the appropriate current and future role of organisations in supporting or directing an individual’s personal growth, learning and development as a ‘human good’ and in the relationship the organisation has or should have in meeting the needs and tensions between  a members professional and personal life. Globalisation has brought rapid change to the operating contexts in which many senior executives work today. As levels of complexity, volatility and uncertainty escalate, so demands grow on the leaders own capacity for self-regulation, self-awareness and greater perceptual acuity. This has seen some development in the way that L&D is regarded within organisations, a recognition that executives need more development opportunities to better manage in transformational times. That said, in most cases still,  primary organisational goals, its culture and the world view that underpins its activities and define its measures of success represent a natural constraint and limitation to the emphasis placed on supporting the personal growth of its members. Personal development is seen largely as an individual concern and separate from business objectives. In most cases personal development is not a core educational objective beyond developing effectiveness for task delivery and outside this scope is not necessarily encouraged nor is it seen necessarily as a good per se.

Currently, in many cases tensions over continued shared values, meaning and purpose as well as diminishing opportunities lead to fractured relationships between senior executives and the organisation. In some-perhaps many cases- the really good people leave and this represents a double loss:

  • Highly talented, creative individuals who leave the workplace often after a long career and ill-equipped for the tremendous psychological re-adjustment required for successful integration of their private individuation project alongside the trauma of retirement and
  • The loss to the organisational talent pool of an extraordinary resource that could yet have offered real contributions in the form of legacy projects potentially nested within an expanded organisational business framework.

Re-imagining the relationship between the organisation, those late career executives that are seeking to leave a legacy and the wider social and environmental   context in which the organisation exists in fact offers a tremendous opportunity for companies and individuals to make a really positive contribution and difference to the long term future of the communities in which they work whilst addressing wider social and environmental concerns. At best it provides an opportunity for an organisation wide re-imagining of the relationship to the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

Recycling the extraordinarily talent embodied by senior executives with diverse, transferable skills and a high degree of maturity towards new opportunities represents an excellent expression of higher order values within any organisation providing opportunity for individuals with a sense of vocation, drive and a service orientation to use and share their talents in a spirit of legacy within meaningful, financially responsible projects, either individually or  sponsored by the organisation itself.

The counter-intuitive assumption here is that it is actually entirely appropriate and natural for an individual to outgrow the firm’s primary operational and learning frameworks as their own mental complexity and maturity develops and  important questions pertaining to meaning emerge in the second half of life.

Educational opportunities that allow individuals to address the psychological changes common to the second adventure of life; to re-frame their experience, to understand, to integrate, to imagine future opportunities within new contexts and to prepare for life after a successful first career are an entirely appropriate offer –one might argue responsibility-within any organisation. The individual power and potential that can pour out of a person in touch with vocation was captured by CG Jung;

Vocation is an irrational factor that destines one to emancipate oneself from the herd and from well-worn paths. True personality is always a vocation and puts its trust in it as if in divinity despite its being, as an ordinary person would say, only a personal feeling. But vocation acts like a law of divinity from which there is no escape. The fact that many who go their own way end in ruin means nothing to one who has vocation. Each of us must obey his own law as if it were a daimon or tutelary spirit whispering to him of new and wonderful paths. Anyone with vocation hears the voice of the inner person. Such a person is called.

One wonders about the potential reciprocity and benefit that might be available in the relationship between a liberally minded organisation, a person called and a community in need.

Practically speaking, at the level of the individual, thoughtful late career executive education will take into account the typical psycho-spiritual work appropriate for the second half of life. As has been stated, the second half of life really presses one to become more psychologically and spiritually developed. There is an assumption here, that the tendency of the human being is to move towards a sense of wholeness that orientates itself to two key areas of understanding: the integration of one’s own autobiographical story into a wider narrative without the story itself becoming sovereign and the cultivation of a meaningful relationship with mystery, a real sense that we are not the source of all our knowledge; At a certain point Individuals feel the need to take responsibility for their lives in their own unique way. Questions relating to an ethical foundation for life, to meaning, to values and to vocation will be typical of this period as will the relationship with those aspects of experience that seem to confound the rational ego, variously referred to as relationship with the ‘radical other’ or the divine-in short, the development of what Carl Jung would describe as a mature spirituality.

From an organisational standpoint, A mature invitation to the individual will seek to enhance that person’s on-going contribution to the firm by providing a robust psychological framework for further practice and opportunities to develop purposeful projects within or outside the organisation for the wider ‘common good’ . Ideally, though not inevitably, projects (perhaps in the form of Foundations) would be one’s that the firm itself sponsors, bringing to bear its surplus talent, time, wealth and resource for the common good.  Such a reciprocal arrangement could provide a win in three clear ways by:

  • Providing organisations with an opportunity to capitalise on their best human capital; allowing the organisation to continue to work in partnership with its best executive talent who might find authentic reasons to remain with the organisation as part time, split time or retiree contributors-working as mutually supportive resources for projects that can thrive outside the framework of the day to day business of the firm.
  • Supporting local communities through the development of meaning and vocation based legacy projects tied to wider social, ecological and environmental needs thereby addressing questions of social responsibility in meaningful ways.
  • By enabling individual executives to purposefully and safely address the challenges typical to the psychological processes related to the individuation project and the longer term process of retirement.
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